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Do We Have "True Selves"?

Research suggests reputational concerns determine whether we feel authentic.

Key points

  • The "true self" is an ideal that guides our behavior.
  • Behaving in an extraverted manner is associated with feelings of authenticity, even for introverts.
  • People often conceal their accomplishments in order to get along with others.
Flickr/Miguel Lotz
Source: Flickr/Miguel Lotz

What does it mean to be authentic?

In his popular interview with Joe Rogan, the bestselling author David Goggins revealed his biggest fear.

Goggins had a terrible childhood, grew up to be morbidly obese, and experienced a lot of hardship in his early adult life. Then he became a Navy SEAL, ultra-marathon runner, and renowned motivational speaker.

Goggins stated that his biggest fear was dying and God (or whoever God assigns this task to) shows him a board with a list of accomplishments: physically fit, Navy SEAL, pull-up record holder, inspirational speaker who helps others, etc. Goggins imagines saying “that’s not me.” And God responds, “that’s who you were supposed to be.”

What Is Authenticity?

The renowned psychologist Roy Baumeister has written a fascinating academic paper about the "true self" and authenticity. He suggests that the feeling of authenticity comes from whether we are acting in line with the reputation we want.

In other words, people feel most in line with their true selves when they achieve their desired social image. Failure at achieving it, or losing it, will feel less authentic.

When caught doing something they’re ashamed of, people say things like, “That’s not who I am” or “That wasn’t really me.”

They’re implying that reputation-damaging acts are not reflective of their true self. This doesn’t mean they are lying. Most people really believe their shameful acts are not reflective of who they are deep down.

Baumeister writes, “If the main purpose of the self is to integrate the animal body into the social system (so it can survive and reproduce), then cultivating a good reputation is a paramount concern, and when one succeeds, even momentarily, there will be a welcome feeling of ‘that’s me!’”

He means whatever action we take that maintains or enhances our reputation will give us a little boost of happiness. We then associate this feeling with authenticity.

As evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller has noted, behaviors do not arise just because they happen to feel good. Feeling good evolved to motivate the behavior, which likely has some evolutionary payoff. The good feeling is there to get us to do more of that beneficial behavior.

Baumeister writes, “One of the most irksome findings for authenticity researchers was that American research participants, including introverts, generally reported feeling more authentic when acting extraverted than introverted. America is an extraverted society, but still, it is disturbing that even introverts felt more authentic when acting extraverted.”

Indeed, research shows people report feeling greater authenticity when they behaved in an extraverted, conscientious, emotionally stable, and intellectual manner. Regardless of their actual personality traits.

Put differently, people tend to feel more authentic when they are doing things society values, rather than following their own innermost desires.

Intriguingly, other studies suggest that feelings of authenticity and well-being are higher when people go along with external influences rather than resisting them. Going along with others was also associated with having more energy and higher self-esteem.

You might think that the true self would be most apparent when people are defying social influences. But people feel more true to themselves when they go along with social influences.

So is our true self just a sheep that goes along with whatever people around us are doing?

The "True Self" Does Not Exist

Baumeister suggests that the true self isn’t a real thing. It’s an idea and an ideal.

The true self is how we fondly imagine we could be. When we act in accordance with that ideal, then we think “that’s who I am.” When we stray from it, we think “that’s not me.”

A related idea has been discussed by the psychologist and relationship researcher Eli Finkel. He talks about the Michelangelo phenomenon. “In Michelangelo’s mind,” Finkel writes, “the David existed within the rock before sculpting began.”

The idea is that in healthy marriages, each person identifies their partner’s best self, and they help one another become that best self.

But Baumeister’s idea is that we have our own vision of our best self (which we believe is our true self) and feel more authentic when we act closer to that ideal.

What people think of as their true self is the version of themselves that holds a good reputation. The idealized self that makes a positive impression on peers they respect. When they inch closer to that ideal, they will feel good. And report feeling authentic.

Near the end of the article, Baumeister writes, “people report feeling authentic mainly when acting in socially desirable, good ways, as opposed to, say, being consistent with their actual nature, warts and all.”

This idea helps to resolve another puzzle in social life.

In a paper titled "Sacrificing status for social harmony: Concealing high-status identities from one’s peers," researchers found that individuals often hide their impressive achievements from others in order to get along with the group.

The researchers write, “while concealing high-status identity sacrifices both status and authenticity, individuals deem concealment worthwhile because it minimizes threats to the self, others, and belonging.”

People will often share similarities they have with others. But will withhold information that reveals they hold especially high status.

The researchers suggest people do this to minimize interpersonal threat. To smooth social relations with others.

Which is odd. You might think that people would want to:

  1. Disclose status-enhancing details about themselves
  2. Be authentic by sharing honest information

But another way to look at their withholding of information is that people prioritize getting along with others. People are guided by their ideal self. The self that is well-liked by others. So they try not to brag too much about their accomplishments.

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