Everyone wants to be authentic. You want to be true to yourself, not a slavish follower of social expectations. You want to “live your best life,” pursuing your particular desires, rather than falling in line with whatever everyone else thinks happiness requires. Studies have even shown that feelings of authenticity can go hand in hand with numerous psychological and social benefits: higher self-esteem, greater well-being, better romantic relationships and enhanced work performance.
But authenticity is a slippery thing. Although most people would define authenticity as acting in accordance with your idiosyncratic set of values and qualities, research has shown that people feel most authentic when they conform to a particular set of socially approved qualities, such as being extroverted, emotionally stable, conscientious, intellectual and agreeable.
This is the paradox of authenticity: In order to reap the many of the benefits of feeling authentic, you may have to betray your true nature.
From a psychological science standpoint, a person is considered authentic if she meets certain criteria. Authentic people have considerable self-knowledge and are motivated to learn more about themselves. They are equally interested in understanding their strengths and weaknesses, and they are willing to honestly reflect on feedback regardless of whether it is flattering or unflattering.
Most important, authentic people behave in line with their unique values and qualities even if those idiosyncrasies may conflict with social conventions or other external influences. For example, introverted people are being authentic when they are quiet at a dinner party even if social convention dictates that guests should generate conversation.
But a number of studies have shown that people’s feelings of authenticity are often shaped by something other than their loyalty to their unique qualities. Paradoxically, feelings of authenticity seem to be related to a kind of social conformity.
In these studies, people are first asked to characterize the qualities that reflect their true self. Afterwards, they complete assessments—daily or once a week over a period of multiple weeks—about the extent to which their behavior reflected their qualities and the extent to which they felt authentic. We would expect that people feel most authentic on days where their behavior closely matches their unique pattern of values and qualities.
Consider two people who differ in the degree to which they avoid quarreling with other people. Let’s say that Jane is agreeable, and John is antagonistic. On a day where each quarrels with someone, Jane would be expected to report feeling less authentic than John because she has engaged in a behavior that is inconsistent with her idiosyncratic qualities.
Instead, research finds that people report feeling most authentic when their behavior confirms to a specific pattern of qualities: namely, when they are extroverted, emotionally stable, conscientious, intellectual and agreeable. That is, we feel most authentic when we act like a cross between the perfect party guest and the perfect co-worker. Therefore, despite their personality differences, research suggests that both Jane and John would report feeling inauthentic on a day where they quarrel with someone.
In our lab and other labs that study authenticity, we tend to study people from countries where parenting practices and institutions play a role in reinforcing behaviors that are socially outgoing, even-keeled, dependable, competent and pleasant to others.
Research has shown that we view people as less than fully human when they fail to conform to societal conventions. For example, people with soiled clothes do not conform to societal conventions surrounding hygiene, and they tend to be treated as less than completely human.
So, when it comes time to actually make a judgment about our own authenticity, we may use criteria that are closer to how we judge the authenticity of an object such as food. A passion fruit tiramisu may be unique, but the authenticity of tiramisu is judged by its conformity to a conventional recipe. Similarly, it appears that the more we conform to social conventions about how a person should act, the more authentic we feel.
We want to believe that authenticity will bring us benefits. It’s not surprising that businesses such as Microsoft, BlueCross BlueShield, and Gap have worked with consultants to leverage authenticity in the workplace. However, until we learn more about whether being authentic reaps the same benefits as feeling authentic, we are left with a tough decision between loyalty to our true selves and conformity to social convention.