The Psychology of Self-Doubt

We all have times when we feel like a fraud. Psychologist Kevin Cokley studies the corrosive effects of self-doubt, and how we can turn that negative voice in our heads into an ally.  

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Additional Resources:


Making Black Lives Matter: Confronting Anti-Black Racism, edited by Kevin Cokley, Cognella Academic Publishing, 2022.

The Myth of Black Anti-Intellectualism: A True Psychology of African American Students, Kevin O. Cokley, Praeger, 2014.


An Examination of the Impact of Minority Status Stress and Impostor Feelings on the Mental Health of Diverse Ethnic Minority College Students. Kevin Cokley et al. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development. 2013.  

Impostor feelings as a moderator and mediator of the relationship between perceived discrimination and mental health among racial/ethnic minority college students. Kevin Cokley et al. Journal of Counseling Psychology. 2017. 

Self-esteem as a mediator of the link between perfectionism and the impostor phenomenon. Kevin Cokley et al. Personality and Individual Differences. 2018.

Women–Particularly Underrepresented Minority Women–and Early-Career Academics Feel like Impostors in Fields that Value Brilliance, Melis Muradoglu, et. al, Journal of Educational Psychology, 2021.

Commentary: Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Imposter Syndrome: A Systematic Review, Dena M. Bravata, et. al, Journal of Mental Health and Clinical Psychology, 2020.

Feeling Like an Imposter: The Effect of Perceived Classroom Competition on the Daily Psychological Experiences of First-Generation College Students, Elizabeth A. Canning, et. al, Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2020.

An Examination of the Impact of Racial and Ethnic Identity, Impostor Feelings, and Minority Status Stress on the Mental Health of Black College Students, Shannon McClain, et. al, Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 2016.

Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments, Justin Kruger and David Dunning, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2000.

The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes, Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 1978.


Viola Davis on 60 Minutes: all artists have “imposter syndrome”, 2020.

Michele Obama describes her battles with impostor syndrome, 2018.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. At the Olympic Games in 2021, one athlete arrived in Tokyo with a mountain of expectations on her four foot, eight inch frame.

Sports announcer 1: Five medals in Rio, four of them gold, and could do even better than that this time around here in Tokyo.

Sports announcer 2: If you don't think that that's hard, then you really don't understand gymnastics.

Shankar Vedantam: People didn't just expect her to win gold medals in gymnastics, they expected magic.

Sports announcer 3: So I mean, she has just set herself so far apart from the rest of the field and not just on the competition floor.

Sports announcer 4: Simone Biles, representing the United States of America.

Sports announcer 5: Simone Biles' pursuit of history starts tonight.

Shankar Vedantam: Four days into the games, Simone Biles pulled out of the competition.

Simone Biles: I've just never felt like this going into a competition before and I tried to go out here and have fun. And warm up in the back, went a little bit better, but then once I came out here, I was like, "No, mental is not there."

Shankar Vedantam: The world was stunned. An athlete with seemingly otherworldly powers was struggling. From the outside looking in it seemed hard to understand and it raised a question, if a world champion can be toppled by these emotions, what is does it mean for the rest of us? This week on Hidden Brain, the strange psychology of the voice inside our heads that says the world may think you are amazing, but you are really just a fraud.

Shankar Vedantam: It's hard to see ourselves clearly. This is true in all manner of situations, but it can be especially true when we are confronting a challenge. At such moments, many of us start to doubt ourselves. We think we are unequal to the task. At the University of Texas at Austin, Kevin Cokley researches the psychology of self doubt. He studies the corrosive effects these doubts can have on our wellbeing, but also how we might turn our internal misgivings into an ally. Kevin Cokley, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Kevin Cokley: Thank you for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Kevin, you're a psychologist who studies the phenomenon of self doubt, yet you yourself have not been immune to such doubts. I want to take you back to when you were 29 years old, you had just completed your PhD, you had begun teaching, can you describe the fears that went through your mind as you prepared for class each day?

