Published: 06/10/2005 Volume 115 No. 5976 Page 32

New research on the impostor syndrome, conducted by psychologists Shamala Kumar and Carolyn Jagacinski at Purdue University in the US, confirms something that psychologists had long suspected: that women are significantly more likely to suffer from it than men.

The term refers to a common psychological predicament originally coined in the 1970s as women began to penetrate the higher echelons of corporations, to describe frequent feelings of fraudulence.

Many women, despite doing well in their careers and appearing impressive to the observer, doubted that their achievements were a result of their ability. Instead they attributed their success to non-ability factors such as luck or extreme hard work.

This is in marked contrast to the more male strategy of over-assuming all success in their lives is down to their personal skills. This pattern of assumptions may explain the generally greater confidence, indeed arrogance, of men, despite a lack of objective evidence of superior talent to women.

Impostor syndrome sufferers fear it is only a matter of time before others will discover that they truly lack ability. The implications are enormous in terms of well-being and confidence.

Kumar and Jagacinski found that women were much less confident in the level of their basic intelligence and consequently much more anxious when they found themselves in situations where feedback on performance was likely. One reason for the deep fear of failure, according to this research, is that sufferers over-generalise the implications of a single failure.

Kumar and Jagacinski's study, soon to be published in the prestigious academic journal Personality and Individual Differences, suggests a change in strategy for those women - and men - who endure imposter syndrome. This is to grasp that taking on difficult tasks, whether you succeed or not, leads to personal growth.

True confidence is not about how you feel after a success, but how you respond to a failure - in not letting it convince you that all previous success must have been a fraud.

Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at South London and Maudsley trust and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry.