Significant Results

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Will the Real Internet Profile Please Stand Up?

The concept of "authority" has been tarnished in the digital age.

I recently came across a profile on Linkedin—the social networking site for professionals—that suggested that this particular individual was a speaker of wide international experience. His profile read, in summary, “Speaker with international experience ranging from the United States to the Middle East.” Impressive. A statement suggestive of the possibility that this person has presented in any number of countries; and not just the North American and European countries either! He has presented in the exotic lands of the Middle East! The problem is, I happen to know personally that this speaker has only ever spoken in two countries: the United States and the United Arab Emirates. That’s a long way from the globe-trotter he resembles on paper. As far as untruth goes this is definitely of the small “white lies” variety. It is, technically, true but still suffers from the trouble of being misleading. The greater offense is that it is intentionally misleading; intended as it is to drum up business and boost his apparent credentials. The greatest offense of all is that this type of self-inflation has become standard practice on the internet.

To be fair, some of these self-enhancement practices existed even before the digital age. It was not uncommon, even before the advent of the digital age, to see law firms advertise 180 years of experience (summing up the collective years of practice of all of its partners) or to see plumbers make the audacious claim “the best in town!” In fact, the impulse to come across well in front of others is natural. Psychologists from Abraham Maslow to Richard Ryan To Roy Baumeister have emphasized the importance of social connection as a primary motivator for human behavior. We are, after all, primates—and therefore are social creatures. Simply put, we want to belong, and we all-- myself included—often try to put our best face forward to achieve this goal.

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Where people get into trouble, in my opinion, is not when they try to fit in but when they try to establish authority. Authority is one of six areas that researcher Robert Cialdini’s has identified as being vital to persuasion. People are likely to listen to an authority. This is one reason why toothpaste advertisements remind us that dentists endorse a particular brand. In the current information age, however, authority has suffered some bleed. In the old days a person was an authority if they were a leader in their field: a professional sports team coach with an established winning record, an academic with a string of peer-reviewed and published research, a doctor within a specialty area at a large hospital. These days, by contrast, people can claim authority more easily because information is far more accessible than it was in the past. You no longer need to be within the Ivory Tower to brush up against the latest research. Just can read any 10 books on happiness and then hang out a shingle as an expert. You no longer have to be a retired government official or CEO to get onto the speaking circuit; instead, simply be a contestant on a reality show or have a widely read blog and you are a legitimate public figure. You are, in essence, an authority.

The problem is that there are fewer checks on honesty and integrity than ever before. No one is going to review your life-coaching web site and make certain that you are representing yourself accurately. You might say that you have “two degrees in psychology, a Master’s and a PhD” even though standard practice is to list only the highest degree and, furthermore, it is widely assumed that the higher degree subsumes the lower one. You might say you have an “international clientele” because one of your clients happens to be Canadian instead of American. You might refer to yourself as an “expert" because you feel like you know a lot about a topic. Opportunities for inauthenticity abound.

This is why authenticity is a solution to the problem. What if you said “I have led trainings in Mexico, England and Australia” rather than “I regularly lead trainings on three continents”? You might fear that by coming clean you will lose your competitive advantage. I would argue just the opposite. By revealing who you really are you will be able to better distinguish yourself from the competitive market. Harvard business professor Youngme Moon, in her exceptional book Different, makes this same case. She argues that many big business success stories come from the willingness to be different. Ikea, for example, takes full ownership of the fact that they are a furniture store that does not assemble or deliver furniture (standard practices for the industry). They don’t spend a lot of time trying to spin this, as in “At Ikea, we partner with you for furniture delivery.” They are simply up front, “You buy it; you take it home.” Adam Grant, professor at Wharton School of Business and author of the recent best-seller Give and Take, makes a similar point. He argues that givers, people who are focused on others and on what they can contribute, are the most successful. In an era in which it is tempting to put on a “stage face” try giving of yourself; authenticity is one of the most refreshing currencies in the digital age becuase it-- not expertise-- is what sets people apart.

Robert Biswas-Diener is a happiness researcher and adventurer.

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