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Are Authentic People More Self-Interested?

People living authentically are less-likely to respond aggressively

Is it a good idea to encourage authenticity in people or is it a road to self interest?

Authenticity has its roots in humanistic psychology and the work of scholars such as Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers. For them, authenticity consists in nature‑fulfillment, that is when we are playing to our innate strengths, following our intrinsic interests, and being self-determined.

For humanistic psychologists, human nature is seen as essentially social and constructive, so the more authentic we are, by definition we will be more compassionate, accepting and altruistic. Authenticity will not lead to selfishness but rather the opposite as we become more caring and giving.

So encouraging authenticity is a good thing, but only if you hold to these humanistic ideas.

Of course, if you don’t see it that way, then the whole notion of authenticity is to be challenged.

And you wouldn’t be on your own. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, also had a very pessimistic view of human nature. For Freud, humans were lustful murderous savages if they followed their natural instincts, and it was only through civilization that we learned to keep checks and balances on our destructive nature. To a Freudian, therefore, it would seem ridiculous to advocate authenticity.

Inevitably, critics of the notion of authenticity have a Freudian view of human nature.

In the end it comes down to your view of human nature.

Psychologists who believe humans are inherently destructive and asocial promote forms of psychological treatments and interventions that are controlling and try to restrict and direct the behavior of others.

Humanistic psychologists, because of their beliefs about human nature, advocate forms of psychology that are empowering and free the person to move in their own direction. For that reason, humanistic psychologists think that leading an authentic life is one of the most important things a person can do.

But what does the evidence say? Well, there is little evidence yet but one study is suggestive that authentic people do live more harmoniously with others and are not solely driven by self-interest.

In 2012 Diana Pinto at the University of Leicester asked participants to engage in a computer task in the laboratory. All they had to do was press a button in relation to a message that appeared on the screen. If they pressed a certain button in the time allocated, they earned points that they could exchange for money. The twist was that they were told that they were playing against another person in an adjoining laboratory who could steal points from them. The task was designed to mirror real-life situations where people might sometimes take credit for others’ hard work.

The experiment was, in fact, rigged so that participants were not actually playing against another person – the idea being that by thinking that someone else was stealing points from them, the participants would feel cheated and be provoked to play the game aggressively. To test for aggression, they were told that they could steal points from their opponent next door if they wished.

What the researchers found was that players who scored high on authenticity were actually less likely to respond aggressively. They continued to do their best to earn points for themselves rather than turning their attention to getting their own back – they were less punitive towards others. It was people who scored low on authenticity who were more likely to behave aggressively despite this being at some personal cost – by behaving aggressively, participants lost even more of their own points.[i]

This is a fascinating avenue for new researchers to examine the relationship between authenticity and measures of altruistic and social behaviors.

Find out more in my new book Authentic. How to be yourself and why it matters

[i] Pinto, D.G., Maltby, J., Wood, A.M. and Day, L. (2012), ‘A behavioural test of Horney’s

linkage between authenticity and aggression: People living authentically are less-likely to

respond aggressively in unfair situations’, Personality and Individual Differences, 52 (1), 41–4

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