Daniel W. Drezner

Stay away — I have a syndrome!!

Stay away — I have a syndrome!!

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, John Gravois writes about a syndrome that’s so pervasive I’m not sure it can be called a syndrome so much as an occupational hazard:

On a recent evening, Columbia University held a well-attended workshop for young academics who feel like frauds. These were duly vetted, highly successful scholars who nonetheless live in creeping fear of being found out. Exposed. Sent packing. If that sounds familiar, you may have the impostor syndrome. In psychological terms, that’s a cognitive distortion that prevents a person from internalizing any sense of accomplishment. “It’s like we have this trick scale,” says Valerie Young, a traveling expert on the syndrome who gave the workshop at Columbia. Here’s how that scale works: Self-doubt and negative feedback weigh heavily on the mind, but praise barely registers. You attribute your failures to a stable, inner core of ineptness. Meanwhile, you discount your successes as accidental or, worse, as just so many confidence jobs. Every positive is a false positive. By many accounts, academics ? graduate students, junior professors, and even some full professors ? relate to this only a little less than they relate to eye strain.

Of course, there’s the question of whether it’s such a bad thing:

According to [professor of psychology Gail] Matthews, a person with impostor syndrome typically experiences a cycle of distress when faced with a new task: self-doubt, followed by perfectionism, then ? sometimes but not always ? procrastination. “The next step is often overwork,” Ms. Matthews says. “It has a driven quality ? a lot of anxiety, a lot of suffering. “Then comes success,” she says. “So you do well!” (Pause for a brief sigh of relief.) “Then you discount your success,” she says. “Success reinforces the whole cycle.”

So the academy’s occupational hazard is society’s welfare benefit. The story links to this site about imposter syndrome — which has some imposter-y like qualities to it. Take the quiz to see if you have the syndrome. If you have one of eight symptoms — including perfectionism — you have the syndrome!! [And how many symptoms do you have?–ed. All of them. But on the other hand, I also have a blog, which is likely a symptom of the polar opposite of imposter syndrome — the belief that you are an expert on anything and everything. Indeed, we’ll know when the blogosphere has really become professionalized when paid bloggers start fessing up to imposter syndrome.] UPDATE: Of course, as David Leonhardt points out in today’s New York Times, sometimes there really are imposters or frauds amidst us.