Academics and other high-achievers are familiar with "imposter syndrome": the conviction that one doesn't really deserve to be where one is (and sooner or later will be found out). A lot has been written about this phenomenon and its problems--and occasionally its unexpected upsides. Imposter syndrome may keep someone from fully recognizing her own strengths, acting authoritatively, or taking risks. On the other hand, it can sometimes act as a spur to excellence (inspiring her to become the person others believe she already is) or serve as a healthy check on arrogance.
I'm interested, though, in the more vicious sibling of imposter syndrome, which I call "pardoner syndrome." A long time ago, I had a professor whose reading of Chaucer's Pardoner stuck with me. The Pardoner, of course, is the guy who sells pardons--years off your time in purgatory--and other weird miracles associated with the religious relics he carries around with him. In the course of his prologue and tale, Chaucer's Pardoner tells all the other pilgrims what a stupendous charlatan he is and how he goes from town to town, fooling the rubes with his fake relics (pigs' bones instead of saints' bones; a magic mitten) and sermons that prick their guilty consciences until they fill his purse with gold.
It's a mesmerizing performance. Then, at the end of it all, the Pardoner invites his fellow pilgrims to come up and buy his pardons and kiss his relics. The outraged Host tells the Pardoner he's gonna make him kiss his relics (if you know what I mean!), and is only barely prevented from beating the Pardoner up.
A question readers often ask is, why the fuck does the Pardoner do this? Why, after letting his audience in on all his tricks, does he then treat them like just another bunch of dupes?
My Chaucer professor argued that the Pardoner is in the theological condition of despair--he knows the way to salvation but believes he's too wicked for God to forgive--and that although he's contemptuous of his listeners, his whole performance is one of self-loathing. On some level, he wants his audience to see through him. If he can fool them, great: he'll feel briefly superior and briefly better about himself (and he'll keep raking in the cash). But what he's actually looking for is someone to thrash his ass.
I'm not a Chaucerian so I don't know if this is an eccentric reading or a common one, but it strikes me as having real psychological truth behind it. If it's not what Chaucer intended with his character, it's still a recognizable phenomenon in the world. If an imposter complex involves, let's say, believing that you were an admissions mistake at your fancy college and fearing being found out, a pardoner complex involves repressing the full knowledge of that fear and transforming it into arrogance. So maybe you half-ass all your schoolwork and act like a dick to your peers and professors, as if daring them to call your bluff and fail you (as you secretly believe you deserve).
The pardoner is someone who half buys his own bullshit--and who desperately needs for others to buy it--but who's just barely holding things together. Rather than doing something to help compensate for his anxieties and insecurities, he decompensates by underpreparing, being a jerk, picking fights, as if to force his own worst outcome. We talk about criminals who "want" to get caught, for example, or certain emotionally abusive partners whose own self-loathing means they're both desperate for love and contemptuous of anyone who thinks they deserve it.
I'm not sure I've ever seen pardoner syndrome in action in the workplace, though I'm sure it exists. Actual frauds and con men are probably more often sociopaths than victims of pardoner syndrome (and from the outside it can be hard to tell the difference between pardoner syndrome and blazingly clueless overconfidence), but there must be people who, for example, go up for a promotion with an embarrassing lack of credentials, or give a major presentation before a client while woefully underprepared, who fall into the category of half-seeking their own comeuppance.