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How to Tell if Someone Is Being Real or Fake

We judge others by very different standards than we do ourselves.

Key points

  • In general, people are not good at judging genuineness.
  • Impulsive actions—compared to self-controlled behaviors—are seen as more authentic, especially for others.
  • Furthermore, the more positive an action, the more likely it is evaluated as genuine.
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Should you study for the midterm or watch your favorite movie? Eat chocolate ice cream or have a superfood smoothie? Go for a walk or play a computer game?

The answer usually depends on whether you give in to impulses or can control yourself.

But which is more authentic: an action that is impulsive or one that reflects self-control?

Published recently in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, a series of investigations by Garrison et al. concluded that people perceive “impulsive actions as more authentic for others… but self-control as more authentic for themselves.”

The findings are discussed after an introductory section.

What does it mean to be authentic?

Authenticity means to be real—to be yourself.

It is associated with self-alignment, meaning guiding one’s behavior using immediate experiences and core self-knowledge—knowledge of internal states, preferences, desires, beliefs, goals, values, and so forth.

Authenticity has been linked with positive characteristics and outcomes such as autonomy, feeling empowered, success in achieving goals, leadership, psychological health, and well-being (e.g., positive emotions, high self-esteem, improved life satisfaction).

Yet, authenticity is difficult to identify.

For example, as one way to determine whether your new neighbor is being authentic or fake, you could pay attention to their impulsive actions (as reflecting short-term desires) or their controlled behavior (as reflecting long-term goals).

So, how do we decide which of the two behaviors is more authentic? To explore these questions further, I discuss the research by Garrison et al.

Investigating authenticity, self-control, and impulsivity

  • Study 1 a & b: N = 182; 156. Participants were instructed to read 11 vignettes and to imagine that they (or a hypothetical person) either behaved impulsively or exercised self-control. They were then asked to evaluate the authenticity of these behaviors.
  • Study 2: N = 350. Both target (self or other) and behavior type (impulse or control) were manipulated in the same experiment.
  • Study 3: N = 413. Two potential targets and behaviors were crossed with a “behavior positivity” manipulation. The goal was to determine whether the positivity of an impulsive or controlled action is why it is perceived as authentic.
  • Study 4: N = 372. This experiment aimed to remove potential valence confounds in the behaviors in the vignettes.
  • Internal meta-analysis: Behavior-target interactions across all studies (N = 1,473) were evaluated.

The relationship between authenticity, self-control, and impulsivity

In summary, four investigations evaluated the perceived authenticity of impulsive versus controlled behaviors in different scenarios.

Analysis of data showed that in scenarios where self-control was seen as the more positive behavior, self-control was perceived as more authentic than acting on impulse, and this difference was larger for the self (Studies 1 and 2).”

However, when “positivity of the behavior was rendered arguably irrelevant (Study 4) or statistically controlled (aggregate analysis), impulses were perceived as more authentic than controlled actions, especially for other people.”

So, the answer to whether an impulsive or controlled action is seen as more authentic depends on two factors:

  • Agent (self or other)
  • Valence (positive or negative)

Authenticity: Impulsivity or self-control?

As noted, the association between impulsiveness and authenticity is stronger for other people than it is for oneself. Why?

Perhaps because the assumption that impulsive actions reveal genuine desires provides a simple (but inaccurate) explanation for other people’s behavior. This is particularly the case with strangers—when we know little about their inner thoughts, feelings, desires, motivations, or social pressures shaping their behavior.

In addition, we may reason that compared to self-controlled behavior, thoughtless and impulsive actions are less likely to reflect an ulterior motive or hidden agenda.

At other times or in other situations, however, we may assume self-controlled individuals are behaving more authentically.

The reason is that self-controlled behaviors often reflect the pursuit of goals chosen based on core beliefs and personal values, not the impulsive satisfaction of passing wants or urges.

This applies, in particular, to self-controlled actions evaluated as positive, moral, socially desirable, or the “right thing” to do. For example, a doctor responds to an angry patient with compassion instead of hostility.


Authenticity means being true to oneself. It is one of three elements of self-connection—the other two being self-awareness and self-acceptance.

Being true to oneself has been linked to positive outcomes, including greater health, life satisfaction, and well-being. It is also key to building trust and credibility.

When does a person’s behavior seem authentic to us? The research reviewed shows that depending on a number of factors, the behavior appears genuine when:

  1. It is positive (sensible, moral)
  2. It seems impulsive (uncontrolled, unplanned)

Let me end by noting that although a person giving into impulses might appear more authentic to us, they may not subjectively feel more authentic. Quite the opposite.

For instance, if you momentarily lose self-control and hit your child, that loss of temper may appear to a stranger as revealing your true character. Yet, it would likely feel quite inauthentic to you, who regret the behavior and might respond to the stranger’s assumptions by saying, “This abusive person is not who I am at all.”

So, when we judge someone as fake or genuine, we need to make sure the evidence supports our conclusion.

Because we could be mistaken.

And whether they involve judging your new neighbor, offering someone a job, deciding to go on a second date, or trusting your therapist, mistakes can have serious consequences.

Facebook image: - Yuri A/Shutterstock

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