Mental & Emotional Health

Lack of Authenticity Is Harmful

If we’re not true to ourselves – i.e. if we don’t live in accordance with our values and our sense of self – we can suffer substantial consequences, researchers say.

“Our work shows that feeling inauthentic is not a fleeting or cursory phenomenon — it cuts to the very essence of what it means to be a moral person,” explains psychological scientist Maryam Kouchaki of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

The findings were published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

According to a release from the society, Kouchaki and colleagues Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School, speculated that inauthenticity may have similar psychological consequences as immoral behaviors, since both types of behaviors are a violation of being true, whether to others or oneself. As a result, the researchers theorized, inauthenticity should also produce feelings of moral distress and impurity.

Participants who wrote about a time they felt inauthentic in one online experiment reported feeling more out of touch with their true selves and more impure, dirty, or tainted than participants who wrote about a time when they felt authentic.

To ease our conscience, we may be tempted to wash these feelings of moral impurity away — almost literally, the news release said.

The researchers found that participants who wrote about inauthenticity were more likely to fill in missing letters to spell out cleansing-related words — for example, completing w ­_ _ h as “wash” instead of “wish” — than those who wrote about authenticity. The inauthentic participants also reported a greater desire to use cleansing-related products (but not other products) and engage in cleansing behaviors (but not other behaviors) than the authentic participants.

Additional data indicate that performing good deeds may be another strategy by which we try to shore up our tainted moral character: The researchers found that participants who were prompted to think about a time when they felt inauthentic were more likely to help the experimenter with an extra 15-minute survey than those who either thought about a time when they failed a test or what they had done the previous day. As the researchers hypothesized, participants’ helping behavior seemed to be driven by their feelings of impurity.

While the psychological consequences of inauthenticity are likely to emerge in various social situations, they may be especially relevant to people who find themselves constantly “performing” in the workplace, the researchers say.