Current Psychology

, Volume 38, Issue 3, pp 749–755 | Cite as

Examining the Impostor Phenomenon in Relation to Self-Esteem Level and Self-Esteem Instability

  • Nick SchubertEmail author
  • Anne Bowker


The impostor phenomenon involves feelings of intellectual self-doubt that often occur to people in challenging new roles or in the wake of personal success. Many previous studies appear to have understated the relationship between the impostor phenomenon and self-esteem, and have included only measures of self-esteem level in their designs. In the present study, the impostor phenomenon was examined in relation to both self-esteem level and self-esteem instability. Three-hundred and four undergraduates completed the Clance Impostor Phenomenon Scale, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale and a measure of self-rated instability. A subsample was also assessed for statistical instability (n = 38). The impostor phenomenon was negatively correlated with self-esteem level (r = −.62) and positively correlated with self-reported (r = .32) and statistical (r = .57) instability (all ps < .001). A multiple regression model predicting the impostor phenomenon with self-esteem level and self-rated instability revealed a negative main effect of self-esteem level and a significant 2-way interaction. Simple slopes analysis revealed that the negative effect of self-esteem level was weaker among participants with unstable self-esteem, compared to those with stable self-esteem. Results emphasize the critical involvement of self-esteem problems in the impostor phenomenon, indicating that people with low self-esteem are especially vulnerable to impostor feelings, and that people with unstable high self-esteem are more vulnerable to such feelings than are those with stable high self-esteem.


Impostor phenomenon Perceived fraudulence Self-esteem Self-esteem instability Self-esteem fragility 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

Nick Schubert declares he has no conflict of interest regarding the publication of this article.

Anne Bowker declares she has no conflict of interest regarding the publication of this article.

Human Participants

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.


