I came across the term Imposter Syndrome and Dunning-Kruger Effect quite by accident. I was so focussed on how to understand the psychology of a philantrophist who hold leadership roles and why and what makes them tick to donate soon that I came across the Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Krugger effect. Both these are psychological phenomena’s that only recently were discovered in the late 1990s.

The Imposter Syndrome relates to personalities who despite all they have done, still believe that their success is not deserved or has not been legitimately achieved as a result of their own efforts or skills. Thus, a person can continue to show a certain behavior simply because they think it is not enough. Although this behavior is referred to as a syndrome, it is not a disease or abnormality. It is not about showing traits of humility or being modest. It is all about a private doubt about themselves. The term importer syndrome was earlier referred to as imposter phenomenon and was introduced in 1978 in the article "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes. At its core, the imposter syndrome occurs in situations where ones belief in their knowledge, skills, and abilities is generally lower than what the people around them see. One is registered as an imposter if they think their abilities don't match the abilities of the rest of the group. 

Albert Einstein apparently did fall in this category and often referred to himself as an involuntary swindler by stating he didn’t deserve that much of attention as he had received.

Interestingly research has shown that there is a relationship between the impostor syndrome and the following factors:

·       Family expectations

·       Overprotective parent(s) or legal guardian(s) 

·       Graduate-level coursework

·       Racial identities

·       Attribution style

·       Anxiety

·       Depression

·       Low trait self-esteem

·       Perfectionism

·       Excessive self-monitoring, with an emphasis on self-worth

One way to overcome this syndrome is to just talk about it.  There is a general feeling that if the person does ask about their performance their fears will be confirmed which is why having mentors or advisors can remove those feelings. Just talking about their experiences and being frank about it can overcome these feelings by building their confidence.

Now, the opposite of the Imposter Syndrome is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. This is a false belief where the person tends to over-estimate their ability. In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. This effect is not about their ego which blinds oneself from one’s own weaknesses, it is all about inaccurate self perceptions. Research has demonstrated that because they are unskilled or not knowledgable they cannot see their own faults which is why they tend to overestimate themselves. However when they are competent, they do not perceive how unusual their abilities are, thus offering a lower rating of themselves.

The psychological phenomenon of illusory superiority was identified as a form of cognitive bias in Kruger and Dunning's 1999 study, "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". The identification was derived from evidence in the criminal case of McArthur Wheeler, who robbed banks while his face was covered with lemon juice, which he believed would make it invisible to the surveillance cameras. This belief was based on his misunderstanding of the chemical properties of lemon juice as an invisable ink.   

Other investigations of the syndrome, such as "Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence" (2003), indicate that much incorrect self-assessment of competence derives from the person's own ignorance of a given activity's standards of performance. Dunning and Kruger's research also indicated that training in a task, such as solving a logic puzzle, increases the person’s ability to accurately evaluate how good they are at it. 

So, if there are leaders who over-estimate themselves because they are suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect then what will this do to the organisation and the moral of the staff. Firstly, one of the ways to overcome this effect is to offer feedback even if it is hard for the person to hear and secondly, the person has to keep learning and developing themselves otherwise they will fall into the trap of thinking they are competent when they are actually not.


I think it is becoming more and more necessary for organisations to have their leaders who hold significant positions that impact people and planet to go through a mental health medical examination and be monitored regularly. I cannot fanthom what kind of consequence and challenges an organisation or staff will bear should their leader suffer from a psychological phenomena that is not treated. 



  1. Clance, Pauline R.; Imes, Suzanne A. (Fall 1978). "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" (PDF). Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice. 15 (3): 241–247. 

  2. Sakulku, J.; Alexander, J. (2011). "The Impostor Phenomenon". International Journal of Behavioral Science. 6: 73–92. 

  3. Hoang, Queena (January 2013). "The Impostor Phenomenon: Overcoming Internalized Barriers and Recognizing Achievements". The Vermont Connection. 34, Article 6.

  4. Royse Roskowki, Jane C. (2010). "Impostor Phenomenon and Counselling Self-Efficacy: The Impact of Impostor Feelings". Ball State University.

  5. Kruger, JustinDunning, David (1999). "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 77 (6): 1121–1134.

  6. David Dunning (2011). "The Dunning–Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One's Own Ignorance". 44. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology: 247–296.

  7. David Dunning og Erik G. Helzer (2014). "Beyond the Correlation Coefficient in Studies of Self-Assessment Accuracy: Commentary on Zell & Krizan (2014)". Perspectives on Psychological Science. 9 (2): 126–130.

  8. "Why losers have delusions of grandeur". New York Post. 23 May 2010. Retrieved 19 March 2014.


This article was written based on the author’s own research from notable references cited as well as his views. Let us take this opportunity to address and not forget Mental Health is a serious matter. Thursday, 10 October, 2019 was declared as International Mental Health Day.


It is intended that the reader receives benefit from understanding the authors perspective associated with The Imposter Syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger Effect and is now able to form an argument for or against the notion if the author does add value to the nonprofit management and boards thinking in todays’ context. 


Dr. Sudeep Mohandas is the Co-Founder/Managing Director of I First International (