Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

To Thine Own Self Be True

By Brittany Christian, Janina Steinmetz


Consider a time when you stood up for something you believed in or acted in accordance with a deep-seeded personal belief. Chances are, reminiscing about such a time is likely to make you feel proud and secure in the person that you are. Being authentic, even when it is difficult, can make us feel good. Speaking and acting in ways that are aligned with our own beliefs, goals, and ideals, allows us to experience a deep sense of purpose and meaning. Inauthenticity, on the other hand, seems to be an obstacle to social connection and to the achievement of our own higher purpose. Being inauthentic or lying to others about who we are and how we feel is (in most cases) considered to be a violation of a broad social contract or moral code, and thus leads to feelings of impurity or immorality. But what about times when we are ‘merely’ lying to ourselves? For example, trying to convince yourself that you don’t want something just because you can’t have it or that you don’t care about something even though you do. If personal authenticity is conceptualized in a manner that is akin to social, relational authenticity, then acting in ways that are disingenuous may make us feel immoral in the same way as lying to or misrepresenting the truth to others.  

A recent paper published in Psychological Science by professors Francesca Gino, Mariam Kouchaki, and Adam Galinsky explored the idea that lying to ourselves would make us feel less pure and moral. In order to investigate this hypothesis, the authors asked participants to write about a time when they felt that they had been publically or privately authentic or a time when they felt that they had been publicly or privately inauthentic. Asking participants to consider episodes of behaviors that included or excluded another person (public vs. private conditions, respectively) allowed the researchers to distinguish between the feelings of impurity that follow lying to others vs. those that stem from lying to oneself.

Image ©: Yafut 2009

After writing about the experience they were asked to recall (i.e.., inauthentic public, inauthentic private, authentic public, authentic private), participants were asked to rate the extent to which the event they had written about made them feel moral (e.g., generous, cooperative, dependable, trustworthy, etc.) and the extent to which the event made them feel impure, dirty or tainted. What the authors found was that remembering times of inauthenticity, regardless of whether lying to oneself or lying to another, was associated with being a less moral human being and feeling more impure. That is, this study illustrated that judgments about our own morality are not simply about whether or not we violate a social contract, but can be generalized to inauthenticity more generally (i.e., lying to ourselves). The authors followed up on this initial study, showing that such moments of inauthentic behavior lead to a greater desire for ‘cleansing oneself’, an act associated with feeling immoral. What these results suggest is that the way we feel after lying to ourselves is akin to how we feel after lying to someone else. In order to achieve our most noble goals and purpose and to avoid the feeling of moral impurity, we have to not only be honest with others, but also true to ourselves.

The perceived moral violations that accompany inauthentic behavior are likely to have a variety of negative consequences beyond the immediate feelings of impurity identified here. Encouraging authenticity, however, may help to build an individual’s sense of morality and self-worth. Current work by NPP member Jenessa Shapiro seeks to capitalize on the benefits of authenticity. In particular, Shapiro has postulated that encouraging authenticity may help to alleviate the negative impact of stereotype threat (e.g., being reminded of one’s race or gender and associated negative stereotypes about performance) on individual’s personal and professional success. As such, Shapiro is currently investigating how an ‘authenticity intervention’ that helps others celebrate who they are and gives them opportunities to be ‘true to themselves’ may help students feel more accepted, perform better academically and ultimately enrich their lives with more purpose and meaning. Taken together, a growing body of work revealing the value of authenticity and the potential consequences of inauthenticity suggest that it is not only that ‘thou shall not lie to others’, but also, that ‘thou shall not lie to oneself’. 


Brittany Christian is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Janina Steinmetz is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Practical Tools for Purpose Purpose & Well-Being Purpose Across the Lifespan

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