Exploring how imposter feelings relate to mental health and academic outcomes among minoritized students

Kevin Cokley, PhD, joins Michigan Minds to discuss his research in the area of African American psychology, with a focus on racial and ethnic identity development, academic motivation, and academic achievement. Cokley is a University Diversity and Social Transformation Professor of Psychology and the Associate Chair for Diversity Initiatives at the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

Kevin Cokley, PhD on Michigan Minds

In his recent work, Cokley examines the degree in which feeling like an imposter contributes to the relationship between perceived discrimination and mental health outcomes, in a sample of ethnic minority college students at an urban public university. 

“I was especially interested in examining this relationship amongst multiple groups of students, and minoritized students, because we know that all minoritized students are exposed to discrimination, but we wondered if they have the same sorts of experiences, or if the dynamics among perceived discrimination and mental health outcomes, if it’s the same across groups or if there’s some differences. That was really what was the motivation for doing the research.” 

Cokley says the study found that African American students reported higher rates of perceived discrimination—which is fairly consistent with other research that has been done in this area—although the study also found that there were no differences across the groups in reporting “imposter syndrome.”

One of the main focuses of a recent study, Impostor Feelings as a Moderator and Mediator of the Relationship Between Perceived Discrimination and Mental Health Among Racial/Ethnic Minority College Students, was to examine the extent to which perceived discrimination and impostorism predicted negative mental health outcomes for racially or ethnically minoritized students. Cokley notes that this work aimed to examine the degree to which both of these constructs contribute to the prediction of mental health outcomes.

“We conducted a study where we found that imposter feelings actually were stronger predictors of mental health outcomes, compared to perceived discrimination, or actually compared to minority status stress.”

Kevin Cokley, PhD

Cokley’s recent book, Making Black Lives Matter: Confronting Anti-Black Racism, explores the history and contemporary circumstances of anti-Black racism, offering powerful personal anecdotes and providing recommendations and solutions to challenging anti-Black racism in its various expressions. The book features chapters written by scholars, practitioners, activists and students, reflecting diverse perspectives from the Black community with writing styles that range from scholarly text to personal narratives highlighting lived experience. 

On the inspiration for the book, Cokely explains that he wanted it to be aimed at a broad audience, not just academia. He notes that it was important to involve many different kinds of people in order to provide a diverse set of voices and experiences. 

As we celebrate Black History Month in February, Cokley provides a brief reflection on the history of the observance, as well as its growth from the initial Black History Week. 

“It’s really an opportunity to just reflect and to celebrate all of those wonderful achievements that African Americans, that Black folks have made to this country, and they are many. We don’t often have an opportunity to really talk about, reflect on and celebrate those achievements, and Black History Month gives us an opportunity to do that.”

He emphasizes the importance of understanding that Black history is American history, and says that all informed and educated Americans should be familiar with not only Black history, but all groups that make up the American tapestry. 

“I hope that people take the time to educate themselves beyond what they might learn in schools. Because we know that, while what we learn in schools is certainly important, it’s limited, and that education never stops with formal schooling, but should be a lifelong process, and people should be committed to learning more about Black History Month, as well as the histories of other racial and ethnic groups.”