Kevin Cokley: Yes. I was a young assistant professor at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and I can recall very vividly the feeling that I had walking the hallways of the psychology department there and seeing on the walls these publications by my new colleagues, very accomplished colleagues and I had come out of graduate school with having only one publication. I believe that I was hired on the basis that people saw potential in me, particularly in terms of my teaching, but I knew that I had a lot to prove in terms of research. And so when I was walking those hallways I had this sense of, wow, can I do this? And it was incredibly stressful. It sort of had me doubting whether in fact I belonged, whether I deserved to be there, and I was aware that I was one of only a few black professors at the university. And so I did not want to do anything that would result in students seeing me or believing me to not be qualified to be the professor. So I made sure that I wore sports coats and wore ties to class every day. I had a briefcase that I bought because in my mind a professor carries a briefcase. And so I was really working hard to project an image of expertise and authority that I imagined professors needing to represent.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that one way your self-doubt manifested was that you were worried about misspeaking in class, saying something wrong. And I'm wondering when you imagine making a mistake like that, what was the worst case scenario that ran through your head?

Kevin Cokley: Speaking in front of a large introductory class, psychology class, I thought, man, I cannot stand here and misspeak. I need to make sure that I'm conjugating my verbs correctly. I need to make sure that I'm enunciating every word exactly correctly. And so for me, the worst case scenario would've been to be lecturing and to say something incorrectly and then to have my students questioning my authority and ability to be an effective professor, and so for me that was a worst case scenario.

Shankar Vedantam: You've been a professor for a while now, you clearly know what you're doing, you have a lengthy publication record, have your self doubts gone away?

Kevin Cokley: That's a good question. It depends on the day that you ask me the question. When I'm speaking to people and when people are introducing me and they're reading my accolades, on the one hand I feel pretty good about what I've been able to accomplish, but there are still some days when I find myself doubting: would I have the expertise to be able to speak in front of people. And when I talk to my students about this, they find it amazing because they have Dr. Kevin Cokley on somewhat of an academic pedestal. And when I tell them that even Dr. Cokley sometimes still suffers and still wonders about my deservedness to be in the position that I'm in, they are surprised. So I do still have those experiences.

Shankar Vedantam: So Kevin, it looks like you yourself are a walking example of this phenomenon that you have studied for many years, in popular culture it's called the imposter syndrome. Now, you think that term is overly clinical, you prefer the term imposter phenomenon. Can you describe for me what the imposter phenomenon is?

Kevin Cokley: The imposter phenomenon is basically the sentiment that one is being intellectually fraudulent. It's the idea that individuals who are very accomplished, very competent, very intelligent people, nevertheless feel like they are fooling people. They believe that they are not nearly as smart and competent as their accomplishments would suggest.

Shankar Vedantam: So we're going to talk about the factors that produce these kinds of self-doubt and what we can do about these misgivings, but I want to start by looking at the different dimensions of self-doubt because when you start to peel this onion, it turns out to be a really complex phenomenon. I want to play you a clip of the actress Viola Davis talking to the CBS program 60 Minutes.

Viola Davis: I don't know if it's healthy or not, I'm just saying that it's something that I recognize in all the artists I've worked with. It's in all of them. So I know the language of the artist and the language of the artist is someone's going to find me out. I may not be as great as people think I am.

Shankar Vedantam: "I may not be as great as people think I am." So one dimension of self-doubt here is that you worry that others might have an inflated sense of how good you are, that you might not be able to live up to those expectations?

Kevin Cokley: Yeah, that is one of the hallmark traits of imposter feelings. When you have friends and colleagues telling you how great you are and saying all of these nice and wonderful things about you, you find yourself just wondering, can I live up to these lofty expectations? And you can't help but sort of feel that I can't live up to that. So when Viola Davis made those remarks, it really sort of represented some of the classic hallmark signs of imposterism.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So I'm wondering if this might be especially acute for an actor, but I think all of us might experience some version of this. When you're shooting a movie, they don't show the audience all the takes when someone flubbed a line or made a mistake, so Viola Davis thinks that we, the audience, associate her with the perfection of the role she's playing on the screen, what we see on the screen. She, on the other hand, knows the whole picture, all the mistakes, the off days, and she worries that our picture of her and her picture of her might not match.

Kevin Cokley: You are absolutely correct. What we see is the sort of perfected version of who she is as an actress. What we don't see are, as you said, the many outtakes that I'm sure she's had to go through in order to get, finally, the perfect scene. Again, I mean, it's the idea that one needs to try to be perfect because you believe that people sometimes see you as being perfect when you know that to not be true about yourself.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So Viola Davis was asked to play the role of Michelle Obama in a Showtime series titled, The First Lady, and she described Michelle Obama as a goddess. I want to look at the next dimension of self doubt and play you a clip. Here is Michelle Obama talking about a question that goes through her own mind all the time.