  1. Aiken, L., & West, S. (1991). Multiple Regression: Testing and interpreting interactions. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  2. Arena, D., & Page, N. (1992). The imposter phenomenon in the clinical nurse specialist role. Image--the Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 24(2), 121–125. doi: 10.1111/j.1547-5069.1992.tb00236.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  3. Bernard, N. S., Dollinger, S. J., & Ramaniah, N. V. (2002). Applying the big five personality factors to the impostor phenemenon. Journal of Personality Assessment, 78(2), 321–333. doi: 10.1207/S15327752JPA7802.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Bernat, E. (2008). Towards a pedagogy of empowerment: The case of “impostor syndrome” among pre-service non-native speaker teachers in TESO. ELTED, 11, 1–8.Google Scholar
  5. Blascovich, J., & Tomaska, J. (1991). Measures of self-esteem. In J. Robinson, P. Shaver, & L. Wrightsman (Eds.), Measures of personality and social psychological attitudes (pp. 115–160). San Diego: Academic Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Borton, J. L. S., Crimmins, A. E., Ashby, R. S., & Ruddiman, J. F. (2012). How do individuals with fragile high self-esteem cope with intrusive thoughts following ego threat? Self and Identity, 11(1), 16–35. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2010.500935.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brown, J., Collins, R., & Schmidt, G. (1988). Self-esteem and direct versus indirect forms of self-enhancement. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55(3), 445–453. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.55.3.445.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Caselman, T. D., Self, P. A., & Self, A. L. (2006). Adolescent attributes contributing to the imposter phenomenon. Journal of Adolescence, 29(3), 395–405. doi: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2005.07.003.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Castro, D., Jones, R., & Mirsalimi, H. (2010). Parentification and the impostor phenomenon: An empirical investigation. American Journal of Family Therapy, 3. doi: 10.1080/01926180490425676.
  10. Chrisman, S., Pieper, W., Clance, P., Holland, C., & Glickauf-Hughes, C. (1995). Validation of the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 65(3), 456–467. doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa6503_6.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Clance, P. (1985). When success makes you feel like a fake. Atlanta: Peachtree Publishers.Google Scholar
  12. Clance, P., & Imes, S. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 1–8. doi: 10.1037/h0086006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Clance, P., & O’Toole, M. A. (1988). The imposter phenomenon: An internal barrier to empowerment and achievement. Women and Therapy, 6(3), 51–64. doi: 10.1300/J015V06N03_05.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Clark, M., Vardeman, K., & Barba, S. (2014). Perceived inadequacy: A study of the imposter phenomenon among college and research librarians. College & Research Libraries, 75(3), 255–271. doi: 10.5860/crl12-423.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Cowman, S., & Ferrari, J. (2002). “Am I for real?” Predicting impostor tendencies from self-handicapping and affective components. Social Behaviour and Personality, 30(2), 119–126. doi: 10.2224/sbp.2002.30.2.119.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dudau, D. (2014). The relation between perfectionism and impostor phenomenon. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences, 127, 129–133. doi: 10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.03.226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Franck, E., Vanderhasselt, M., Goubert, L., Loeys, T., Temmerman, M., & De Raedt, R. (2016). The role of self-esteem instability in the development of postnatal depression: A prospective study testing a diathesis-stress account. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 50, 15–22. doi: 10.1016/j.jbtep.2015.04.010.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Fried-Buchalter, S. (1997). Fear of success, fear of failure, and the imposter phenomenon among male and female marketing managers. Sex Roles, 37(11), 847–859. doi: 10.1007/BF02936343.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Harvey, J. (1981). The impostor phenomenon and achievements: A failure to internalize success. Temple University.Google Scholar
  20. Hepper, E., Gramzow, R., & Sedikides, C. (2010). Individual differences in self-enhancement and self-protection strategies: An integrative analysis. Journal of Personality, 78(2), 781–814. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00633.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Holmes, S., Kertay, L., Adamson, L., Holland, C., & Clance, P. (1993). Measuring the impostor phenomenon: a comparison of Clance’s IP Scale and Harvey's I-P Scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 60(1), 48–59. doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa6001_3.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Kernis, M. (2005). Measuring self-esteem in context: The importance of stability of self-esteem in psychological functioning. Journal of Personality, 73(6), 1569–1605. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2005.00359.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Kernis, M., Grannemann, B. D., & Barclay, L. C. (1989). Stability and level of self-esteem as predictors of anger arousal and hostility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56(6), 1013–1022. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.56.6.1013.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  24. Kernis, M., Grannemann, B. D., & Barclay, L. C. (1992). Stability of self-esteem: assessment, correlates, and excuse making. Journal of Personality, 60(3), 621–644. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.1992.tb00923.x.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Kernis, M., Cornell, D., Sun, C., Berry, A., & Harlow, T. (1993). There’s more to self-esteem than whether it is high or low: The importance of stability of self-esteem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 65(6), 1190–1204. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.65.6.1190.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  26. Kernis, M., Paradise, A. W., Whitaker, D. J., Wheatman, S. R., & Goldman, B. N. (2000). Master of one’s psychological domain? Not likely if one's self-esteem is unstable. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 26(10), 1297–1305. doi: 10.1177/0146167200262010.