Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 205–218 | Cite as

Rethinking the Imposter Phenomenon

  • Shanna SlankEmail author


The Imposter Phenomenon—i.e., the phenomenon of feeling like a fraud and like your successes aren’t really yours—is typically construed not just as a crisis of confidence, but as a failure of rationality. On the standard story, “imposters” have bad beliefs about their talents because they dismiss the evidence provided by their successes. Here I suggest that this standard picture could be mistaken, and that these “imposters” may actually be more rational (on average) than non-imposters. Why? Accounting for the non-talent causes of your successes may require you to lower your confidence in your talents, in which case, “imposter” beliefs are rational. I then go on to suggest a second reason to worry about the standard picture: It does not adequately address the possible role that one’s environment has in the production of the phenomenon. To give an example, I hypothesize that environments that host a “culture of genius” can alter our evidential landscape in a way that promotes the Imposter Phenomenon. Finally, I argue that my alternative picture of the Imposter Phenomenon should prompt us to opt for a conception of self-worth that is more deeply tied to virtues like intellectual humility than to relative talent possession.


Imposter phenomenon Imposter syndrome Culture of genius Self-worth Intellectual humility 



I’m grateful to Harry Brighouse, Gina Schouten, Russ Shafer-Landau, Michael Titelbaum, and audiences at the 2017 APA Pacific meeting and the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy’s 2017 “Values in Science” workshop for their helpful criticisms and suggestions. I owe special thanks to Erin Beeghly for her comments and conversation at the APA Pacific and to Reuben Stern for extensive discussion.


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Wisconsin-MadisonMadisonUSA

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