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How Authenticity Eases Social Rejection

New research explores the impact of being in touch with our core values.

Authenticity is idolized, especially in cultures that prize individuality. In times of upheaval, when there is a sudden change in direction, we reflect upon who we are and how we are living.

Authenticity can mean being true to one’s core values even when we don't act in accord. The quest for authenticity when one is unclear about oneself can appear intractable. Believing one is authentic while appearing fake can be a huge problem for personal and professional relationships. Struggling with doubt constantly doesn't help, either—unless we know what to do with it.

Research suggests that self-perceived authenticity may have less to do with behavioral consistency than with feeling good. If we try to be more authentic, how do we know we aren't fooling ourselves? Really being authentic is more challenging in a tech-dominated world where we can be whoever we want to be on social media, and especially when we spend more time working remotely.

Being unique may mark status and drive popularity, an element of non-conformity. Conformity remains primary for social belonging, however. We try to differentiate ourselves in the right ways, not get lost in the noise—but not so much that we get ejected from the herd. When social context and personal values align, authenticity and acceptance are maximized.

Studying Authenticity and Social Rejection

As researchers of the present study Gino and Kouchaki (2020) from Harvard and Northwestern University report, feeling authentic is associated with a greater sense of well-being, dulling the sharpness of social rejection.

Authenticity correlates with self-concept consistency, bolstering positive self-perception across different aspects of oneself, morally, emotionally, and psychologically. Authenticity is thought to reduce the pain of social exclusion by increasing security, reducing the feeling of external threat from destabilizing self-regulation, and putting the brakes on the negative self-evaluation which comes from being excluded.

To test the hypothesis that greater authenticity reduces the negative impact of social rejection, partially by reducing threat, Gino and Kouchaki conducted five studies estimating and/or manipulating authenticity, correlating feeling true to oneself with various measures related to positive or negative feelings, self-esteem, threat, and even consumer product choices.

Study 1: Participants were instructed to recall either a time when they felt true to themselves and authentic with their core self, or for the control group to recall a time related to a neutral life event. They were then asked to read a story of a rough breakup and empathize with the main character. The completed measures of authenticity and social rejection.

The results showed that those who imagined the authentic life event did report greater feelings of being true to themselves and reported lower feelings of rejection, even after controlling for positive and negative emotions.

Study 2: Participants were set up in imagined mock work-groups. They had to make a case for themselves why they should be picked by teammates, highlighting authentic, valuable traits. They were subject to rejection from the team and asked to make choices about commercial products. The products were presented as popular or neutral in order to test whether rejection and authenticity would influence whether people might make purchasing choices to compensate for exclusion by picking items signaling affiliation.

They found that higher authenticity correlated with choosing popular products less often, suggesting that authenticity may project people from advertising designed to play on insecurities about social belonging. They also found that self-esteem, which they also measured, did not influence the results.

Study 3: Participants were given sports team wrist bands for a team they either identified with as a fan or one they disliked. This has been shown to determine feelings of authenticity. They then played a standard social-exclusion research tool called Cyberball, in which players believe they are playing a computer game with human beings but it’s actually a manipulation of social rejection. Halfway through the three-player game of catch, the computer stops throwing balls to the participant. This has been shown to cause social pain from exclusion.

They found not only did players wearing their fave team’s band feel less rejection, but they also perceived themselves as being included in more throws and reported less self-alienation, suggesting a reduced sense of threat.

Study 4: Researchers used a mock job-interview setting, with all women participants. They were asked to prepare for an interview and were told either to be themselves or given neutral instructions. During the interview, the interviewer was either challenging or neutral. In the challenging condition, the interview used exclusionary language, for example using male pronouns to describe ideal candidates versus inclusive language (in [brackets]) e.g. “Our guys [employees] are very pleased with our current reward system; the harder an employee works, the more money he makes [they make]!” All were told they did not get the job.

Regardless of authenticity condition, participants viewed the interview as equally sexist, showing that the findings for rejection and threat were not due to perceived sexism. Higher authenticity participants in the challenge interview both perceived less threat and reduced discomfort from rejection.

Study 5: The final study looked at a group of actual workers, with an online survey at three-time points over a two-week period. They were asked to think about times they felt authentic at work or were given a neutral instruction at the beginning. They were surveyed at various points on authenticity, feelings of insecurity, threat, and rejection on the job.

As with the other studies, participants in the authenticity condition reported greater authenticity. They reported both lower feelings of threat and exclusion in the workplace after being primed for greater authenticity.

Integrating Findings

Taken together, these studies offer robust evidence that authenticity plays a key role in buffering social rejection. First, authenticity can be increased or decreased in a variety of ways. Connecting with core values by following clear instructions and wearing a talisman representing strong belief and belonging both increase perceived authenticity.

Regardless, increasing authenticity protects against the pain of social exclusion at least partially by reducing the sense of threat from being excluded. These effects are independent of other factors, including self-esteem, self-alienation, positive and negative emotional effects, and perceived sexism.

Feeling authentic may also influence consumer behavior, projecting from marketing designed to make people feel insecure so they choose products that alleviate insecurity by creating a feeling of belonging. Savvy advertisers are directing advertising at people who value authenticity, at least perceiving themselves to feel more authentic than others.

While the deeper question of what authenticity really is and how to measure it, remains unanswered, this research supports the notion that whether or not one sees oneself as authentic has important protective effects against feelings of social exclusion and reduced the sense of associated threat. Study 5, which required replication and development, suggests that deliberate efforts to connect with authenticity can buffer against future negative responses to rejection while reducing apprehension about the same. How can we most effectively learn from adversity?

On another note, what if who we really are isn't necessarily beloved by all? For instance, more narcissistic people may be very popular but in many cases, narcissistic traits are unappealing and lead to problems with relationships. Research has shown that grandiose narcissists feel more authentic compared with vulnerable narcissists, and are less interested in change.

It is intriguing to consider whether increasing one’s sense of authenticity has therapeutic applications for people suffering from insecurity, a poor sense of self, and feelings of social anxiety and isolation.

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Grant H. Brenner. All rights reserved.