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Can Someone Be Both Authentic and Dishonest?

4 ways to be authentically dishonest, not brutally honest.

Key points

  • Honesty means truthfulness, whereas authenticity refers to accurately expressing one’s core values and inner qualities.
  • Research shows that authenticity sometimes requires deception.
  • What determines if deception is seen as authentic is whether it is internally driven and motivated by prosocial reasons.
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Does being authentic mean being honest all the time—sharing your true feelings and opinions, no matter what?

Should you tell your boss, for instance, that his cologne smells like gasoline? Tell your spouse that her brother’s business ideas are beyond terrible? Tell a friend’s child that her drawing of the family dog looks more like a strange table with eyes?

If yes, then answer these two questions: Does speaking in this way make you, one, feel more authentic, and two, seem more authentic to others?

A recent paper by Bailey and Iyengar, from Columbia University, attempts to answer these and related questions about the complex relationship between honesty and authenticity.

Honesty and Authenticity

Let's begin with a few definitions. An honest person is one who is sincere and truthful. An authentic person is one whose behavior reflects his or her deep feelings, core values, and inner qualities.

Therefore, authenticity includes more than the frank expression of what comes to mind. After all, an individual’s true self consists of many changing thoughts, feelings, and identities, some of which he or she may not be conscious of or understand.

In fact, it is even possible to be authentically dishonest, meaning to tell lies in a way that feels true to oneself. If so, how? There are four possibilities. These occur when:

  • Honesty threatens the needs of the individual (Example: An employee admitting to a minor mistake at work may get fired).
  • Self-deception makes honesty impossible (Example: A widower lying to himself that his wife’s death has not affected him cannot help but repeat the same lie to others).
  • Honesty jeopardizes one’s relationships (Example: A woman may worry that being honest with her husband about her erotic fantasies could damage the relationship).
  • Honesty poses a threat to another person’s well-being (Example: A person may fear that telling the partner of an abused victim her whereabouts can endanger the victim’s life).

The Challenges of Being Both Authentic and Honest

In general, authenticity requires:

  1. Awareness of one’s inner states.
  2. Truthful expression and communication of these states.

But, as noted above, we are not always honest with ourselves. In fact, self-deception is a major obstacle to becoming aware of inner states and communicating them to others.

For instance, we often try to hold on to unrealistically positive self-beliefs, which requires interpreting new information in ways that are biased in favor of making us feel good.

Some examples of unrealistically positive self-views are: “I am much better than the average person,” and, “My true self is better and more moral than other people’s true selves.”

Can People Even Tell When We're Being Authentic?

Since others don't have access to our inner states—only we do, and in a limited way—they cannot tell with certainty whether we are being authentic. Therefore, they rely on mental shortcuts and rules of thumb called heuristics.

Heuristics, in turn, are influenced by factors such as context. Specifically, context determines whether self-expression may be perceived as genuine or fake. Let us look at a few examples.

  • Cultural context: In China, describing one’s likes only is associated with being genuine, whereas in Germany this is true of describing both likes and dislikes.
  • Political context: A dishonest political leader is more likely to be seen as authentic by a voter if the two share a constituency and if the voter feels the political system is unlawful.
  • Personal ideology: Politically incorrect language is considered more authentic when it aligns with an observer’s own ideology and prejudices.

Coherence, Morality, and Authenticity

In order to make sense of the complex relationship between being truthful and genuine, we need to understand a few additional terms:

  • Other- and self-concept: These terms refer to the mental image of another person or oneself.
  • Coherence: Coherence means that an individual’s behavior makes sense, is predictable, and seems consistent with what we know about them.

We are more likely to feel authentic when our self-concept is coherent. Similarly, a strangers behavior appears genuine if our mental image of them is coherent.

Therefore, it is only when honesty boosts coherence that it predicts authenticity. Specifically, high authenticity results from a combination of both high honesty and high coherence.

Morality matters too. When dishonesty is perceived as moral (e.g., prosocial lies rather than hypocrisy), the resultant behavior seems more genuine.

In general, to be interpreted as authentic, deception must be motivated by benevolence, loyalty, or other prosocial personal values (e.g., protecting someone from harm). When this is the case, deception is seen as internally motivated and coherent with the person’s self-concept.

Concluding Thoughts

The famous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau apparently believed that to be authentic, one must be honest at all times—even brutally honest—and resist society’s restrictions and demands. However, there is more to authentic self-expression than challenging social norms through compulsive sincerity and unfiltered communication of every passing thought, feeling, urge, etc.

Society and its rules are not enemies of authenticity. In fact, authenticity is not only an individual but also a social construction. In other words, sociocultural context plays an important role in creating and shaping self-concept (e.g., through social comparison, and social validation).

Nor is deception the enemy of genuine self-expression. Deception can be authentic when internally driven and motivated by personal values (e.g., loyalty, compassion, kindness) and prosocial goals (e.g., protecting another person’s health and well-being).

In short, both honesty and dishonesty may be necessary for the pursuit of a genuine and coherent self. What matters the most is becoming more aware of our inner states and being true to ourselves.

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