Do you think you are closer to your “true self” today than in the past? If so, is this a work in progress? Will the you of the future be even more authentic than you are today?
A pair of US psychologists recently put these kind of questions to over 250 volunteers across two studies, to find out if there is a general pattern in the way that we think about the development of our true selves.
Reporting their findings in Self and Identity, Elizabeth Seto and Rebecca Schlegel found there is a tendency for us to see ourselves as becoming progressively more authentic through life. “If these reflections are at all reflective of how people feel in real time,” they concluded, “it is possible that people believe they will be the closest they have ever been to who they really are when they reach the end of their lifetime.”
Seto and Schlegel started out by looking at the near past, present and future. They gave 125 students (mostly 18 to 19-year-olds) a definition of the true self:
Your TRUE SELF is made up of the characteristics, roles, or attributes that define who you really are – even if those characteristics are different than how you sometimes act in your daily life.
Then they asked the students to indicate how much overlap there was between their true self and their self when they graduated high school, their self today, and their self as they will be at the end of the current semester. There was a clear trend for the students to see themselves as currently closer to their true self than they were in the past, and for this closeness to their true self to increase further in the future.
In a follow-up study, the researchers asked 134 participants recruited online (a wider age range this time of 19 to 67) to divide their entire lives – past, present and future – into chapters, to write a description for each chapter, and to rate how close their self in each chapter was to their “true self”.
Again, there was a clear trend for people to see their authenticity as having increased through time, and to expect it to progress further in the future (although there was a tapering effect, so that the largest increases in authenticity were seen in the near past, and in the near future).
Seto and Schlegel said this pattern of findings is consistent with what would be expected based on the psychology of self-enhancement: this is usual our motivation – well-established by prior research – to see our current selves in a positive light, including by derogating our past selves. Most of us also tend to be unrealistically optimistic, thinking that we and life will only get better in the future. Consistent with this, the participants ratings for their happiness and meaning for each life chapter showed a similar rising trend across the lifespan. Also, higher participant self-esteem correlated with expecting to increase more in authenticity over time.
In contrast, the findings generally didn’t tie in with what Harvard psychologists termed the “End of History Illusion” five years ago, based on their finding that most of us think we’ve changed a lot in the past, but that we don’t expect to keep changing so much in the future.
Unfortunately what the new findings can’t do is answer what the researchers admit is “the most interesting question” – how people’s sense of authenticity really does vary through life. The new results suggest that overall people – at least in American culture – think they’ve become progressively more “real”, and they expect this to continue. But to see if that’s really true we’d need a longitudinal study to take repeated measures of the same people’s feelings of authenticity over time. Stay tuned: we’ll let you know if and when such a study is done.