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Faculty Research

The Great Deceit

New research from BYU Marriott professors takes a close look at what imposter syndrome is — and how to conquer it.

In fall 2019, BYU’s social media team tweeted about new research on impostorism from professors in the BYU Marriott School of Business.

The tweet highlighted one finding of the study: 20 percent of participants were currently experiencing serious feelings of impostor syndrome, which is the phenomenon of feeling like a fraud at work or school despite being capable, well- qualified, and even successful.1

The tweet included a poll with this simple question: “Have you ever experienced impostor syndrome?”

In less than twenty-four hours, 3,197 individuals responded to the poll, with a staggering 87.7 per- cent saying they had indeed experienced impostorism.2 The post, which was seen more than thirty thousand times, sparked a crucial conversation among the highly competitive BYU community.

Of course, impostor syndrome extends well beyond the BYU bubble, as did the conversation kicked off by the study. The research, published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, also explored some of the more effective ways to cope with impostorism and quickly made it onto the Science page of the popular social commenting site Reddit. There it logged more than one hundred thousand page views and sparked twenty-five hundred comments from across the globe. Media coverage followed from national outlets (INC. magazine, CNBC, Business Insider) and international outlets (BBC Radio, Daily Mail).

Clearly, the study touched on a topic of interest. Among students, academics, working professionals, and even parents, this nagging fear of being exposed as a fraud and attributing one’s successes to luck or other external factors is resonating with society.

“What makes it a popular topic is that it is relatable,” says lead author of the viral study Richard Gardner, a byu Marriott alum, a former visiting professor at BYU Marriott, and a current assistant professor of management, entrepreneurship, and technology at UNLV. “What makes it an even better topic is that people are more willing to talk about these challenges than they were thirty years ago.”

The Deceitful Phenomenon

Even a decade ago, the concept of impostor syndrome was not yet mainstream. Academics studied it in narrow terms, specifically regarding gender and women in prominent roles in work. Today, a Google search of “impostor syndrome” reveals hundreds of journalistic and academic articles on the subject, most authored since 2015. Titles that pop up include “Yes, Impostor Syndrome Is Real: Here’s How to Deal with It” and “Is Impostor Syndrome Holding You Back?”

And then there are the books, most published within the last decade:

  • The Impostor Cure: How to Stop Feeling. Like a Fraud and Escape the Mind-Trap of Imposter Syndrome
  • The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It
  • Own Your Greatness: Overcome Imposter Syndrome, Beat Self-Doubt, and Succeed in Life

The topic has even generated an entire genre of discourses within the TED Talks world, with the most popular talk garnering more than two million views. In one of the more modestly viewed TED Talks, former Hewlett-Packard chief technology officer Phil McKinney gives a reason why people can’t get enough of the subject: about 75 percent of people suffer from the syndrome, including himself. His big secret, which he said fed his impostor syndrome for more than twenty-five years, is that he never graduated from college.

“The impostor syndrome struggle doesn’t know anything about career, title, socioeconomic[s], identity, history. The impostor syndrome is absolutely universal,” McKinney says in the talk. “In fact, I’ve had team members who worked for me who have had such severe cases of impostor syndrome that it was absolutely crippling.”3

Seems like just about everyone has something to say on the topic these days. An NPR story about how counselors at MIT were dealing with an increased number of students doubting their abilities first caught Gardner’s attention. As he recalls it, the story went into great detail about all of these former valedictorians qualifying for acceptance into one of the best engineering schools in the country only to doubt themselves when they were surrounded by hundreds of other equally impressive students.

The stories of these highly successful MIT students were similar to what Gardner was witnessing among his BYU students—and similar to experiences he’d had throughout his own schooling and early career. After Gardner discussed researching the topic with Jeff Bednar, an assistant professor in the Management Department at BYU Marriott, the two met with counselors at BYU’s Counseling and Psychological Services to see if it was an issue they were seeing as well. The answer was a resounding yes.

“Students at BYU display high competence just to get into BYU, but when they get here, they start doubting themselves,” Gardner says. “We wanted to know exactly why that is happening, how prevalent it is, how it is affecting students in their academic programs, and how the students who overcome these feelings are able to do so.”

Impostor Deep Dive

Recruiting Bednar, BYU Marriott assistant professor of accounting Bryan Stewart, and BYU Marriott associate professor of strategy Jim Oldroyd proved serendipitous. Like Gardner, all three of them had gone through phases of struggling with feelings of impostorism.

