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Female Imposter Syndrome And Dunning Kruger

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Apparently certain successful women – although quite what anyone is doing describing Michelle Obama as such is unknown – suffer from imposter syndome:

In this context Ardern has spoken – again – about her self-doubt. She said she suffers – still, after three years in office – from impostor syndrome, a lack of confidence in her professional ability. Not, she insists, because she’s a woman. “However, I have on many occasions thought, ‘I cannot do that because it’s me’. Impostor syndrome is real.” With this she becomes the most eminent woman associated with impostor syndrome since Michelle Obama told British schoolgirls: ”It doesn’t go away, that feeling that you shouldn’t take me that seriously. What do I know? I share that with you because we all have doubts in our abilities, about our power and what that power is.”

That these doubts should be problematic has been pretty much an axiom in the endless discussions since imposter syndrome was first identified in 1978 – around the time women were really starting to infuriate male-dominated professions. No parallel term has, for some reason, caught on for the contrasting superpower: a pattern of idle over-confidence and assumptions about merited success that has rarely been more visible than throughout Brexit, starting with that paragon of baffling self-esteem David Cameron.

Having actually met David Cameron before he was famous I agree. There was an entirely unfathomable self-belief there. What some might call an arrogance in it.

However, this idea that imposter syndrome is something that only affects women, or is specific in any manner. I regard it as merely psychologically healthy.

OK, so I’ve not stormed the heights of our society. In business I’ve been a very large fish in the tiniest of ponds, that shadowy international scandium oligopoly. As a freelance I scramble for commissions – but I’ve had columns in The Times. And when those peaks, however Monro they are rather than Everest, do occur there’s always that voice at the back of the head going “What, who, me?” This is not just a side effect of having older sisters.

Which is exactly what that imposter syndrome is. This personal part of it is not simply because I am fully in touch with my feminine side. It’s because I’m a rational adult. It’s a complicated world out there and I know that I understand there merest fraction of it. There are 7 billion others out there with their own skills, talents and failures. Mine aren’t going to map over theirs and nor am I going to be at the forefront on everything or even anything. Other than the tautology of being the best at being Tim Worstall (and there is actually another one of the same name out there and who knows, he might be better at it) I’m not going to be the best at anything.

Of course, I don’t need to be the best at anything, as David Ricardo pointed out at book length I need only comparative advantage to thrive, not absolute.

This is just the human condition, it’s nothing to do with gender – or even sex.

Given this reality those who think they are good at many things, are righteously at the head of the pack, are psychologically deluded. Sure, some really are the best at specific things. George Best sure could play football but his liver had complaints about other aspects of his life. We even have a name for this:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people with low ability at a task overestimate their ability. It is related to the cognitive bias of illusory superiority and comes from people’s inability to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, people cannot objectively evaluate their level of competence.

All those who do not suffer from imposter syndrome are, I insist, suffering from Dunning Kruger. This not being an advance in mental health.

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I most often suffer from Imposter Syndrome when somebody with Dunning Kruger confidently confronts me and tells me I’m wrong. “You can’t wire that up that way because of X, Y, Z!” Worried thought: what? I’ve been doing it that way for years. Goes homes, checks regulations, what I’m doing is fine, idiot authority is idiot, has grasped small bit of information “18th edition states new X,Y,Z is compliant” and declares “you must rip everything out and do X,Y,Z”. Same with people who assert that not being forced to not do something means that you can’t then chose to also not do it, the only possible result of not being forced to not do something is being forced to do it.

  2. Michelle O’s accomplishments were that she did graduate from college and married a bloke who was very good at self-promotion. So, if she found herself wondering “why am I standing in front of all these people”, one could understand why.

  3. Following on from Esteban’s comment above, I wonder whether Mrs O is actually suffering from personal Imposter Syndrome. Perhaps she is suffering an indirect effect WRT someone else (who affects the public perception of her).

    If that is the case, how do we differentiate the direct effect from the indirect effect?

    Keep safe and best regards

  4. It’s not always “imposter syndrome”. Sometimes it is “I know I am bullshitting and you appear to be lapping it up but one of you might call me on it” syndrome. Often observed in politicians but not noticeable (in my anecdata) sex-linked. Or even gender-linked.

  5. Ah, useless leftie women politicians are all the same:

    “Jacqui Smith feared she was not up to being home secretary and wished she had been better trained for the role”

    Indeed, but why then do they take on these roles? To show men how useless they really are?

  6. No parallel term has, for some reason, caught on for the contrasting superpower: a pattern of idle over-confidence and assumptions about merited success

    Rot. In fact there are many of them, distinguishing the different variations: arrogance (as Tim used it), narcissism, bull-shitter (n the technical sense as Surreptitious Evil uses it). It’s not like we don’t have the term Superiority Complex, that a moment’s checking would have found. But that’s Guardian journalism for you.

    A couple of points of order about Jacinda Ardern. First, she has not won two elections. Her party was second-largest in 2017 and she became Prime Minister by virtue of personal issues between NZ First and National.

    Second, when she says she suffers from imposter syndrome she is lying. People would not take shit like that from a man and believe him, but apparently when a ruthless operator like Jacinda has boobs then she cannot lie. This is the reverse sexism of the Guardian in full operation. Ruthless man = bad, bad, bad. Ruthless woman = not possible, logic error.

    I used to have Imposter Syndrome quite badly. It is a feature of beginning teachers.

  7. It is possible to have a fairly realistic notion of one’s own ability and sit (confidently albeit less than totally contentedly) in the gap between Dunning Kruger and “imposter syndrome”. It obviously helps to have the right upbringing: as possibly the least intelligent member of my family (and very obviously not the brightest) but normally top of the form, I got some initial insulation against either.
    On one occasion a race I was going to enter anyhow to score a few points for my club’s team was selected as my county’s championship and also as a Commonwealth Games Trial so I specified on the entry form “please do not include me in the Commonwealth Games Trial”, because I didn’t want those guys standing around getting cold waiting for me to finish 50km, but still entered the county champs.

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