Faking It

When to be yourself, and when not to be

Kyle Platts

If the ancient Greek aphorism gnóthi sautón—“know thyself”*—is any indication, people have been obsessed with being themselves for a very long time. And no wonder: acting like yourself generally goes hand in hand with a sense of well-being—studies have found that people who believe they’re behaving authentically are less distressed and have higher self-esteem [1].

The benefits of being yourself seem especially strong in the context of personal relationships: research has shown that feeling inauthentic in one’s dealings with other people correlates with symptoms of depression [2]. A study of adolescents found the connection between inauthenticity and depressive symptoms to be particularly evident in teens’ relationships with their parents [3].

And yet, for certain people, in certain situations, “being yourself” is easier said than done. In some contexts, women have the edge. They report much greater feelings of personal authenticity in their romantic relationships than men do [4], and as teens, they’re more likely than boys to say that they can be themselves with their best friends. On the other hand, teen boys report feeling more authentic with their dads than teen girls do—and young men say they feel more authentic around professors than their female classmates do [5].

Men and women are united on at least one thing, however: the feeling that work is alienating. When adults in the United States, England, and Russia were asked how authentic they felt in the presence of various people, work colleagues came in dead last. It makes sense that people would feel more comfortable with loved ones than with colleagues (not that you can’t love your co-workers). What’s more surprising is that for Americans and Brits, being inauthentic at work didn’t significantly impact overall well-being [6]. (The Russians were a little more bummed out about it.)

One more wrinkle: psychologists from Wake Forest University found that subjects sometimes reported feeling more authentic when they acted “out of character” during activities in the lab, such as playing Twister or debating medical ethics. Introverts felt “truer to themselves” when they were acting like extroverts; ditto disagreeable people who were acting agreeable, and careless people who were acting conscientiously. The study concluded that, by actively trying to adopt these traits, individuals might be able to “improve their mental health” [7]. Curiously, the researchers maintained that subjects who did this—say, introverts who behaved like extroverts—were not “faking it.”

Could it be that none of us are who we think we are?

The Studies:

[1] Kernis and Goldman, “A Multicomponent Conceptualization of Authenticity” (Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, May 2006)

[2] Tolman and Porche, “The Adolescent Femininity Ideology Scale” (Psychology of Women Quarterly, Dec. 2000)

[3] Theran, “Authenticity in Relationships and Depressive Symptoms” (Personality and Individual Differences, May 2011)

[4] Lopez and Rice, “Preliminary Development and Validation of a Measure of Relationship Authenticity” (Journal of Counseling Psychology, March 2006)

[5] Smolak and Munstertieger, “The Relationship of Gender and Voice to Depression and Eating Disorders” (Psychology of Women Quarterly, Dec. 2002)

[6] Robinson et al., “Authenticity, Social Context, and Well-Being in the United States, England, and Russia” (Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Nov. 2012)

[7] Fleeson and Wilt, “The Relevance of Big-Five Trait Content in Behavior to Subjective Authenticity” (Journal of Personality, June 2010)

* Correction: This article originally translated the Greek aphorism “know thyself” into the Latin nosce te ipsum.