Impostor Syndrome

I have learned a new term: Impostor Syndrome. This came up in a report in the London Mathematical Society newsletter of a meeting in St Andrews on gender diversity in mathematics (which I didn’t attend).

Impostor Syndrome is described by Wikipedia as

a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.

The article does go on to express some scepticism about whether it is a distinct personality trait.

I assume it came up in a day on gender diversity because of an assumption that women are more likely than men to suffer from it. (The inventors of the term, both women, specifically associate it with women.) But my first reaction, on having it explained to me, was, “Don’t all mathematicians have that?” Some colleagues attempted to assure me that no, some mathematicians are domineering and show no signs of doubt in themselves; but of course, that could be just a front, or overcompensation.

The report of the meeting, written by Isabella Scott, does say, “The issue of confidence and Impostor Syndrome took up the majority of our discussion. While these are primarily associated with women, almost everyone in the room had experienced it.” I am sure that the last statement is correct (assuming that “it” refers to Impostor Syndrome rather than confidence).

I think, on consideration, that it is something mathematicians may be prone to because of the honesty and clear-eyed judgment our subject requires. I am very aware of the amount by which my achievements fall short of what I set out to do, and cannot see why this isn’t clear to everyone else.

When I lectured on Probability to the first-year students at Queen Mary, my nightmare at the start of the course was that a student would ask “But what really is Probability?” I wouldn’t have been able to answer.

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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4 Responses to Impostor Syndrome

  1. Jon Awbrey says:

    I think some people just pretend to have impostor syndrome.

  2. jbritnell2013 says:

    I think most of us realise eventually that everyone else is an impostor too.

  3. Mike says:

    I think everyone suffers from either Dunning-Kruger or Impostor syndrome or both. :::grin::::
    The question is the percentage of time either is a cognitive distraction. Cathy O’Neill(Mathbabe) has some related comments about math talent and “genius” recently at her website.

  4. XKCD has covered Impostor Syndrome today:

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