Battling Imposter Syndrome By Understanding the Dunning Kruger Effect

The tech industry, and more specifically the web development niche, lives up to the Heraclitus quote: "the only thing that is constant is change."

New libraries, new versions of popular libraries, language updates, spec changes, and new techniques or strategies that may or may not stick. Not only do are they rapid fire, web developers must keep up while evaluating which make sense in their current projects.

That's our job right? Certainly. But just by taking a look the handbook created by Front End Masters: 2018 Front end Handbook - you can easily see why the vast amount of knowledge required to be considered competent can feel overwhelming!

Thankfully we have a great community full of resources, tutorials, and training workshops to help out; still, the battle of imposter syndrome rages on for many in the tech industry.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

From Wikipedia: "a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a "fraud"."

In other words, someone who actually knows their field and has earned achievements due to their knowledge still feel like they are a fraud. They feel they don't actually deserve the award, because soon enough people will realize they don't know what they are talking about. Instead, the achieving individuals believe that they've convinced others they are more intelligent then they are, or have been very lucky in their achievements.


The imposter syndrome "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."

They interviewed 150 high achieving women who had been recognized in their field by peers.

After the initial research was completed, the two doctors continued to study this syndrome, leading to the discovery of it not only affecting high-achieving women, but many others as well!

6 Dimensions

In 1985, a follow up paper published by Dr. Clance introduced these 6 dimensions to measure imposter syndrome (one must have two of the dimensions to be diagnosed)

  1. The impostor cycle
  2. The need to be special or the best
  3. Characteristics of Superman/Superwoman
  4. Fear of failure
  5. Denial of ability and discounting praise
  6. Feeling fear and guilt about success

The Wikipedia entry mentions Caroline Webb suggesting that imposter syndrome increases the trajectory of one's career, due to the motivation one gains from it.

I believe that even if this may be true, it DOESN'T mean we can accept this and move on. This serious syndrome can cause depression, anxiety, and overall unhappiness in someone's life, who by all accounts should be PROUD of the hard-work and accomplishments instead.

Before heading into how we can combat this syndrome, let's first dive into the Dunning Kruger Effect.

The Dunning Kruger Effect

Dunning and Kruger in 1999 conducted a study: Unskilled and Unaware of it: How difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.

The study found that those who are incompetent tend to overestimate their abilities, while those who are competent underestimate them.

WAIT WHAT? Read that sentence again!

Sounds paradoxical right?

The easiest example for me to wrap my head around it was grammar.

Comparing two individuals: one individual who isn't considered competent in a language's grammar and another who is. They read the same paper to grade for a student. Due to the lack of knowledge of the grammar, it would be much harder to find all grammatical errors, and at the same time difficult to know you can't.

What does that sentence actually mean? It means that without a competent understanding of the language you can't catch all of the grammar mistakes, your knowledge isn't there to do so. They don't know enough to even understand that they don't know!

The Dunning Kruger Effect comes into play because between the two individuals, the one who is incompetent will overstate their abilities to catch all the errors, while the other who understands just how many different types of grammatical errors there can be, will underestimate it.

For us web developers, it follows that the more we learn about how the browser event loop works, the way React actually finds the differences to render in the DOM, or even that moment Kyle Simpson proves to us lexical scope exists in JS, so it is indeed compiled before interpreted, and many other technical pieces we are responsible to know, it starts to feel like we actually can't keep up. It feels like the more we learn, the more we uncover how much more there is to learn.

Do you see how this can cause an imposter syndrome dimensions to creep up?

By understanding this effect in addition to being aware of imposter syndrome, we are one step closer to handling it properly! Positivity has became a topic of discussion in the Web Dev community, especially after Wes B and Scott T talked about it on Syntax!

SN - I've added this to my mental model dictionary.

Managing Imposter Syndrome

In general I believe the following are helpful with handling imposter syndrome while understanding the Dunning Kruger Effect:

  1. Make a list of your accomplishments (track them real time when something good happens) to review, with a description of the effort you took to obtain it (if needed)
  2. Stress-relief activities such as meditation, yoga, tai-chi, or exercise classes / rec sports
  3. Put it in perspective - my father used to tell me that everyone has different skills in their life. I always wanted to be able to sing, he told me others want to be able to play sports like I do, in other words we all have gifts - so make sure you appreciate yours :)
  4. Understand the bell curve - bell curves show that most of us are indeed average, so by learning a bit more each day - you gradually move yourself farther and farther to the right!

Outside of these three, I believe the most important part in preventing or battling imposter syndrome comes from focusing to be a life-long learner. Take some time to yourself each day to read on new developments in your field, train on a technology you haven't yet used, all in an effort to continuously grow.

The Dunning Kruger Effect shows that the more you know, the more you feel like you don't - accept and thrive from this. It means progress. It means growth. It means you still have areas to grow in! For most of us, especially for me in web development, that means my passion can continue as my peak has yet to come!

Thanks for reading!

Kaleb McKelvey

Source: Imposter Syndrome on Wikipedia