TL;DR What on Earth is going on in someone's head to invert a cognitive bias that is robustly observed in people who are psychologically healthy (Cohen's d = 1.28) and still present in depression (Cohen's d = 0.21)? I am looking to reconcile the self-serving bias with either the Imposter Syndrome or mental illness.

"Some people", as the familiar trope notes, “are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple.” While we are all familiar with individuals who are thoroughly unable to accurately attribute the true cause of their achievements, rarely do we ever consider the possibility that we too are guilty of the self-serving bias.

The self-serving bias appears to be both universal and robust. Moreover, an attenuated bias is associated with mental illness:

enter image description here

Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is 
There a Universal Positivity Bias in Attributions? A Meta-Analytic   
Review of Individual, Developmental, and Cultural Differences in the 
Self-Serving Attributional Bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130(5), 711–747. 

Others, on the other hand, seem to be afflicted with an attribution bias antipodal to the self-serving bias. These people seem to completely unable to internalise their achievements as truly their own, and appear to dismissively attribute their successes to external factors most people do for everyone but themselves -- the Imposter Syndrome.

Clance and Imes (1978) first characterised the Imposter Syndrome typology among their high-achieving female patients:

enter image description here

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high 
achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: 
Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006

So, how can we reconcile what seem to be two antipodal phenomena?

From a very cursory consideration of things, it seems that for individuals with the Imposter Syndrome, the self-serving bias is either greatly attenuated, or dare I say, inverted. For that to occur, we might presume two things:

  1. They have crushingly low self-efficacy and/or;
  2. They are processing information in an aberrant manner.

So, how does social, cognitive, or abnormal psychology reconcile the self-serving bias with the Imposter Syndrome? Is the Imposter Syndrome even a thing or simply a cognitive style that occurs among people with depression? If so, what are their similarities, and what are their departures? In other words, is the phenomenology of someone with severe depression effectively the same as someone with the Imposter Syndrome?

Where possible, please include references.


2 Answers 2


You might as well ask how comes there's depression (or low self-esteem in general) if everyone has self-serving bias. The answer is that the self-serving bias is reduced in depressed individuals; see Greenberg et al.(1992) or Alloy & Abramson (1979) for original investigations; the latter paper has some 2000+ citations in Google Scholar. Allan et al. (2007) do note that there have been some successes and some failures replicating the Alloy & Abramson experiments, so it's perhaps not a totally settled question. There's even a 2012 meta-analysis by Moore & Fresco; quoting its abstract:

The current investigation represents the first meta-analysis of the depressive realism literature. A search of this literature revealed 75 relevant studies representing 7305 participants from across the US and Canada, as well as from England, Spain, and Israel. Results generally indicated a small overall depressive realism effect (Cohen's d=-.07). Overall, however, both dysphoric/depressed individuals (d=.14) and nondysphoric/nondepressed individuals evidenced a substantial positive bias (d=.29), with this bias being larger in nondysphoric/nondepressed individuals. Examination of potential moderator variables indicated that studies lacking an objective standard of reality (d=-.15 versus -.03, for studies possessing such a standard) and that utilize self-report measures to measure symptoms of depression (d=.16 versus -.04, for studies which utilize structured interviews) were more likely to find depressive realism effects. Methodological paradigm was also found to influence whether results consistent with depressive realism were found (d's ranged from -.09 to .14).

When you study self-serving bias in the general population you might not get enough depressed subjects in your sample to notice the heterogeneity of self-serving bias, particularly since the difference doesn't seem big.

While I cannot give you any numbers on the change in self-serving bias in the impostor syndrome group relative to individuals unaffected by it (I could not find research on this specifically), I will point out some correlations between impostor syndrome and other psychometric measures linked to (depressive) psychopathology.

Bernard et al. (2010) looked at how impostor syndrome related to Big Five personality factors and found that Neuroticism correlated fairly well (0.52 or 0.47 depending on the impostor scale used; 0.52 on a combined measure) as did conscientiousness (-0.31 on both scales; -0.38 combined). In a hierarchical regression model:

In Regression 1, Neuroticism made a significant contribution accounting for 27% of the variance (p < .001), whereas Conscientiousness contributed just 3% (p < .01). When the order of entry was reversed in a second regression, Conscientiousness accounted for 15% in a first step (p < .001), but Neuroticism accounted for another 15% in a second step (p < .001). As expected, the other three NEO–PI–R domain scales did not contribute to the prediction of IP, accounting for less than 1% of the variance. In other words, unconfounded by Conscientiousness, Neuroticism explained 15% of the variance of IP scores, whereas Conscientiousness unconfounded by Neuroticism explained 3%; the overlapping variance explained by both traits was thus 12%. In short, Neuroticism is the best predictor of IP scores, but Conscientiousness adds to the model.

