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The Q&A: Kevin Cokley

In this week's Q&A, we interview Kevin Cokley, a professor in the the Department of Educational Psychology as well as the Department of African and African American Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kevin Cokley is a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology as well as the Department of African and African Ame…

With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:

Kevin Cokley is a professor in the the Department of Educational Psychology as well as the Department of African and African American Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Cokley studies a variety of issues related to racial identity and academic achievement, specifically examining the success of African American high school students. He is currently studying how the imposter phenomenon impacts ethnic minority students. 

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Trib+Edu: What is the imposter phenomenon? Is it something that is formally diagnosed as a psychological issue, is it a behavior problem? Basically, what is it and how can we understand it? 

Kevin Cokley: There is not a formal diagnosis of it as you would see with various other illnesses. Essentially, the imposter phenomenon is the internalized feeling that, people who have otherwise proven themselves to be very competent and capable, an internalized feeling that one is an intellectual fraud. That, in spite of how successful one has been, how competent one has shown themselves to be, that the individual is fooling people and one is not nearly as competent or as smart or as accomplished as you might appear to be. So it’s basically like you feel like you’re wearing a mask and you’re fooling people.

Trib+Edu: I know your research focuses primarily on minority students, but more generally speaking, are there certain students from certain age groups or ethnic groups or maybe socio-economic backgrounds that are affected more by this?

Cokley: Interestingly, this imposter phenomenon was first written about actually out of a clinical, mental health context. It was a situation where a psychologist in Atlanta, Ga., Pauline Clance, was working with very successful women and, as I understand it, mostly white women. But even with women who were very successful in all sectors of life, business and education, etc., she found in her work with them individually that these women harbored these anxieties and were stressed out about themselves even if they were accomplished.

She saw it so frequently that she ended up doing group therapy with them so she could get them together so they could see that they were not alone in their feelings. So she then started to write about this. So when I came across this literature, I was really very fascinated by it and I immediately thought that it could be applied to the experiences of students of color, especially in predominately white settings. So that’s how I came into the research.

So back to your question, I think it’s something that can happen to all students and given that my research is on students of color and African American students of color in particular, I was especially interested in trying to apply that to those students. 

Trib+Edu: Could you talk to me about how you actually can measure something like this and study something like this? 

Cokley: She actually created a scale, the Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale. It’s been validated in the literature, there’s been some research on it and I have actually used that scale in my own research. I’ve used it with very diverse groups of students. So I published using that scale and its ability to predict symptoms of depression and anxiety. I’ve also most recently used it to predict GPA among males and females. There is a scale and I think there is a pretty good scale. 

Interestingly, even though this research has been around — she first wrote about this maybe 26 years ago – there hasn’t been as much research on it as you might imagine and certainly in terms of students of color there has been relatively little research. This is why I’m really excited about how to better understand this phenomenon among students of color. 

Trib+Edu: One thing you mentioned was looking at students of color specifically in schools that are predominately white. Have you had any findings on that? Does it affect it and make it a more or less frequent occurrence? 

Cokley: We’re still in the beginning stages. That’s what we’re really trying to find out. We’ve published a couple of studies, the first was with students from UT and we had a pretty diverse sample of over 100 African American students, over 100 Latino students, over 100 Asian American students. And we were really interested in examining this phenomenon amongst that group of students.

Interestingly, we found that of those three groups of students, contrary to what we were hypothesizing, it was actually Asian American students who were highest in feeling like an imposter. My research team had assumed that, because of stereotypes associated with African American students and Latino students, we assumed that they would be the ones who have higher imposter feelings. It was in fact the Asian American students who had the higher feelings and who also, as you find in the literature, often had higher GPAs. It was interesting trying to make sense of those findings and to explain it. 

Of course in that same study we also found that African American students reported the highest amount of perceived discrimination, which is probably not surprising. It was a very interesting study but in all cases, with all groups of students, we did find that imposter feelings were significant predictors of increased anxiety and depression. 

Trib+Edu: You mention studying these college-aged kids, the woman who spearheaded this was studying adult women. Does it show itself differently depending on how old somebody is? Can a kindergartener experience something like this?

Cokley: That’s a good question. I don’t know that I have an answer for it. I don’t think that it has been examined with kindergarteners for example. My sense is that it would probably be more developmental in terms of when you would start to see it become more pronounced.

But that’s a research question. The great thing is that there is so much more room to learn about this phenomenon and to ask these types of questions. So it’s pretty exciting. In my department, the educational psychology department, as students are learning more about this phenomenon, they are becoming more and more interested in examining it in their own dissertations and research projects. 

Trib+Edu: One thing I’m also interested in hearing about, even if you just have a hypothesis, is how this phenomenon affects children’s academic performance? 

Cokley: The imposter phenomenon has been examined almost exclusively with adults and emerging adults. There is almost no research as far as I’m aware that looks at it in children.

Trib+Edu: Well what about more generally then, how does it affect an individual's performance at the task in which they feel they are an imposter?

Cokley: Here’s the interesting thing about that. Some of our research has shown that the imposter phenomenon is actually, at least conditionally, linked to achievement. In our most recent study, we found that to be the case for women. There is sort of a paradox there because when you look at their mental health outcomes, then clearly it's more cost fulfilling or related to increased feelings and levels of anxiety and depression, but can actually be related to increased performance in the class.

Because if you feel like you are an imposter, then you are likely going to work even harder to prove yourself not to be an imposter … It’s really interesting. I think our challenges, as researchers and as people who work with students, is to try to find a good balance — how do you sort of work with people who feel like the imposters and help them to not have sort of negative outcomes while at the same time helping them to do well in school? It's just an area ripe for further research. 

Trib+Edu: Is there a way, I don’t know if treatment is the right word, but is there a way to address this issue if someone is experiencing it?

Cokley: I just gave a talk at Harvard University last week and that was one of the questions that came up. One of the ways that you can, I guess treat it, if you will, is you get students together in settings — either in a formal, clinical therapeutic session like group counseling, or it can be informal student networks or support group or whatever — where students can talk about feeling this way and really normalize that.

What happens is that students often times are pretty isolated in terms of their feelings and not realizing that they are not the only students who feel this way. So being put in a situation where they can actually hear other people, you know, struggle around these feelings and having that be facilitated by a professional. That was one of the things I recommended … there should be a professional who can help guide and facilitate the processing of those feelings surrounding feeling like an imposter. So, to me, that would be a pretty effective means of adjusting it. 

The other suggestion that I gave, and this is really more for people who are like therapists, who work with individuals. It’s to assign homework, having students record every single time they have something positive about them said and just sort of keep track during the course of a day, during the course of a week, so they can review them periodically and they can sort of see that they in fact are seen and experienced as being competent and smart and intelligent. If they don’t pay attention to that, they may discount all the times that they receive positive messages. So paying more attention to that and actually noting when you are receiving positive messages about your competency.

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