Darkest Before the Dawn: Bayesian Impostor Syndrome

Jan 12 JDN 2458860

At the time of writing, I have just returned from my second Allied Social Sciences Association Annual Meeting, the AEA’s annual conference (or AEA and friends, I suppose, since there several other, much smaller economics and finance associations are represented as well). This one was in San Diego, which made it considerably cheaper for me to attend than last year’s. Alas, next year’s conference will be in Chicago. At least flights to Chicago tend to be cheap because it’s a major hub.

My biggest accomplishment of the conference was getting some face-time and career advice from Colin Camerer, the Caltech economist who literally wrote the book on behavioral game theory. Otherwise I would call the conference successful, but not spectacular. Some of the talks were much better than others; I think I liked the one by Emmanuel Saez best, and I also really liked the one on procrastination by Matthew Gibson. I was mildly disappointed by Ben Bernanke’s keynote address; maybe I would have found it more compelling if I were more focused on macroeconomics.

But while sitting through one of the less-interesting seminars I had a clever little idea, which may help explain why Impostor Syndrome seems to occur so frequently even among highly competent, intelligent people. This post is going to be more technical than most, so be warned: Here There Be Bayes. If you fear yon algebra and wish to skip it, I have marked below a good place for you to jump back in.

Suppose there are two types of people, high talent H and low talent L. (In reality there is of course a wide range of talents, so I could assign a distribution over that range, but it would complicate the model without really changing the conclusions.) You don’t know which one you are; all you know is a prior probability h that you are high-talent. It doesn’t matter too much what h is, but for concreteness let’s say h = 0.50; you’ve got to be in the top 50% to be considered “high-talent”.

You are engaged in some sort of activity that comes with a high risk of failure. Many creative endeavors fit this pattern: Perhaps you are a musician looking for a producer, an actor looking for a gig, an author trying to secure an agent, or a scientist trying to publish in a journal. Or maybe you’re a high school student applying to college, or a unemployed worker submitting job applications.

If you are high-talent, you’re more likely to succeed—but still very likely to fail. And even low-talent people don’t always fail; sometimes you just get lucky. Let’s say the probability of success if you are high-talent is p, and if you are low-talent, the probability of success is q. The precise value depends on the domain; but perhaps p = 0.10 and q = 0.02.

Finally, let’s suppose you are highly rational, a good and proper Bayesian. You update all your probabilities based on your observations, precisely as you should.

How will you feel about your talent, after a series of failures?

More precisely, what posterior probability will you assign to being a high-talent individual, after a series of n+k attempts, of which k met with success and n met with failure?

Since failure is likely even if you are high-talent, you shouldn’t update your probability too much on a failurebut each failure should, in fact, lead to revising your probability downward.

Conversely, since success is rare, it should cause you to revise your probability upward—and, as will become important, your revisions upon success should be much larger than your revisions upon failure.

We begin as any good Bayesian does, with Bayes’ Law:

P[H|(~S)^n (S)^k] = P[(~S)^n (S)^k|H] P[H] / P[(~S)^n (S)^k]

In words, this reads: The posterior probability of being high-talent, given that you have observed k successes and n failures, is equal to the probability of observing such an outcome, given that you are high-talent, times the prior probability of being high-skill, divided by the prior probability of observing such an outcome.

We can compute the probabilities on the right-hand side using the binomial distribution:

P[H] = h

P[(~S)^n (S)^k|H] = (n+k C k) p^k (1-p)^n

P[(~S)^n (S)^k] = (n+k C k) p^k (1-p)^n h + (n+k C k) q^k (1-q)^n (1-h)

Plugging all this back in and canceling like terms yields:

P[H|(~S)^n (S)^k] = 1/(1 + [1-h/h] [q/p]^k [(1-q)/(1-p)]^n)

This turns out to be particularly convenient in log-odds form:

L[X] = ln [ P(X)/P(~X) ]

L[(~S)^n) (S)^k|H] = ln [h/(1-h)] + k ln [p/q] + n ln [(1-p)/(1-q)]

Since p > q, ln[p/q] is a positive number, while ln[(1-p)/(1-q)] is a negative number. This corresponds to the fact that you will increase your posterior when you observe a success (k increases by 1) and decrease your posterior when you observe a failure (n increases by 1).

But when p and q are small, it turns out that ln[p/q] is much larger in magnitude than ln[(1-p)/(1-q)]. For the numbers I gave above, p = 0.10 and q = 0.02, ln[p/q] = 1.609 while ln[(1-p)/(1-q)] = -0.085. You will therefore update substantially more upon a success than on a failure.

Yet successes are rare! This means that any given success will most likely be first preceded by a sequence of failures. This results in what I will call the darkest-before-dawn effect: Your opinion of your own talent will tend to be at its very worst in the moments just preceding a major success.

