What does authenticity really mean? Is this authentic, true self that’s different and somehow more centered than our other ‘selves’?
When you arrive at an award show, you typically dress up a bit. And usually, that means a bit more than jeans and a plain white t-shirt. But then again, there typically aren’t 100 of you wearing the same exact outfit.
By Matt Johnson, Phd., and Prince Ghuman
This was the experience of being a “Slim Shady extra”, in Eminem’s iconic performance in the 2000 VMAs. Rapping to his chart-topping “The Real Slim Shady”, he led his 100 Slim Shady look-alikes from the NYC streets into the halls of a star-star studded Radio City Music Hall. With his bleach blonde lemmings in tow, he rapped down the red carpet, and lapped it up with Carson Daly, before finally hopping on stage for a performance of “The Way I Am”.
In short, the night belonged to Slim Shady.
His perennial alter ego, Slim Shady drove Eminem (or Marshal Mathers?) into stardom. While he may be one of the most memorable, the celebrity alter ego is not a rarity. From Beyonce’s “Sasha Fierce”, to Sascha Baron Cohen’s “Borat”, there are countless examples of stylized personas. And from the perspective of us in the audience, we get it. We know that they aren’t the ‘real’ person. When on stage, you’re a performer.
In our day to day interactions though, we have very different expectations. We don’t like people acting, or performing. We value genuine people who are behaving in accord with their true selves.
And not only do we demand this of others, but ourselves as well. Wherever we look, authenticity is a value held in the highest regard. But what is authenticity?
The Science of Authenticity
George Orwell famously said, “Man wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.” The imputation here is that, beneath all these layers of style and act is the true self. This aligns with our intuition about authenticity: Just like Slim Shady can walk off the stage and be Marshall Mathers, we should also have a layer to peel back and be our true, authentic self.
But when we zero in, what does authenticity really mean? Is this authentic, true self that’s different and somehow more centered than our other ‘selves’? Where does style end, and authenticity begin?
In a series of studies, researchers asked people to describe their true selves. Overwhelmingly, people use very positive attributes, themselves as “kind”, “warm-hearted”, and “empathetic”. True selves, it turns out, are pretty great.
Of course, no one acts this way all of the time. So when we are “mean”, “cold-hearted”, or “distant”, we feel as though someone or something made us act this way. There’s a sharp asymmetry. This suggests that what we feel to be our “true self” may be closer to our “best self”: the way we like to think of ourselves.
Social Influence and the Authentic Self
When it comes to our best self, the social context plays a big role. The sociologist Erving Goffman discussed this idea in his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1956). Goffman likens us to actors, contorting ourselves to create an impression on our audience.
If being ‘authentic’ means anything, it’s that it’s who we are outside of the social context. Authenticity should mean how we are when left to our own devices: lifted from the social pressures, influences, and expectations of others. We can’t be acting if there isn’t an audience, right?
If this were the case, people would feel their most authentic when they’re alone and the least authentic when they’re around others. However, this is the opposite of what research finds: It’s when we’re in large social groups that we feel most authentic. People feel most inauthentic when they are socially isolated.
In a similar vein, we also feel most authentic when we are acting in accordance with social norms, and not against them. Our true self going against social expectations doesn’t feel as authentic as we might think. If being authentic means devoid of social influence, we’d again expect the opposite.
As Goffman described, “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy to specify”. This idea has been echoed in more modern times from the humanistic psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman. He distills this idea the following way, “While people spend so much time searching for their real self, the stark reality is that all of the aspects of your mind are part of you.”
All in all, the idea of there being a ‘true’ self beneath the layers of performance and style does not hold up to scrutiny.
Instead, research suggests that what we’ve come to think of as our authentic self is actually our idealized self. And since we are social creatures who seek the approval of others, this idealized self is heavily informed by being socially desirable. We want our ‘true self’ to not only be our best self for us, but for others as well. Ironically then, when we’re acting most authentically, we may be catering the most to our social environment.
Acting and performance is one way to think about identity. But we can also think about it like an onion: Each layer is a different aspect of our personality:. Politeness is a layer. Family expectations are a layer. Personal style is a layer. We imagine that when we peel back all the layers it’s our ‘true, authentic self’.
In reality, though, the only “real you” is the onion in its entirety. In any situation, certain “layers” – that is, different aspects of your personality and identity may be more heavily weighted than others. But there’s no “real you” apart underneath all of the layers.
As the French Naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc distilled, “Style is the man himself”.
Marshall Mathers himself came to a similar recognition. While Slim Shady drove him to prominence in the early 2000s, the character is now seen as more integral. As he wrote in his memoir, “Slim, Em, and Marshall are always in the mix… I’ve found a way to morph them so that it’s sort of all me.”
Or put another way, The “Real” Slim Shady has always been Marshall Mathers from the start.
Johnson and Ghuman are founders of “PopNeuro – a Neuromarketing Blog for the masses” and co-author of “Blindsight – The (mostly) hidden ways marketing reshapes our brains”. You can check out more of their writing here.