American Trait May Explain Imposter Syndrome

American Trait May Explain Imposter Syndrome

By John Johnson,

Ask an American to rate their own competency at work, and it’s a safe bet you’ll get an answer that is, to put it delicately, inflated. Generally speaking, “superstars and underperformers alike tend to think they are better than they truly are,” writes social psychologist Shinobu Kitayama at Scientific American. That may sound like a common human trait but for one thing: Ask someone in Japan or anywhere in East Asia the same question, and they’re likely to rank themselves in the middle of the pack. Kitayama explores this split in an essay that draws on his own research into a field he calls cultural neuroscience. He argues that human brains are not hard-wired to inflate our self-worth; instead, we Americans do so because it’s been engrained into our culture.

Kitayama and his colleagues compared the brain waves of people in the West and the East upon learning that something positive has happened to them. Essentially, Western brains tend to light up with the good (if selfish) news—”the response is cultural, having formed through years of socialization”—while Eastern brains do not. Americans may inflate their worth almost as a matter of survival, but the flip side can result in what has come to be known as imposter syndrome, “the suspicion that one is not deserving of one’s achievements,” writes Kitayama. Not everyone in the West experiences these inflated “positive illusions,” and thus they feel even more inadequate when comparing themselves to their ultra-confident peers. “In other words, imposter syndrome may be the dark side of the societal norm toward positive selves.”

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