A new study has found that men and women with impostor syndrome cope with accountability and react to negative feedback in different ways.
If men who see themselves as impostors receive negative feedback and are held accountable for their performance by their superiors, they tend to react more negatively. Women subjected to similar conditions show no such deterioration in performance — on the contrary, they tend to redouble their efforts, said researchers at the Ludwing-Maximilians-Universitat Munchen (LMU) in Germany and Youngstown State University in Ohio.
Those suffering from impostor syndrome believe their success is undeserved and that others overestimate their competence. Previous studies have found that both men and women can display the characteristic symptoms of the syndrome, and that its victims tend to be found among those who have enjoyed outstanding levels of success.
For the new study, researchers began their research with an online questionnaire to identify individuals who felt like impostors. This was specifically targeted to university undergraduates, the researchers point out.
Among the possible responses to the queries in the survey were: “I rarely do a project or task as well as I’d like to do it,” or “Sometimes I’m afraid others will discover how much knowledge or ability I really lack.”
In a second questionnaire, participants were then asked to answer sample examination questions used to determine which undergraduates should be admitted to graduate school. These questions were administered in two separate batches.
After completing the first set of tasks, participants either received negative feedback — irrespective of their actual performance — or were (falsely) informed that their results would be made available to their current professor.
In this study design, male impostors overall performed worse in the second test than in the first, the researchers reported.
“The male participants were more distressed by criticism and tended to give up quicker,” said Professor Brooke Gazdag of the Institute for Leadership and Organization at LMU.
The female participants, on the other hand, put forth more effort and performed marginally better than their male counterparts after they received negative feedback or were told their results would be shown to their professors.
“Our study was exploratory in nature, but gender role theory can provide some insights into the findings,” Gazdag said. “This theory would suggest that male work performance is strongly focused on competence and performance, whereas women have a stronger tendency to view work from a relational standpoint.
“The fact that women try harder when they are aware that their performance will be assessed by someone they know therefore conforms to the female stereotype.”
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