Monday, 14 March 2016

We feel more authentic when we're with other people and we behave as they expect

You might think that being true to yourself means ignoring social pressure and finding your own path. But one of the most in-depth investigations into feelings of authenticity has found the complete opposite appears to be true. Writing in the European Journal of Personality, the researchers led by Alison Lenton at the University of Southampton said their findings show that "more often than not, situational acceptance of external influence is a positive and authentic course of action."

The researchers conducted two studies involving over 300 participants (aged 18 to 79) recruited via the University of Edinburgh community and research participation websites. Everyone began by completing a questionnaire about their trait levels of authenticity – that is, how true to themselves they generally feel. For the first study the participants then recalled 10 discrete episodes from the previous day, and reported what they were doing at each time, who they were with, and how they were feeling, including their levels of authenticity (tapped by the single measure "I acted in accordance with my values and beliefs"), of self-alienation ("I didn't know how I was really feeling inside") and their acceptance of external influence ("I did what others [present or not] expected me to do").

The second study was similar but the participants downloaded a smartphone app and for roughly a week responded to twice-daily alerts that asked them what they were doing and about their feelings, including which of their psychological and emotional needs were being met at the time.

The researchers found that feelings of authenticity varied more within individuals than between them – in other words, being true to ourselves appears to be influenced more by who we're with and what we're doing, rather than it being a strongly fixed trait. Another finding was that more intense feelings of authenticity correlated with being more open to external influence, and tended to be reported more often when in the company of other people, regardless of whether they were friends, family or coworkers.

In general, feeling authentic tended to go hand in hand with positive psychological emotions and feelings, including better mood, higher energy and the experience of "flow", whereas the opposite was true for self-alienation. However, self-alienation was not the mirror opposite of authenticity. For example, situations that participants said satisfied their needs for meaning and purpose correlated with more authenticity, but not less self-alienation. In fact, self-alienation, unlike authenticity, was rarely related to specific activities.

Looking further at the activities that tended to be accompanied by feelings of authenticity, these tended not only to involve other people, but also to be more active in nature, including religious activities, going to the theatre, a concert or museum and caring for others. More passive, solitary activities such as browsing the internet or watching TV tended to be associated with weaker feelings of authenticity.

A strength of the study was the way it probed people's feelings in everyday life, including using in-the-moment sampling of people's experiences. A limitation is the correlational nature of the findings, making it hard to know whether the measured factors were causally related and in which direction. For example, it's possible that we're more open to social pressures when we're feeling truer to ourselves, rather than social influence triggering authentic feelings. The researchers said their studies "offer a tremendous springboard for future research on the role of state authenticity in everyday life."


Lenton, A., Slabu, L., & Sedikides, C. (2016). State Authenticity in Everyday Life European Journal of Personality, 30 (1), 64-82 DOI: 10.1002/per.2033

--further reading--
Being true to yourself may protect against the harmful effects of loneliness
A preliminary psychology of "keeping it real"
Why it's a mistake to seek control of your life through solitude

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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