Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Quirky Little Things: Imposter!

By Jesse Bering, Ph.D. in Quirky Little Things

I don't know what it says about me that as a thirteen-year-old boy my favourite television show was The Golden Girls, but like many fans I was saddened earlier this year to learn of the death of Estelle Getty, who played the sassy Sicilian octogenarian Sophia Petrillo in this long-lived series. Given her obvious talent and inimitable delivery on screen, you might be surprised that Estelle Getty felt like a fraud as an actress. Here's what she said in a 1988 interview with Entertainment Tonight:

"I'm awed every day of my life. I think, this is Bea Arthur, this is Betty White. This is a big hit #1 show in the country. I'm afraid. I live with fear as a constant companion. Can I do this week after week? Am I good enough? Will I be able to pull it off this week? Will I be able to fool them again? And every day I'm a little scared. And every Friday I'm scared out of my wits. I keep thinking, I can't believe I'm in this. Wait till they find out I can't do it."

Now, I've never been on an '80s television series, nor has my name been stitched into the fabric of popular culture as a beloved character actress, but I have a pretty good sense of what Estelle Getty is talking about here. Years ago I interviewed for a position on the faculty of psychology at Harvard University. My selection committee comprised Steven Pinker, Susan Carey, and Elizabeth Spelke and in terms of stature in the field of psychological science, Pinker is something like the equivalent of Bea Arthur and Carey is a good analogy for Betty White. (Comparing Spelke to Rue McClanahan requires a bit more shoehorning, but you get the idea.) One of the reasons I botched the interview was because I couldn't get over the fact that I'd actually pulled this much off. I mean, come on, these are all-star celebrity researchers, bona fide superheroes of psychology who'd achieved posterity. And I'm a third-rate academic from Ohio who'd cavalierly graduated at the bottom of his high school class, earned a PhD from a university most people have never heard of, and who'd been toiling away in obscurity at the University of Arkansas as an assistant professor. Like Estelle Getty at her initial casting call, I felt like a charlatan, a ruse, a fake at Harvard. An impostor. Actually, I suspect I was, since in the end they didn't offer me the post.

But what Estelle and I describe is a psychological experience known as the impostor phenomenon (IP), defined by Georgia State University psychologists Joe Langford and Pauline Clance as, "believing that one's accomplishments came about not through genuine ability, but as a result of having been lucky, having worked harder than others, or having manipulated other people's impressions." Here are some more basic facts about IP:

• Impostors attribute their successes to attributes unrelated to the actual talent required for their success, such as personal charm or attractiveness. Some people who experience IP are especially prone to 'chameleon-type' behaviours, modifying their attitudes and actions in ways that foster approval from onlookers. (I inherited from my salesman father a rather chronic but often disingenuous smile, which seems to have a mind of its own.)

• Although early research suggested women are more likely than men to feel like impostors given the lower expectations of success for the former, subsequent studies revealed no difference between the sexes. However, IP appears to express itself differently in men and women. Women tend to be less "playful" (doing things just for fun) and less sociable. Female impostors are also usually extra cautious and averse to risks, whereas men who experience IP tend to score high in impulsivity, express a strong need for change and a low need for order. (Suffice it to say that I've bought and sold 7 houses over the past 4 years and I haven't balanced my check book since 1994.)

• People who experience IP don't simply have low self-esteem in general, but only negative feelings about the self in relation to their particular area of success. And introverts - who are often shy, anxious and lacking in confidence - are more likely than extroverts to feel like phonies, presumably because they're less expressive and more prone to keeping their 'private self' hidden from others. (You may think you know me....)

• When impostors do fail, their reaction displays a stereotypical pattern: they withdraw from the task, blame themselves for the failure, and experience anxiety and shame. Impostors often need to come across as smart or intelligent in front of an audience; women impostors view intelligence as a fixed entity (either one's clever or not, no room for argument) rather than a malleable quality.

• An impostor's sense of worth and importance is unusually dependent on others' feedback. (This one reminds me of 17th century Baroque painter Caravaggio, a bad-tempered genius who allegedly once tore up one of his masterpieces at a slight word of criticism.) Langford and Clance say that impostors "have a strong need to protect themselves from narcissistic injury."

• Impostors often resort to self-deprecation and avoid the attention of others. (Have I told you yet how much I dislike myself? In any event, I hope you're not reading this.)

Estelle Getty wasn't an impostor, of course. She was a brilliant, Emmy-Award winning actress. I suspect deep down I'm not entirely a phony either, though if were to begin talking about my successes I'd just turn my own stomach with nauseating lines of braggadocio, and if there's anything I can't stand more than an impostor, it's a braggart. Ugh, it's a no-win situation for us impostors, isn't it.

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