Authentic or Disingenuous?
Deciding whether someone is sincere
Posted Sep 19, 2017
You’re at a dinner party and Joe, whom you’ve never met before, tells the host that the main course is delicious. Your spouse whispers to you, “You think Joe really likes the food?” You respond affirmatively, but how confident are you that he meant what he said? Imagine instead that Joe said, “Sorry, but this tastes pretty bad.” How confident would you be that Joe disliked the food? If you are like most observers, you would be more confident that the Joe who said he disliked the food expressed a sincere sentiment than the Joe who complimented the cooking.
Whenever you are trying to assess the sincerity of another’s expression or action, you will be influenced by the social appropriateness of the behavior. The meaning of behavior that is congruent with prevailing norms is inherently more ambiguous than behavior that contradicts those norms. That’s because socially appropriate behavior has at least two possible meanings: It could be that it is sincere, but it also could be that the actor is saying or doing the “right thing” because it is the “right thing.” To be clear, I am not talking about whether the actor is being sincere (that cannot be known for sure), but about what observers are likely to believe.
When we are trying to make sense of what others have done we are typically focused on the act. Did the dinner guest really like the food? Did the man who said he really likes his date’s new dress mean it? But it is a small step from making sense of the act to making inferences about the actor, particularly when we have witnessed repeated acts. So, when someone time and again behaves in counter-normative ways we may decide that this person is authentic. We are quite vulnerable to being fooled. Someone can insincerely, but frequently, say outrageously inappropriate things, and we may be misled into believing he or she is authentic.
I am reminded of these principles of social perception almost every day, as President Trump says things that reasonable people, polite people, nice people wouldn’t say. While some of us react to his utterances by inferring that he is unhinged, others say “He tells it like it is.” They give him credit for being sincere or authentic. In a political world in which most players try hard not to offend and are therefore seen as having questionable sincerity, Trump’s purported authenticity, a positive quality, overshadows the negative content of his assertions. He is viewed as authentic because he flouts political correctness. In an important study conducted about 50 years ago, psychological research revealed that sincerity is the most attractive trait-adjective (of 555 that were tested) that can be applied to a person. People want to be seen as sincere.
I am not giving credit to Trump or his advisors for strategically planning his behavior, although perhaps I should. Whether it is intended to manipulate us into thinking he is authentic, it can have that effect. Thus, it is essential to keep in mind that there are other data that deserve consideration when assessing sincerity. These data fall into two categories. First, consistency is important. When Trump celebrates the “great” House plan for a replacement for the Affordable Care Act one day, and derogates it as mean-spirited the next, that provides a clue to his authenticity, as do contradictions of public statements he has made by private ones that then come to light.
The second criterion relevant to judgments of sincerity is the degree of correspondence between what someone says and the truth, or honesty. At times a person can make claims that are not in fact true, but the person genuinely believes they are true and the error is innocent. It is possible for a sincere person to be wrong. But other times it is unquestionably clear that a person is intentionally making a statement that is not true, that an assertion is a lie.
When Trump claimed that President Obama was not born in the United States or that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, those assertions were lies. In May the Washington Post reported that the frequency of Trump’s lies was off the charts—no public figure whose truthfulness the newspaper had ever checked came close to telling the number of lies Trump tells. He does it every day. Intentional or reckless misrepresentation of what’s true must disqualify anyone from authentic status, regardless of how counter-normative he often is.
Some attributions of authenticity are likely motivated. If you are positively disposed to Trump you may want to see him as authentic. Such judgments are not my emphasis. Rather I hope to illuminate psychological processes that operate more insidiously, processes of which we might not be fully cognizant, but that influence our understanding and impressions of people. It is a mistake to ignore consistency and truthfulness data and rely only or primarily on the contravening of norms when deciding if someone is sincere. If we are aware of our susceptibilities to being misled by considering only counter-normative behavior, we may be better able to self-correct and think critically about how our impressions are formed and how accurate they are.