Michelle Obama: Am I good enough? That's a question that has dogged me for a good part of my life. Am I good enough to have all of this? Am I good enough to be the First Lady of the United States? And I think that many women and definitely many young girls of all backgrounds walk around with that question. I still feel that at some level I have something to prove because of the color of my skin, because of the shape of my body, because of who knows how people are judging me.

Shankar Vedantam: So I feel like Michelle Obama is speaking to another dimension of self-doubt, and perhaps this is similar to your own experience with self-doubt as a 29 year old assistant professor, and this form of self-doubt is not that other people think too highly of you, but the fear that other people might think that you're a fraud.

Kevin Cokley: Yeah, and I found myself smiling because that is the exact clip that I use in every imposter phenomenon talk that I give. I was actually saying the words along with her as she was saying it, but yeah, no, you're right in this instance she's talking about the feelings of self-doubt that she has about herself, but that are really rooted in, I would argue, societal views about people who look like her, people whom she would represent.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, you might think that one form of self defense against these feelings is to just simply prove you are very good, but it turns out that doesn't always work. The poet Maya Angelou won three Grammys for her spoken word albums. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. If she had never written another word in her life, her reputation would've been secure, but you've talked about how she was also plagued by self-doubt.

Kevin Cokley: Yeah, she talks about having published 11 books and still finding herself wondering, uh-oh, they're going to find me out. And when I talk about her, I say, "Look, she is Maya freaking Angelou. She is one of the greatest poets that we've ever experienced and yet, even Maya Angelou has had these feelings of being found out, that she is somehow fraudulent and fooling people." And so she is a beautiful example of someone who has achieved at the very highest level, nevertheless still feeling as though they are fraudulent.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm struck by the similarities between self-doubt and conspiracy theories, go along with me for just a second here. On the surface these are very different ideas, but one thing that unites them is that if you're plagued by self out or you subscribe to a conspiracy theory, the evidence does not disabuse you of your belief. So in the case of a conspiracy theory, you find ways to discount the evidence that contradicts the theory and in the case of self-doubt, as with Maya Angelou, no amount of past evidence that you're talented seems to convince you that your fears are not warranted.

Kevin Cokley: No, I mean, that's absolutely right and in fact, it almost kind of reminds me of that social psychological concept of confirmation bias. You are more oriented toward finding evidence that supports the contrary, that would support the idea of you not being competent, even though again, your accomplishments would suggest otherwise. So I can actually see the connection.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. There's one last dimension of self-doubt that I want to place on the table. The actor Tom Hanks has long been one of Hollywood's biggest stars, but like Viola Davis he has said that he also worries that he is soon going to be found out.

Tom Hanks: No matter who we are, no matter what we've done, there comes a point where you think, how did I get here and am I going to be able to continue this? When are they going to discover that I am in fact a fraud and take everything away from me? It's a high wire act that we all walk. And I do this in the work that I do because there are days when I know that three o'clock tomorrow afternoon I am going to have to deliver some degree of emotional goods, and if I can't do it, that means I'm going to have to fake it. And if I fake it, that means they may catch me at faking it. And if they catch me at faking it, well, then it's just doomsday.

Shankar Vedantam: What strikes me in this clip, Kevin, is another dimension of self-doubt, and we've discussed this elsewhere on Hidden Brain, many of us subject ourselves to the kind of scrutiny and criticism we would never dream of aiming at other people. Can you talk a moment about the harshness of our inner critic? Are you yourself harder on you than you are on other people?

Kevin Cokley: Yeah, I think that's a really good question and I know that certainly I can see elements of that in myself when I've done something that is noteworthy and for which I should be proud of, and nevertheless I can still find reasons to be critical of it, to find reasons to not be as happy about it, or excited about it, or to sort of embrace it as a worthy accomplishment. And so being our own harsh critics that's something that I see, that I can hear in what Tom Hanks said, and certainly I can see elements of that in myself.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. There's a theme that runs through many of the examples of imposter phenomenon that we have discussed. Maya Angelou, who's sort of written 11 books thinks that she's a fraud. The writer John Steinbeck is supposed to have once written something very similar. He wrote, "I'm not a writer. I've been fooling myself and other people." And even the physicist Albert Einstein is supposed to have once called himself an "involuntary swindler." Now, on the surface all of this seems incomprehensible. If you've written amazing books, if you've reinvented the world of physics, how can you think of yourself as a cheat and a swindler? Why do you think it is that people who are plagued by self doubt cannot see the brilliance that is plain for us to see when we look in from the outside?

