|Keeping it real often means hanging out|
From Ancient Greek philosophy to humanistic psychology to modern day rap songs, there’s a long tradition of espousing the benefits of being true to yourself or “keeping it real”. Despite this interest, a new study by Alison Lenton and colleagues is one of the first to investigate what being true to oneself actually feels like, how often it happens and in what circumstances.
Lenton and her colleagues began by surveying 104 participants (average age 35; 66 women) on the Amazon Mechanical Turk (MT) website that pays people for completing tasks online. The participants said they experienced a state of authenticity one to two times per week, and experienced inauthenticity nearly every two months. They were strongly motivated (5.8 on a scale of 1 to 7) to be their true selves and similarly motivated to avoid inauthenticity (5.2 on the same scale). The state of being true to oneself was different from the personality trait of being a “genuine person” – people reported experiencing both authenticity and inauthenticity regardless of their personality.
Hundreds of people were also recruited to write about either a time they’d felt most true to themselves, or a time they felt like they were being fake. Experiences of self authenticity tended to involve fun, familiar places or people, close others, helping someone or being creative. They were also associated with “low arousal” positive emotions like contentment and calmness, and the fulfilment of personal needs, especially self-esteem, relatedness to others and autonomy. “I was with my girlfriend and three best friends and we stayed there [at the millpond in Cambridge] late drinking, chilling out, and talking about our lives and childhoods,” said one participant. “I was really happy at that moment in life and felt relaxed, honest, that nothing else mattered or would ever change.”
Episodes of inauthenticity, by contrast, were associated with difficult events, being evaluated by others, demonstrating a lack of social competence, feeling isolated, failing one’s own standards and feeling ill. The “signature” emotion of being phoney was anxiety, and there was a sense of failing to fulfil any personal needs. “The buildings were completely unrecognisable as were the people,” said one person of their first day at uni. “I felt as though I was alone and had lost my sense of self.“
One particularly intriguing finding – participants describing a time they’d felt authentic, as opposed to phoney, tended to say the experience overlapped far more with their ideal self. There’s an obvious contradiction here. If they were being themselves, how come they resembled their ideal self, which is likely to be influenced by social expectations? One possibility is that what we really mean by “be true to yourself” is “be the person you want to be”.
This recalls an intriguing study published in 2010, in which people reported feeling more authentic when they were behaving in an extraverted, agreeable and open-minded way, regardless of whether this matched their own personality. Behaving this way usually means certain needs are being met, including closeness with others and being competent. Another possibility, then, is that by “keeping it real” we really mean – satisfy the basic human desire to connect with others and be a creative, good person.
Lenton, A., Bruder, M., Slabu, L., & Sedikides, C. (2013). How Does “Being Real” Feel? The Experience of State Authenticity. Journal of Personality, 81 (3), 276-289 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2012.00805.x