“Imposter Syndrome is here to stay” -Behavioral Economics

I’d like to argue that a majority of competent individuals are bugged by the Imposter Syndrome and back it up with the underlying principles of behavioral economics, here we go!

1/3: Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is the belief of not being as competent as you are perceived to be, often accompanied by the anxiety of others finding out that you’ve been gaming the system all along. Sounds familiar, eh?

P.S.- There’s a small quiz at the end of the blog that might help you get a better idea of whether or not you really have the imposter syndrome.

P.P.S.- Please read it after reading the whole blog, you’ll panic by a lesser degree.

P.P.P.S.- Tis an insightful blog that talks about the syndrome in detail and how to handle it in case you jumped to the quiz anyways. :P

In a late night discussion with friends lately, it came out that literally all of us were heavy on the imposter syndrome.

Astonishingly, even Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter! Don’t take my word for it, checkout this small one minute read.

While pondering over it, I could draw some parallels between behavioral economics and the imposter epidemic…

2/3: Behavioral Economics

Economics is all about efficient decision making given limited resources and information. While classical economics assumes perfect rationality, behavioral economics allows space for cognitive, emotional, cultural and social biases.

At the heart of behavioral economics, lies prospect theory.

Now prospect theory is built on two pillars:

  1. Value Function: This reflects that amount of sadness caused by a loss is greater than the amount of happiness caused by an equal magnitude of gain. Also, each individual has their own “reference point” to assess gain/ loss.
  2. Weighting Function: This reflects that human mind is slightly messed up in the way it perceives probabilities. More on this in the next section.

My argument about the inevitability of the Imposter Syndrome is backed by the Weighting Function so I will go ahead and give a more detailed explanation for it.

Prospect Theory: Weighting Function

Weighting function in prospect theory is all about how we perceive probabilities. The theory establishes that actual probability of an event is not linearly related with the probability as perceived by humans.

Let’s dissect the graph for a bit and build some intuition about what is really happening…

p → actual probability (dotted line). For the purpose of illustration, let ‘p’ be the probability of a person Z successfully accomplishing a given task.

πp → perceived probability (solid line). This is the probability ‘perceived’ by Z with which (x)he can successfully accomplishing the given task.

*Let’s assume for simplicity that the solid and dotted lines intersect at p=p’

  • For p=0, πp=p=0
  • For 0<p<p’, Z is overestimating itself since πp>p
  • For p=p’, Z is accurately estimating its chances of success since πp=p
  • For 1>p>p’, Z is underestimating itself since πp<p. Pay attention here, this underestimation is analogous to imposter syndrome.
  • For p=1, πp=p=1

Now that we know about Imposter Syndrome and Behavioral Economics, let’s tie the two threads together…

3/3: Imposter Syndrome and Prospect Theory

P.S.- Read this section rather slowly, give it time to sink in.

Assumption

The subject in consideration (say, ‘Z’) is competent and their probability of accomplishing a given task successfully is p. Now since they are competent, this p>0.5. Also, we are talking about humans and not machines, so p<1.

→ 0.5 < p < 1

Relating p’ and p

Just to recap, p’ is the intersection point at which perceived and actual probabilities are equal.

Drawing from the analysis in the previous section,

If p>p’ → Z underestimates itself → IMPOSTER SYNDROME

IMPOSTER → Norm and not the Exception

Due to personal subjectivity, p’ for each person is different.

  • Let us consider a pool of competent people.
  • For the sake of argument, let’s assume a normal distribution of each of their respective p’ in the range 0 to 1. (The argument will hold for any distribution except a negatively skewed one. If you find research on distribution of p’, please let me know!)
  • Also, let us fix all of their ‘p’ (probability by which they will accomplish the given task successfully) at 0.52 (low, I know but stay with me. Even this will help us establish the argument).

Now for a given person to underestimate themselves and be bugged with the imposter syndrome, p > p’ → 0.52 > p’.

Since it is a normal distribution centered around 0.5, number of people with p’ less than 0.52 (=A1+A2) > number of people with p’ more than 0.52 (=A3)

→ A1 = A2+A3 = 0.5

→ In all generality, a majority of competent people suffer from the imposter syndrome!

So yeah the next time you feel daunted by the imposter syndrome, just hang in there, stay strong and don’t worry; you’re the majority after all. This blog provides some good tips to help you through the process.

That’s pretty much it! Hope this provides the slightest comfort to your growth oriented inner self. ;)

P.S. Shoutout to kaushik srinivasan, DEEP KULKARNI, Veeresh Krishna, Shubhankar Srivastava and Pranav Sharma for constructive inputs. :)

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