Kevin Cokley: I think that's the million dollar question. I mean, that's something that we are still in many ways trying to figure out. But what I will say is that if you've come from environments where you were sort of complimented on things unrelated to your intelligence, let's say that you were someone who was very socially skilled, let's say you were someone who was very sort of athletic and all you ever heard from people, family, and friends was about your prowess in those areas, but you never receive feedback about your intelligence, then part of that can result in you internalizing this idea that, maybe you're not that smart, maybe your talents lie elsewhere. That's part of the origins of these feelings.

Shankar Vedantam: Even the most successful people among us doubt their abilities from time to time, self-doubt can be so powerful that it makes us feel like frauds in our own lives. When we come back, the origins of self-doubt and what we can do about that negative voice in our heads. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Lots of smart, talented, accomplished people harbor self-doubt. They worry they are frauds and imposters even when they have ample evidence there is no need for such fear. At the University of Texas at Austin, psychologist Kevin Cokley studies the psychology of self-doubt and the imposter phenomenon.

Shankar Vedantam: Kevin, the psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes first used the term imposter phenomenon in a 1978 study. They focused on high achieving women. Can you describe that study for me and what they found?

Kevin Cokley: These were women who came from very diverse backgrounds, some of them came from the world of corporate America, some of them were academics, some of them were graduate students, but what they all had in common was they were all incredibly accomplished women. And it was interesting because when they worked with them they kept repeatedly hearing these feelings of self doubt in spite of the accomplishments that they had as individual women, and so it led them to theorize that this idea of the imposter phenomenon was something salient among women, because again, this was the population they were working with.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, the examples of people like Tom Hanks, or Albert Einstein, and you yourself, Kevin, might suggest the imposter phenomenon doesn't just affect women. Is there data to back up the anecdotes?

Kevin Cokley: That's absolutely true. I mean, in my own work I have published studies where in one study imposter feelings were certainly more prevalent among women than men, but in another study that I published there was no difference between men and women. And what we know from the accumulation of work that's been done in this area is that there has not been any consistent findings of women experiencing higher imposter feelings than men. Now that being said, and I talk about this a lot, I do believe that with women the implications of imposter feelings are a bit different than among men. And I point to one of the studies that I published where I was looking at factors that predict GPA, and what I found in that study was that even though there were no differences between men and women in terms of their imposter feelings, imposter feelings had no link to GPA for men. It did not impact their grades at all, but for women imposter feelings were in fact linked in very sort of clear ways to their GPA. So you can say on the one hand that there were no differences in the reporting of imposter feelings amongst both groups, but the implications of those imposter feelings were quite different for men and women.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). What about racial differences here, Kevin? We've talked about several prominent black people who experience self-doubt but you've conducted studies looking at racial differences in self-doubt and some of the result are both revealing and surprising. What do you find?

Kevin Cokley: So in the initial study that I published we had a very diverse sample of college students consisting of Asian Americans, African Americans, and Latinx Americans. And we went into this study thinking that we would see evidence of higher imposter feelings among African Americans and Latinx Americans and we believed that because of what we understand to be some of the ideas and beliefs surrounding African-American students and Latinx students around intelligence and around their deservedness to be in some predominantly white educational spaces. But what we found in fact was quite the opposite, we found that Asian American students in our particular sample reported higher feelings of imposterism than both African American students and Latinx students and this was counterintuitive to what we expected to find. And we tried to explain that somewhat speculatively on the idea that Asian American students have to sort of deal with that modern minority myth in ways that sort of exacerbate those feelings.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). I mean, it might be a little bit like what we discussed earlier about Viola Davis basically saying other people think that I'm perfect, but I know I'm not perfect, and that creates a kind of dissonance in my mind.

Kevin Cokley: Yes, absolutely.

Shankar Vedantam: You hinted at something a moment ago and I'm wondering if we can explore this a little bit more, which is there seems to be a connection between highly competitive environments and the internal generation of self-doubt. You talk for example about walking down the corridors at your first job and seeing the publications of other professors on the wall and in some ways having this be a reminder for you that you had not done as much. Can you talk about the link between being in a competitive environment and the experience of self-doubt?

