Why Some People Can't Tell That You're Being Authentic
Who's being real? You just can't be sure.
Posted May 23, 2022 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- People are usually confident in their ability to tell who—be it a close friend or a new political leader—is being genuine and who is pretending.
- Compared with self-ratings, other-rated authenticity shows a positivity bias. It is also biased by the rater’s own authenticity.
- Research shows that one cannot accurately identify who is being real. Thus, judgments of others' authenticity cannot be relied upon.
Research shows authenticity is associated with many positive outcomes. These include:
Nurturing character strengths (e.g., creativity, perseverance, leadership) that are integral to one’s authentic identity makes us happy. Being authentic makes us feel more empowered. And the reason some people are very successful in goal pursuit may be that they choose authentic goals, ones that are personally meaningful and reflect their true selves.
Living authentically requires self-awareness, strength, and courage. It requires effort and persistence. But is it worth it? Yes, you might reason. And others will likely value what you are doing. After all, we often seek friends, role models, and leaders who are genuine. But can people really tell when you are being genuine (as opposed to pretending)?
No, according to a paper published in the May issue of Psychological Science. The paper, by E. Bailey and A. Levy (of Columbia University), will be discussed in the rest of this post.
Investigating Perceptions of Authenticity
Study 1a and 1b
Surveys were given to two samples (N = 140 and N = 229)—Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers and a class of MBA students. Perceptions of authenticity were measured using five items (e.g., “I can tell when people are being fake”). The importance of authenticity was evaluated with four items (e.g., “How important is it to have friends that are authentic?”)
A sample of 207 MBA students completed a number of surveys over a month and a half. These included self-evaluations and evaluations of group members.
Measures are described below (examples are in parentheses).
Participants rated their own trait and state authenticity (“I am more sincere in my interactions than strategic”; “I feel like I’m pretending to be something that I am not”), ability to act authentically (“There have been times where I felt like I couldn’t be myself with my classmates”), feeling known (“My friends at [university] know who I really am”), and personality (I see myself as sympathetic, warm”).
Participants were also asked to rate other members of their team (e.g., for authenticity, personality, and familiarity).
This was a replication of the second investigation, using a sample of 571 MBA students. Participants completed survey ratings for at least one classmate. Measures included self-rated trait and state authenticity, personality, and authenticity meta-perceptions (“Other people see me as sincere”).
Students completed other-ratings too, as in the previous study.
This research showed that although people “assume they can discern authenticity in others,” comparing self-rated and other-rated authenticity in randomized working teams tells a different story.
Analysis of data showed that “other-rated authenticity did not significantly correlate with any self-rated measure of authenticity.”
Furthermore, “perceived authenticity was biased. First, other-ratings of authenticity were more positive than self-ratings. Second, authentic raters rated other individuals as more authentic; that is, raters were biased by their own authenticity.”
And third, “meta-perceptions (expectations that other people will see you as authentic) were similarly uncorrelated with other-ratings of authenticity.”
Another interesting finding was that familiarity was not predictive of the accuracy of perceptions of authenticity judgments. In fact, as “familiarity increased, other-rated authenticity grew increasingly more positive relative to the target’s self-rated authenticity.”
Authenticity matters to most of us. But, as the authors note, “If authenticity is used as a criterion for conferring status, societal value, and morality judgments,” then “perceived authenticity must be accurate.” Unfortunately, these studies showed it is hard to tell when someone is being genuine.
Let's speculate on why this is. Perhaps artificiality is easier to observe than authenticity, just as it is easier to tell when someone is lying than being truthful. Or maybe it's less difficult to fake authenticity than it is to be truly authentic.
To illustrate, think of a person faking an illness. The faker will likely pretend to have every symptom of the disease. Therefore, even medical students will be able to diagnose the disease. A genuinely ill patient, in contrast, may exhibit only some of the symptoms. So he or she may not appear actually ill to the average person.
There are other potential explanations as well, but we simply do not know for certain.
What the results of these investigations clearly suggest is that we must be careful in making judgments about who is being genuine and who is a pretender—such as when judging friends, new coworkers, or political candidates (e.g., Donald Trump vs. Hillary Clinton).
The results also indicate we should not expect others to know when we are being sincere and true to ourselves. For instance, we may be thinking that others now have greater respect and admiration for our self-connection, bravery, and commitment to truth, whereas they may be thinking, “What a phony!”
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