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Matthew Hornsey: Supplied

Speaking on March 23 at TEDxUQ, Professor Matthew Hornsey encourages members of the audience to reflect on times when they have partially concealed or embellished their identity.

A professor in social psychology, specialising in group relations, the topic of his talk is “impostorism”.

“It probably hasn’t occurred to you,” he says, “to question that I am, in fact, an academic at The University of Queensland. We tend to trust these things implicitly.”

According to Professor Hornsey, the length of time impostors are able to masquerade undetected suggests a remarkable level of societal trust in the superficial.

Helen Darville, who attended UQ with Professor Hornsey, gained notoriety under the semi-pseudonym Helen Demidenko by writing a Miles Franklin Award winning novel purportedly drawn from her non-existent Ukrainian heritage.

Professor Hornsey, and, he assumes, hundreds of others, knew at the time that her parents were British, but the façade went unbroken for two years.

Billy Tipton, a renowned jazz pianist, married four times to unsuspecting wives, lived as a man and falsely claimed to have suffered an accident in her youth, explaining away the bandages wrapped around her chest.

That she was female wasn’t known until after her death.

Professor Hornsey calls this phenomenon “impostor blindness” and considers the tendency to be charmingly naïve in this age of hardened cynicism.

Once discovered, impostors are often cast heroically.

“They highlight the vanities, pretentions and prejudices of the society in which we live,” Professor Hornsey points out. “We do live in a world which is overly impressed by superficial characteristics like your title or your uniform.”

To exemplify this he tells the marvelous story of “The Captain of Köpenick”; a Berlin cobbler who found a Prussian guard uniform and fully exploited this opportunity.

The authority generated by the uniform inspired him to enter the local barracks and, acting as a captain, round up a squad of soldiers, take them by train to nearby Köpenick, arrest the town’s mayor and treasurer on trumped up charges and confiscate 4000 Marks.

Though imprisoned for this misdeed, the cobbler lives on in the history books as a German folk hero.

Professor Hornsey locates the elements of psychology that produce impostorism: seeking adventure, needing acceptance, avoiding persecution.

While these all have to do with some form of escapism, there are those who can’t escape the sense of impostorism itself this is impostor syndrome.

“Many of these people who suffer from the impostor syndrome are very successful, but they can’t internalise their success.”

“These people live lives constantly on the brink of a great shame,” Professor Hornsey says. “Your anxiety is that the world thinks you’re better than you know yourself to be.”

Much of the professor’s research focuses on the psychology of communication and social interaction.

After the event Professor Hornsey discussed what drew him to the field.

“There’s an old phrase about research being me-search; I feel like I was somebody who used to blunder into social situations.”

“I had this kind of naïve idea that, if the truth is on your side, you had a good argument and you communicated that argument clearly, then people would eventually come on side.”

He acknowledges that his research has affected the way he communicates: while once he would have wildly celebrated the talents of a friend suffering from impostor anxiety, he now advocates overtly lowering expectations.

“You don’t lay praise on these people, you just lower what they perceive your expectations are of them, which sounds counterintuitive and not terribly glamorous, but I think it does work.”

For Professor Hornsey, the importance of perception, rather than intention, is paramount  in interaction.

“I’ve realised you’re often not judged for the content of what you say but people’s assumptions about why you say it,” he says.

Professor Hornsey says a successful impostor is able to mold the perception of his/her identity into the preferred form, despite the identity being a fabrication.

However, studying impostorism provokes enquiry into whether certain components of any identity are fabricated and other parts are valid or whether it’s even possible to define identity within such a framework.

Professor Hornsey suggests that, due to identity’s inherent fluidity, there’s an element of the impostor in all of us and perhaps that’s why we find the practice of impostorism so intriguing.

“I think that we strive to have a coherent self and a fixed identity because it’s reassuring and it’s a narrative that we build around ourselves, but the reality of human psychology is that people’s sense of self slips and slides quite dramatically and quite quickly.

“I think that’s part of the reason for this struggle with impostorism; you feel your sense of self slipping, depending on who you’re talking to, depending on the impression that you want to make.”

Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported.

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  • Megan

    What really interest topic. It does get me wondering about how I go about my communication and how I desire to affect people around me.
    Nicely written

  • minh mcCloy

    Dan I am so impressed. Your interview was really good to watch and learn from and now you show me how to write up an interview with such clarity

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