Kevin Cokley: When you are in environments that are stressful and that are particularly competitive, these always become incubators for these imposter feelings. Again, if I use myself as an example, the story that you shared about me being a 29 year old professor straight out of graduate school, it was a competitive environment. Part of it I think may have been just my own internalization because it wasn't like I had my colleagues coming to me and constantly reminding me, "You know you are in a competitive environment, you know you have to do this." No, it wasn't anything so explicit.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah.

Kevin Cokley: But it was just the subtle reminders that you are now a professor in a very productive, competitive environment and they didn't have to say anything to me.

Shankar Vedantam: Right.

Kevin Cokley: I was reminded by those publications that I saw on the walls.

Shankar Vedantam: You've talked about another idea about how we communicate with young people, especially in educational settings. If you communicate to a young person, I think you are a genius, I think you're a prodigy, I think you're special, in some ways we might think that we are communicating encouragement to the person, but we're also putting expectations on that person. So when that person doesn't do well in a study or doesn't do well in a test I mean, they're now comparing their performance with what they believe you think of their performance and they feel like they're falling short. Is there a risk in some ways in over-inflating the students sense of how good they might be or how good they ought to be?

Kevin Cokley: I think there is a risk and certainly there is nothing wrong with offering encouragement. I think all students need encouragement, but to your point, I do think that one could go overboard with the praise and set students up for struggling with these sort of feelings of self-doubt if the level of praise exceeds what they either believe about themselves, or maybe even exceeds what they have actually accomplished. I mean, I think that the deliverance of praise should be appropriate to the level of accomplishment and not do so in an exaggerated manner.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So sometime ago we had the psychologist Claude Steele on Hidden Brain, it was in an episode titled How They See Us, and he talked about the phenomenon of stereotype threat. When you believe you're the target of stereotypes, those fears can be a source of worry and that worry can undermine your performance. There seems to be some overlap between your work on the imposter phenomenon and Claude's work on stereotype threat.

Kevin Cokley: I was having this conversation two days ago and I was asked this very same question, so it's something that I've thought about for a while. And the way that I describe it is this, when you think about Claude Steele's work around stereotype threat, it's this idea that individuals are aware of stereotypes that exist about a particular social identity group, whether that's based on race, or gender, or whatever. And you don't necessarily believe the stereotypes that exist about the group, but you are aware of them and it's the awareness of that stereotype that ends up disrupting your performance.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kevin Cokley: That's different from imposer feelings, because with imposter feelings we talk about individuals who have internalized these beliefs that sort of lead to self doubt.

Shankar Vedantam: You found that self-doubt can be a predictor of stress, especially for minorities in educational settings. Can you talk about that work?

Kevin Cokley: Yeah, so one of the most common types of studies that you see done with the imposter phenomenon is looking into outcomes related to mental health and I tend to look at symptoms of depression and anxiety as my outcomes. And what we have consistently found is that individuals who experience imposter feelings have elevated symptoms of depression and have elevated symptoms of anxiety, they are certainly linked consistently.

Shankar Vedantam: And is it accurate to say that women and minorities in the workplace or in educational settings might be especially prone to this correlation?

Kevin Cokley: I believe that to be the case, absolutely. And I approach my work with the belief that for women and for BIPOC individuals that this sort of association between mental health and imposter feelings is especially prevalent.

Shankar Vedantam: Self-doubt can keep us from seeing ourselves clearly. It can prompt us to downplay our accomplishments and underestimate our skills. It can cost us in terms of mental health and in terms of our willingness to take on new challenges. But there is a deep paradox here, even as lots of people suffer from needless self-doubt, many also suffer from an absence of self-doubt. Many people who ought to doubt themselves, seem filled with blithe self-confidence. When we come back, how to combat the imposter phenomenon, but also how to make room in our lives for the gift of self-doubt. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Even the best of us can sometimes feel we don't know what we are doing. We worry that we will fall short of other people's expectations. We worry that we will be called out as frauds and charlatans. At the University of Texas at Austin, psychologist Kevin Cokley studies the imposter phenomenon and what we can do about it. Kevin, one technique you've suggested that people use to reduce self-doubt is to remind themselves of their accomplishments. You say that you sometimes stalk yourself. What do you mean by this?

Kevin Cokley: Yeah, so one of the things that happens with people who experience imposter feelings is that we don't acknowledge accomplishments to the extent that they should be acknowledged and so we sometimes just minimize them.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kevin Cokley: I somewhat half jokingly said that I stalk myself, but what I mean is that, and I hope people out there listening don't judge me too harshly, I go on Google almost every day and I Google myself. I look up my metrics surrounding my publications, how many times I've been cited, how many publications I have. I mean, those numbers don't change day to day, but I find myself looking at them every single day because I need to remind myself that people think that you're kind of a big deal for a reason, that you actually have done something of note as a scholar.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah.