For Stewart, those feelings stood out when he became a professor at BYU Marriott and started to look around at all the accomplished scholars in his department.

For Bednar, feelings of impostorism surfaced during his PhD program at the University of Michigan, even though he didn’t know those feelings had a name at the time. That nagging feeling of being a fraud became particularly acute during the second year of his program, when an anonymous member of his department harshly criticized one of the sections of his comprehensive exams.

“I thought, ‘Oh no, they found out. Somebody here knows I’m a fraud,’” Bednar recalls. After that, Bednar struggled to regain his self-confidence during his doctoral program. When he got hired at BYU, those feelings didn’t go away. But it wasn’t until Gardner expressed his interest in studying impostor syndrome with Bednar over lunch that Bednar realized what he was experiencing had a name.

Bednar went home and started looking up articles on the topic, reading definitions and studying the consequences and symptoms of the phenomenon. “And suddenly, the last seven years of my life made more sense,” he says. “For me, a real part of why I got into this project was highly autobiographical. I joke sometimes that this paper has been therapy for me.”

In fact, their study of accounting students would turn out to be therapy for many students as well. The professors quickly found out plenty of students were feeling like frauds, and not everyone was dealing with those feelings very well.

The Study

The researchers initially recruited twenty “professionals in training”—students in BYU’s no. 2 ranked undergraduate accounting program—for in-depth, intimate interviews on their struggles with impostorism. The accounting program offers particularly fertile ground for impostor syndrome because those accepted into BYU Marriott’s School of Accountancy are often some of the most high-performing students at the university and must also compete head-to-head for coveted spots in the master of accountancy program.

Students at BYU display high competence just to get into BYU, but when they get here, they start doubting themselves. We wanted to know exactly why that is happening, how prevalent it is, how it is affecting students in their academic programs, and how the students who overcome these feelings are able to do so.

In the student interviews, the professors asked what precipitated their impostorism, how it impacted their outlook on their academic plans, how it affected their performance, and what they did to cope with feeling like a fraud.

“As we interviewed students, it was interesting how many tears we saw, how many students just wanted a hug afterwards,” Stewart says. “A lot of healing takes place when you research something that is so specific and emotionally impactful.”

The students’ answers revealed both functional and dysfunctional coping mechanisms. Some students focused their energies on studying even harder and doing well in other programs. Some set personal goals in other areas of their lives where they could excel, such as in exercising or relationships. And some, unfortunately, turned to less-helpful coping strategies, such as playing hours and hours of video games.

“Some students withdrew from others and spiraled,” Gardner says. “That included, sadly, students engaging in self-sabotaging behavior. For some of those students, failing to get into the MAcc program confirmed in their minds that they weren’t qualified, when really it was just the fact that they wasted hours of time staring at a screen that prevented them from advancing.”

A surprising discovery was that many of the students who felt like impostors were doing well in the program. “They were good at negative self-comparison,” Stewart says. “They had an unrealistic view of what was happening in the world around them.”

With the in-depth interviews providing a basis of understanding, the researchers then surveyed an additional 213 students to get a feeling of how widespread the issue was in the program. They found 20 percent of participants were experiencing intense feelings of impostorism in that very moment, and even more expressed experiencing those feelings at some point in the program.

Reaching Out, Reaching In

Fortunately, not everyone they spoke to was spiraling. In fact, many of the interviewees were thriving, despite feelings of fraudulence. The interview and survey results provided evidence that those who were coping the best almost all shared one thing in common: they sought social support from people outside of their academic program.

The data showed that feelings of impostorism were significantly reduced for students who “reached out” when they started feeling like frauds. And they reached out to just about anyone—family, friends, students outside their major, even professors.

“Those outside the academic major social group seem to be able to help students see the big picture and recalibrate their reference groups,” Bednar says. “After reaching outside that social group for support, students are able to understand themselves more holistically rather than being so focused on what they felt they lacked in just one area.”

For example, one student felt like an impostor in the MAcc program, but once she did an internship and became familiar with students from other universities, she realized she was actually well ahead of the curve.

Coping strategies also included providing social support for struggling peers, both in terms of service and simply listening to someone who needed to express their feelings. The study also revealed that perceptions of impostorism typically aren’t tied to performance. In other words, individuals suffering from impostor syndrome are still capable of doing their jobs well—they just don’t believe in themselves.