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. King, J. E., & Cooley, E. L. (1995). Achievement orientation and the impostor phenomenon among college students. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 20(3), 304–312. doi: 10.1006/ceps.1995.1019.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kolligan, J., & Sternberg, R. (1991). Perceived fraudulence in young adults: Is there an “impostor syndrome?”. Journal of Personality Assessment, 56(2), 308–326. doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa5602_10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kumar, S., & Jagacinski, C. M. (2006). Imposters have goals too: The imposter phenomenon and its relationship to achievement goal theory. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(1), 147–157. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.05.014.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Langford, J., & Clance, P. R. (1993). The impostor phenomenon : Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy, 30(3), 495–501. doi: 10.1037/0033-3204.30.3.495.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lindeman, D., Britton, D., & Zundi, E. (2016). “I don’t know why they make it so hard here”: Institutional factors and undergraduate women’s STEM participation. International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology, 8(2), 221–241.Google Scholar
  32. Lupien, S. P., Seery, M. D., & Almonte, J. L. (2012). Unstable high self-esteem and the eliciting conditions of self-doubt. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(3), 762–765. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2012.01.009.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Mattie, C., Gietzen, J., Davis, S., & Prata, J. (2008). The imposter phenomenon: Self-assessment and competency to perform as a physician assistant in the United States. The Journal of Physician Assistant Education, 19(1), 5–12.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Neureiter, M., & Traut-Mattausch, E. (2016). An inner barrier to career development: Preconditions of the impostor phenomen on and consequences for career development. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00048.
  35. Newman, L. S., & Wadas, R. F. (1997). When stakes are higher: Self-esteem instability and self-handicapping. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, 12(1), 217–232.Google Scholar
  36. Noser, A., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2014). Self-Esteem Instability and the Desire for Fame. Self and Identity, 13, 701–713. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2014.927394.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Okada, R. (2010). A meta-analytic review of the relation between self-esteem level and self-esteem instability. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(2), 243–246. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2009.10.012.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Pedhazur, E., & Schmelkin, L. (1991). Measurement, design, and analysis: An integrated approach. Hilldale: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  39. Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-image. Princeton: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Ross, S. R., & Krukowski, R. A. (2003). The imposter phenomenon and maladaptive personality: Type and trait charactersitics. Personality and Individual Differences, 34(3), 477–484. doi: 10.1016/S0191-8869(02)00067-3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Simmons, D. (2016). Impostor syndrome, a reparative history. Engaging Science, Technology, and Society, 2, 106–127. doi: 10.17351/ests2016.33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Sinclair, S., Blais, M., Gansler, D., Sandberg, E., Bistis, K., & Locicero, A. (2010). Psychometric properties of the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale: Overall and across demographic groups living within the United States. Evaluation & the Health Professions, 33(1), 56–80. doi: 10.1177/0163278709356187.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Sonnack, C., & Towell, T. (2001). The impostor phenomenon in British university students: Relationships between self-esteem, mental health, parental rearing style and socioeconomic status. Personality and Individual Differences, 31(6), 863–874. doi: 10.1016/S0191-8869(00)00184-7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Thompson, T., Davis, H., & Davidson, J. (1998). Attributional and affective responses of impostors to academic success and failure outcomes. Personality and Individual Differences, 25, 381–396. doi: 10.1016/S0191-8869(98)00065-8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Topping, M. (1983). The Impostor Phenomenon: A Study of Its Construct and Incidence in University Faculty Members. University of South Florida.Google Scholar
  46. Topping, M., & Kimmel, E. (1985). The imposter phenomenon: Feeling phony. Academic Psychology Bulletin, 7(2), 213–226.Google Scholar
  47. Want, J., & Kleitman, S. (2006). Imposter phenomenon and self-handicapping: Links with parenting styles and self-confidence. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(5), 961–971. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2005.10.005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Webster, G. D., Kirkpatrick, L. a., Nezlek, J. B., Smith, C. V., & Paddock, E. L. (2007). Different slopes for different folks: Self-esteem instability and gender as moderators of the relationship between self-esteem and attitudinal aggression. Self and Identity, 6(1), 74–94. doi: 10.1080/15298860600920488.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Zeigler-Hill, V., Chadha, S., & Osterman, L. (2008). Psychological defense and self-esteem instability: Is defense style associated with unstable self-esteem? Journal of Research in Personality, 42(2), 348–364. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2007.06.002.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Zeigler-Hill, V., Enjaian, B., Holden, C. J., & Southard, A. C. (2014). Using self-esteem instability to disentangle the connection between self-esteem level and perceived aggression. Journal of Research in Personality, 49(1), 47–51. doi: 10.1016/j.jrp.2014.01.003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Zeigler-Hill, V., Holden, C., Enjaian, B., Southard, A., Besser, A., Li, H., & Zhang, Q. (2015). Self-esteem instability and personality: The connections between feelings of self-worth and the big five dimensions of personality. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(2), 183–198. doi: 10.1177/0146167214559719.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyCarleton UniversityOttawaCanada

Personalised recommendations