I’ve graphed the results of a few simulations illustrating this: On the X-axis is the number of overall attempts made thus far, and on the Y-axis is the posterior probability of being high-talent. The simulated individual undergoes randomized successes and failures with the probabilities I chose above.

Bayesian_Impostor_full

There are 10 simulations on that one graph, which may make it a bit confusing. So let’s focus in on two runs in particular, which turned out to be run 6 and run 10:

[If you skipped over the math, here’s a good place to come back. Welcome!]

Bayesian_Impostor_focus

Run 6 is a lucky little devil. They had an immediate success, followed by another success in their fourth attempt. As a result, they quickly update their posterior to conclude that they are almost certainly a high-talent individual, and even after a string of failures beyond that they never lose faith.

Run 10, on the other hand, probably has Impostor Syndrome. Failure after failure after failure slowly eroded their self-esteem, leading them to conclude that they are probably a low-talent individual. And then, suddenly, a miracle occurs: On their 20th attempt, at last they succeed, and their whole outlook changes; perhaps they are high-talent after all.

Note that all the simulations are of high-talent individuals. Run 6 and run 10 are equally competent. Ex ante, the probability of success for run 6 and run 10 was exactly the same. Moreover, both individuals are completely rational, in the sense that they are doing perfect Bayesian updating.

And yet, if you compare their self-evaluations after the 19th attempt, they could hardly look more different: Run 6 is 85% sure that they are high-talent, even though they’ve been in a slump for the last 13 attempts. Run 10, on the other hand, is 83% sure that they are low-talent, because they’ve never succeeded at all.

It is darkest just before the dawn: Run 10’s self-evaluation is at its very lowest right before they finally have a success, at which point their self-esteem surges upward, almost to baseline. With just one more success, their opinion of themselves would in fact converge to the same as Run 6’s.

This may explain, at least in part, why Impostor Syndrome is so common. When successes are few and far between—even for the very best and brightest—then a string of failures is the most likely outcome for almost everyone, and it can be difficult to tell whether you are so bright after all. Failure after failure will slowly erode your self-esteem (and should, in some sense; you’re being a good Bayesian!). You’ll observe a few lucky individuals who get their big break right away, and it will only reinforce your fear that you’re not cut out for this (whatever this is) after all.

Of course, this model is far too simple: People don’t just come in “talented” and “untalented” varieties, but have a wide range of skills that lie on a continuum. There are degrees of success and failure as well: You could get published in some obscure field journal hardly anybody reads, or in the top journal in your discipline. You could get into the University of Northwestern Ohio, or into Harvard. And people face different barriers to success that may have nothing to do with talent—perhaps why marginalized people such as women, racial minorities, LGBT people, and people with disabilities tend to have the highest rates of Impostor Syndrome. But I think the overall pattern is right: People feel like impostors when they’ve experienced a long string of failures, even when that is likely to occur for everyone.

What can be done with this information? Well, it leads me to three pieces of advice:

1. When success is rare, find other evidence. If truly “succeeding” (whatever that means in your case) is unlikely on any given attempt, don’t try to evaluate your own competence based on that extremely noisy signal. Instead, look for other sources of data: Do you seem to have the kinds of skills that people who succeed in your endeavors have—preferably based on the most objective measures you can find? Do others who know you or your work have a high opinion of your abilities and your potential? This, perhaps is the greatest mistake we make when falling prey to Impostor Syndrome: We imagine that we have somehow “fooled” people into thinking we are competent, rather than realizing that other people’s opinions of us are actually evidence that we are in fact competent. Use this evidence. Update your posterior on that.

2. Don’t over-update your posterior on failures—and don’t under-update on successes. Very few living humans (if any) are true and proper Bayesians. We use a variety of heuristics when judging probability, most notably the representative and availability heuristics. These will cause you to over-respond to failures, because this string of failures makes you “look like” the kind of person who would continue to fail (representative), and you can’t conjure to mind any clear examples of success (availability). Keeping this in mind, your update upon experiencing failure should be small, probably as small as you can make it. Conversely, when you do actually succeed, even in a small way, don’t dismiss it. Don’t look for reasons why it was just luck—it’s always luck, at least in part, for everyone. Try to update your self-evaluation more when you succeed, precisely because success is rare for everyone.

3. Don’t lose hope. The next one really could be your big break. While astronomically baffling (no, it’s darkest at midnight, in between dusk and dawn!), “it is always darkest before the dawn” really does apply here. You are likely to feel the worst about yourself at the very point where you are about to finally succeed. The lowest self-esteem you ever feel will be just before you finally achieve a major success. Of course, you can’t know if the next one will be it—or if it will take five, or ten, or twenty more tries. And yes, each new failure will hurt a little bit more, make you doubt yourself a little bit more. But if you are properly grounded by what others think of your talents, you can stand firm, until that one glorious day comes and you finally make it.

Now, if I could only manage to take my own advice….

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