Kevin Cokley: And so that's my way of just sort of reminding myself that you are deserving of the attention and the accolades that you have received. And if I didn't do that, then it would be easy to sort of forget that I have accomplished this as an academic.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. I mean, I suppose there's a way you can Google yourself every day in order to stroke your vanity, but I think what I'm hearing you say is actually something quite different. It's almost like sort of a cognitive behavioral therapy intervention because your mind is not automatically remembering all the things that you've done well or your mind is coming up with self-doubts. By actually going and looking at the evidence every day, you are in some ways telling your mind, look, the belief that I have that I'm not worthy or that I'm not up to this task, this belief is untrue. So in some ways it feels almost like a form of therapy that you've come up with on your own.

Kevin Cokley: Well, it is and I'm so glad that you mentioned the word vanity because I fear that what I just said could come across as just someone obsessed with himself and seeing what he's accomplished, and it's really not that, although I can understand how it might sound that way. Because in my case, I really truly sometimes find it hard to accept the fact that I am somewhat of an authority on the imposter phenomenon. And so when I go and look up sort of what I've done, I sometimes actually forget how much work I've done in the area. And I hope that people don't sort of take that to be someone who's just unduly vain about his work and read me that way because I'd like to think that it is not that.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah, I'm not hearing that at all, Kevin. You said a second ago that you find it hard to accept sometimes that you're an authority on the imposter phenomenon. You do see the irony here right, Kevin, which is you are an expert on the imposter phenomenon who finds it difficult to accept that you are an expert on the imposter phenomenon.

Kevin Cokley: I do see the irony in that statement, yes.

Shankar Vedantam: There's another idea that in some ways is a related idea, which is there are people whose accomplishments are not public. They don't have publication records, they don't have awards, but in some ways these people can mine the same idea that you're talking about with something called a work diary. Can you explain that idea to me?

Kevin Cokley: Yeah, so one of the other suggestions that I give to people is to keep a work diary where you essentially document those successes that you've had in the work environment. What ends up happening for people who experience imposter feelings is that it becomes very easy for us to just sort of either forget, or to minimize, or marginalized those things that we've done well during the course of a day, during the course of a week. And so sometimes we have to be intentional about documenting those little successes that in the aggregate are pretty impressive.

Shankar Vedantam: So Kevin, we've talked about ways that individuals can manage their self doubt, are there things that organizations can do that can also reduce self doubt?

Kevin Cokley: Yes, there certainly are things that organizations can do. And the example that I like to give involves individuals who are managers or supervisors, and what you can do as a manager or a supervisor to really sort of mitigate these sort of feelings of imposterism amongst your subordinates is being transparent in your own vulnerabilities and to be open in sharing this with their employees. It really helps individuals who are afraid to own up or to sort of say, "I've made a mistake." It makes them feel like, you know what, If my manager or if my supervisor can talk openly about making a mistake, then it's okay for me to make a mistake and I don't have to be perfect. And I think that that goes a long way towards helping to assuage any feelings of imposterism that an individual might be experiencing.

Shankar Vedantam: Researchers have also looked at ways to dismantle the imposter phenomenon in schools. At Stanford University, Greg Walton looked at the problems that incoming freshmen were facing and he found that when they experienced setbacks many of them drew global conclusions like "I don't belong here" or "I don't deserve to be here." And he felt like blacks were especially likely to feel like they were frauds and so he set up an intervention that helped black students see setbacks in the proper perspective. So a bad test result or a bad interaction with a professor didn't mean that they were frauds, it didn't mean they were impostors, it just meant that they were having a bad day or a bad week. Here's a clip of Greg describing the effects of his intervention.

Greg Walton: What the intervention did was it prevented students from feeling that they didn't belong in general when they had negative experiences. You can then imagine how if you're feeling less vulnerable to threats you are better able to connect with other people, to peers, to teachers and build the kinds of relationships that actually sustain performance over a long period of time.

Shankar Vedantam: Kevin, I'm wondering if you can weigh in on this. Is one solution to self-doubt in some ways not blowing things out of proportion, blowing setbacks out of proportion?

