A new study suggest that the human drive for authenticity — being true to ourselves and living in accordance with our values — is so fundamental that we feel immoral or impure when we hide our true colors.
This sense of impurity then leads us to engage in cleansing or charitable behaviors as a way of clearing our conscience, according to researchers.
“Our work shows that feeling inauthentic is not a fleeting or cursory phenomenon, it cuts to the very essence of what it means to be a moral person,” said psychological scientist Maryam Kouchaki, Ph.D., of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
Kouchaki and colleagues, Drs. Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School, speculated that inauthenticity may have similar psychological consequences as immoral behaviors such as lying or cheating.
For example, when we fake excitement about something we don’t want to do or try to fit in with a crowd that doesn’t share our values, we are lying about our true selves.
That led researchers to hypothesize that inauthenticity should also produce feelings of moral distress and impurity.
And they found that was true in a series of experiments.
Participants who wrote about a time they felt inauthentic in one online experiment reported feeling more out of touch with their true selves and more impure, dirty, or tainted than participants who wrote about a time when they felt authentic.
They also reported lower moral self-regard, rating themselves as less generous and cooperative, for example, than the authentic participants, the researchers reported.
To ease our conscience, we may be tempted to wash these feelings of moral impurity away.
The researchers found that participants who wrote about inauthenticity were more likely to fill in missing letters to spell out cleansing-related words — for example, completing w _ _ h as “wash” instead of “wish” — than those who wrote about authenticity.
The inauthentic participants also reported a greater desire to use cleansing-related products and engage in cleansing behaviors than the authentic participants, according to the study’s findings.
The study also found that performing good deeds may be another cleansing strategy.
The researchers found that participants who were prompted to think about a time when they felt inauthentic were more likely to help the experimenter with an extra 15-minute survey than those who either thought about a time when they failed a test or what they had done the previous day.
Researchers hypothesized that the participants’ helping behavior seemed to be driven by their feelings of impurity.
In a bit of a twist, the researchers discovered that inauthentic participants showed less charitable behavior when they had the opportunity to test a hand sanitizer for a supposedly unrelated study. These results suggest that using the hand sanitizer successfully mitigated the feelings of impurity, reducing the drive to compensate through charitable deeds.
While the psychological consequences of inauthenticity are likely to emerge in various social situations, they may be especially relevant to people who find themselves constantly “performing” in the workplace, according to the researchers.
“In order to be responsive to various demands from customers, co-workers, and upper management, individuals may find themselves behaving in ways that are not consistent with their ‘true self.’ In the service industry, for example, service employees are asked to follow precise scripts and use recommended expressions regardless of their true cognitions and feelings,” Kouchaki noted.
The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.