Sonnak and Towell (2001) found a strong correlation of impostor syndrome with low self-esteem (on the Rosenberg scale) as well as with poorer mental health on the GHQ-12, which is mainly a measure of depressive symptoms. Correlated with the CIPS imposter scale, these two measures had r = -0.67 (self-esteem) and 0.33 (GHQ) respectively.

  • $\begingroup$ TY, this is a thoughtful answer. in the original Mezulis et al. reference they report that the bias is -0.30 in japanese samples. if this is a matter of low self-esteem, then would you argue that the japanese culture is characterised by low SE/depression? unless this is your position, how would you account for this? also, are you essentially saying that the imposter syndrome is some glitchy trait that isn't a real phenomenon, and more like a depressive subtype? (i suspected that but wasn't sure) $\endgroup$
    – faustus
    Dec 30, 2017 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ @faustus: I'm not gonna venture any strong statement why the Japanese have less of this self-serving bias. You should probably ask this separately since it's a fairly interesting question. I suspect culture/education may play a role too. I'm also not saying that impostor syndrome is a depressive subtype. Correlation means that some with depression will also have this imporstor feeling, but not everyone having it is clinically depressed, which requires more symptoms than just feeling like an impostor in some circumstances. $\endgroup$ Dec 30, 2017 at 23:15
  • $\begingroup$ Although it's somewhat risky to make this comparison since it's based on different samples/studies, the correlation of impostor syndrome with Neuroticism was higher than with outright depression. Neuroticism itself is a decent predictor for depression but that also doesn't mean everyone with that personality trait is going to get depressed. $\endgroup$ Dec 30, 2017 at 23:17

is the phenomenology of someone with severe depression effectively the same as someone with the Imposter Syndrome?

Yes and no. Allow me to begin by stating that fundamentally, the two syndromes being compared in your question result from particular cultural and social pressures. It is revealing that Asians and Women, both fairly distinct cultural groups, reportedly score low on what really amounts to self-esteem. Low self-esteem, in turn tends to produce anxiety and depression, and is strongly associated with Imposter Syndrome.

Furthermore, ADHD people suffer similar social pressures which are again deleterious to their self-esteem. It is also common knowledge that psychopaths have severe issues with ego, which probably involves self-esteem. Psychopathy is strongly associated with high rates of suicide among otherwise physically healthy people, which could indicate serious self-hatred.


So it appears that particular external social pressures may unfortunately become internalized, causing precipitously low self-esteem, major depression, and intense anxiety. People with Imposter Syndrome have terrible problems with identity / ego. They rarely feel worthy or deserving of love or any other social rewards (such as career success). They barely even feel like human beings, because psychologically they have become so dehumanized somehow along the way.

Many people, for various self-serving reasons, are taught or conditioned by the general or dominant society to be extremely submissive, modest, humble, and -- selfless.

On the other hand, people with strong self-serving bias are people whose sense of self or ego has rarely ever been trifled with, or who have been resilient enough or resourceful enough, to resist subjugation by the dominant society. Their self-esteem is fully intact. They know who they are, and feel an unshakable sense of pride in that knowledge.

So in conclusion, the key to understanding the contrasting relationship between self-serving bias and Imposter Syndrome -- hinges on issues involving the development of Ego or Self. The problem is that some people identify themselves with failure, shame, and disappointment -- rather than with success and praise or pride. They do so, because they have somehow been made to feel emotionally subhuman.

And the reason some people are able to resist that sort of emotional abuse, oppression, or deficit (thereby preserving the Self, while keeping their self-esteem intact), while others cannot -- may be partly due to differences in intelligence. I have noticed that very intelligent people tend to be genuinely self-confident (even if they try to be modest about it), compared to people of average or lower intelligence. And bottom line: intelligence is a valuable resource for mental health.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ can you tell me -- am i correct in interpreting this to be an answer using a psychodynamics-based paradigm? $\endgroup$
    – faustus
    Dec 30, 2017 at 22:04
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you. My answer was not intentionally based on any established models or theories. I typically think and write in a flowing sort of habit. It's just a synthesis from my lifetime of independent study. $\endgroup$
    – Bread
    Dec 31, 2017 at 0:25

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