Kevin Cokley: I love that and thank you for sharing that study. As a counselor psychologist I would sort of refer to that as almost like I'm simply reframing it and not sort of internalizing it as being indicative of a trait about yourself.

Shankar Vedantam: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kevin Cokley: People aren't perfect and we have to sort of get beyond this idea that making mistakes is somehow indicative of you being not smart, not competent, not belonging. The most accomplished people in the world have all experienced failure at some point. And so we need to sort of help students in particular understand that when you fail a test, and I could have benefited from this when I was a student, it would've been so helpful if I would've had a professor who would've pulled me to the side and to help me sort of manage the feelings that I was having around my initial sort of early poor performance. It's okay. Just don't let it be defining of who you are and what your potentiality is, and I think we don't have enough of that taking place in schools.

Shankar Vedantam: Kevin, we started this conversation talking about some of your own insecurities and self-doubts. When you are plagued by self-doubt, even today, you say that you have a go-to solution and it involves effort. Can you explain what you do maybe with a specific example?

Kevin Cokley: Yeah. Well, and I'll start off by going back to Michelle Obama. Michelle Obama says that what she does is essentially she works hard, she works harder.

Michelle Obama: So whenever I doubted myself, I just told myself let me put my head down and do the work and I would let my work speak for itself, and I still find that I do that.

Kevin Cokley: And I really identify with that because that has been the way that I try to address my feelings of imposterism. When I think about those early days of my being an assistant professor, I would work late in the evenings. I found myself working on the weekends because I needed to prove to people, and I think probably most importantly to myself, that I belong. And so I just... I worked incessantly. Now, I will say that hard work without having a way to sort of balance that with play is not necessarily a good thing, but what I will say is that hard work oftentimes can result in achieving accomplishments in ways that you would hope would help mitigate whatever feelings of imposterism you might be experiencing.

Shankar Vedantam: Do you still do that even today, Kevin? Is this your response when someone asks you to give a talk or you have to make a big presentation and you're plagued with self doubt? Do you respond to that by doubling down on the amount of time you're spending in preparation?

Kevin Cokley: There are elements of that. When Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, and I think it was really Pauline Clance, she talked about the imposter cycle and she talked about these two pathways that people take, the pathway of over preparedness and the pathway of procrastination, and I'm the person who goes through the pathway of over preparedness. And for me, what that means is, when I am giving a talk on the imposter phenomenon, a talk that I have given more times than I can count, I still prepare as though I have never given the talk before. And it's because I want to make sure that when I give the talk that people hear me and experience me as being an expert and leave no doubt in their mind that I know what I'm talking about. So yeah, there are still elements of that in me even today.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm struck by what you just said, Kevin, because when I listen to that clip of Viola Davis talk about feeling like an imposter, I didn't play the whole clip for you, she goes on to say something really interesting, which is she doesn't say woe is me, I have all these insecurities, feel sorry for me. She talks about how she uses her insecurities as a driver, as motivation.

Viola Davis: Anybody who even wants to be great has that, anybody, any filmmaker, any writer, any actor, but what it does on a healthy level, it keeps you humble and it keeps you working.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm hearing almost exactly what you said to me a second ago, Kevin, which is that in some ways not believing the good press about you turns out to actually be a powerful motivator for you to actually put your nose to the grindstone, if you will, and not take anything for granted.

Kevin Cokley: Viola Davis is so insightful. I mean, and she is absolutely correct. And I would say that what she has said definitely applies to me. I think humility is very important and if I ever got to the point where I lost my humility, I would be brought back to earth by my wife who is also an academic. She would quickly remind me of, "I knew you when". And I think that's necessary because I never want to get to the point where I have forgotten that I was that young assistant professor with one publication and full of self-doubts starting my career. I never want to forget that person because that person is still inside of me and it continues to fuel me and motivate me to being the best academic that I can be.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering in some ways, Kevin, whether this might be at least a partial solution to the paradox we identified in the first part of our conversation. We looked at how many brilliant people like Maya Angelou or Albert Einstein have been plagued by self-doubt. From the outside that looks bizarre, but is it possible that we actually have mixed up cause and effect? They are not plagued by self-doubt in spite of being great, their greatness is being driven, at least in part, by the fuel of self-doubt.