When you look inward, when you look at direct comparisons, you tend to compare your worst with someone else’s best,” Gardner says. “Looking outside of one’s self became a great equalizer and helped the students cope.

That finding hit home for Stewart as he recalled the career experiences of a close childhood friend. This friend was a high achiever and landed a great job at a large company where she was a model employee in every aspect. She became an incredible manager, beloved by everyone with whom she worked, and she loved what she did.

But because of deep-seated feelings of impostorism, she was burning out at the same time she was wildly successful. She confided in her superiors, saying she needed to quit. Hoping to retain her and demonstrate how much she meant to the organization, they offered her a promotion. Again she succeeded, while continuing to struggle with feelings of impostorism. Once again she went to management, who this time created an entirely new position for her, putting her in a new environment with new people, with the same result. In the end, despite being an outstanding employee in every way, this woman struggled immensely because she couldn’t overcome the thought that she was a fraud.

“Her story is heart-wrenching,” says Bednar. “And many of the students’ stories are heart-wrenching. But wishing impostorism away does no good. We need to enable people to better deal with it. We need to create cultures where people talk about failure and mistakes. When we create those cultures, someone who is feeling strong feelings of impostorism will be more likely to get the help they need by reaching in to their teams or organizations.”

Breaking the Scale

Impostorism may be common among students at elite universities, but they’ve got nothing on their professors. As one BYU political science professor tweeted in response to the BYU Marriott study on impostor syndrome, “Survey academics, and you’ll break the scale.”

Fortunately, as more and more professors around the country open up about their feelings of impostorism, things are improving. Former BYU Marriott visiting professor Richard Gardner notes that, for junior faculty in his discipline of management, Facebook groups exist where people speak openly about not making tenure or not meeting publication goals. While it’s still too early to know how effective those groups are, anything that encourages open communication can help take the edge off for young faculty.

“In academia, there’s an expectation that professors should be smart and that when they speak they should sound like they know something important,” BYU Marriott assistant professor Jeff Bednar says in a BYU Daily Universe article discussing his research. “The same thing happens in fields like medicine, where we assume that doctors know everything they need to know to diagnose any kind of medical problem.”4

But academics and doctors have not cornered the market on impostorism. An illustration that BYU Marriott assistant professor of accounting Bryan Stewart uses to help others make sense of the phenomenon is to think of a basketball player sitting on the bench at the start of an NBA all-star game.

“If you’re named an NBA all-star, how good are you at basketball relative to other players?” he asks. “Even if you’re not a starter in the game, you’re still an all-star; you’re one of the best twenty-four players among the hundreds of players in the NBA.

“Then consider how those all-star bench players compare to the population of all basketball players in the country, or even the world,” he continues. “While it’s clear that any all-star is one of the best players on the planet, those that are sitting on the bench might still see themselves as mediocre because they’re making a fundamentally flawed, negative self-comparison.”

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Article written by Todd Hollingshead
Illustrations by Mark Smith

About the Author
Todd Hollingshead is a media relations manager in BYU’s University Communications office. A former journalist, Hollingshead holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in mass communications from BYU. He lives in Springville, Utah, with his wife, Natalie; their four children; and a dog and a cat. The jury is still out on how long the cat stays.


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Notes

1. Paul Swenson, “Impostor Syndrome Is More Common Than You Think; Study Finds Best Way to Cope with It,” BYU News, 23 September 2019, news.byu.edu/intellect/imposter-syndrome-is-more-common-than-you-think-study-finds-best-way-to-cope-with-it.

2. BYU (@BYU), “About 20% of participants in a new BYU study said they experience impostor syndrome,” Twitter, 23 September 2019, twitter.com/BYU/status/1176161842558668800.

3. Phil McKinney, “Do You Have Impostor Syndrome . . . Too?” tedxBoulder, filmed 16 September 2018, ted video, 5:34, tedxboulder.com/videos/do-you-have-impostor-syndrome-too.

4. Quoted in Emma Benson, “‘I Don’t Belong’: Impostor Syndrome Affects byu Students,” byu Daily Universe, 10 February 2020, universe.byu.edu/2020/02/10/i-dont-belong-at-byu-impostor-syndrome-affects-students-professors-and-study-reveals-how-to-cope.

5. See Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander, “The Impostor Phenomenon,” International Journal of Behavioral Science 6, no. 1 (September 2011): 75–97, doi.org/10.14456/ijbs.2011.6.