Kevin Cokley: No, I think you're right. I think that is very much a possibility that their self-doubt in part fuels their greatness. I think there's an argument to be made for that.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if it might be helpful almost for a moment to think about what would happen if we lived in a world without self-doubt. I'm thinking back to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Bush Administration said the invasion was necessary because Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction and at one press conference Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was told that the Iraqi government had denied possessing weapons of mass destruction. Let me play you a clip of that press conference.

Journalist: What do you make of the statement made by the Iraqi government yesterday that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction and is not developing any?

Donald Rumsfeld : They're lying. No, they have them, and they continue to develop them, and they've weaponized chemical weapons. We know that. They've had an active program to develop nuclear weapons. It's also clear that they are actively developing biological weapons.

Shankar Vedantam: So as we know, Kevin, Iraq did not possess those weapons and I'm wondering if you can talk a moment about what seems like this paradox, how is it that some of us are plagued with self doubt while others could use a little more self doubt?

Kevin Cokley: That is a very good question and it immediately sort of reminded me of the saying "pride falleth before the man," and I think about what happens when hubris gets in the way of our ability to make reasoned and reasonable sort of decisions. And I think that having a bit of self doubt could save us from really bad situations such as unnecessary wars, among other things. And so it certainly would've been nice if Rumsfeld had exhibited a bit more humility than his response indicated, but no, I mean, I like the way that you sort of connected that to real world implications. And to me, it does sort of go back to this idea of people not feeling so overly confident in themselves in ways that are unhelpful and are unhealthy. I can't say enough about how in my own life the need to be humble to even have feelings of self doubt have been helpful, because if I did not have those feelings of self doubt, then I think that that would one, make me probably an unbearable person and not very pleasant to be around, but it also has kept me, I think, hungry to continue to work hard to prove myself. And I think when you get to the point where you stop wanting to prove yourself, and when you're no longer hungry and motivated, I don't think that's a very good place to be.

Shankar Vedantam: So I feel we're in very deep waters here, Kevin. I mean, on the one hand we've seen how experiencing discrimination, being an outsider, this can increase the risk that you will experience the imposter phenomenon and that's clearly unfair. Feelings of self-doubt can cause people to drop out of school, cause them to quit professions that they would be great at. On the other hand, lots of people also turn their insecurity into a superpower, like yourself, and they use it as fuel. And a lack of self doubt, especially when you wield great power, can produce terrible harm. So I guess I'm left wondering, is self-doubt a bad thing or a good thing?

Kevin Cokley: Self-doubt can be a good thing when it is used as a source of motivation to achieve, to excel, but it could come at great cost to one's mental health and to one's physical health. And so the challenge then is to sort of figure out how to use one's self-doubt in ways that don't result in there being any sort of compromises to your mental health or physical health. And so the example that I sometimes share with people comes from African American psychology where we talk about the John Henryism hypothesis, and this comes from a folklore story of an individual named John Henry, who was a steel driver, who was essentially put in a situation where he was competing against a machine to perform. And the short version of the story is that he wanted to prove that he could outperform this machine. Well, he worked, and he worked, and he worked and he eventually did beat the machine. And so his achievement was quite high because he won, but it came at the cost of his life because he ended up dying from the exertion of effort that he gave. So we want to be careful that we don't achieve such incredible feats of accomplishment that also we result in harming our mental health and our physical health.

Shankar Vedantam: In your own life, Kevin, have you come to think of self-doubt as a friend or as an enemy?

Kevin Cokley: Oh my goodness, you ask really difficult questions. Self-doubt, I think for me, I would say probably has been more of a friend than an enemy for me. I do try to take care of myself. I work out, I try to be healthy, but I have certainly used self-doubt in ways as a constant source of motivation to make sure that I am not complacent. So I am aware of the things that I need to do to provide this sort of balance and that I continue to strive to be the best academic that I can be. So I think in my case, it has probably been more of a friend than an enemy.

Shankar Vedantam: Kevin Cokley is a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin. He's the author of The Myth of Black Anti-intellectualism: A True Psychology of African American Students. Kevin, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Kevin Cokley: Thank you for having me.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, Ryan Katz, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Our unsung hero this week is Juana Merlo. Juana is a graphic designer who created the Hidden Brain logo in 2015. When we recently launched our new podcast, My Unsung Hero, we knew we wanted to work with Juana again. She has an amazing eye as you will see when you take a look at the My Unsung Hero logo. More than anything, Juana cares deeply about what she does and that shows in her work. Thank you so much, Juana. If you like our work, please consider supporting it. You can do so by going to Again, that's support.hidden I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.


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