My inauthentic self

Loved this NYT column on how “be yourself” is terrible advice:

But for most people, “be yourself” is actually terrible advice.

If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.

A decade ago, the author A. J. Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.

“Deceit makes our world go round,” he concluded. “Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”

What I especially like is that the column then goes into self-monitoring theory– one of my favorite concepts in Social Psychology.  In fact, I discovered a did a good post on this 9(!) years ago.  Here’s part of what I wrote then:

Of course, every husband/boyfriend understands that lying is a key to a happy relationship– “do these jeans make me look fat?”  David’s favorite cartoon, Lilo and Stich, had a great episode where the evil genuis scientist created a lie detector that made a noise when anyone lied.  The original purpose of this creation was to undermine an enemy society.  Why?  “Because lies are the fabric that hold society together.”

The fact that liars tend to be more popular also reminds me of one of the more intriguing theories I learned about way back in my Intro to Social Psych class: Self Monitoring Theory.   Basically, there is considerable individual variation on how closely we monitor ourselves and adjust our behavior to fit into different social situations.  Not surprisingly, high self monitors tend to be more socially successful.  I’ve always liked this theory because I had a real light-bulb moment when I learned about it.  My childhood best friend, Stanley Bean (who I sure hope is not reading this entry), accused me of being a hypocrite for my different actions/statements in different social settings.  When learning of this theory in class, I realized that I was a classic high self monitor and to a classic low self monitor like Stanley, I just appeared like a big hypocrite.  It really explained a lot.  So, maybe I am a hypocrite, but at least I am a socially well-adjusted one.

And here’s what the NYT column has to say about the research on the matter:

How much you aim for authenticity depends on a personality trait calledself-monitoring. If you’re a high self-monitor, you’re constantly scanning your environment for social cues and adjusting accordingly. You hate social awkwardness and desperately want to avoid offending anyone.

But if you’re a low self-monitor, you’re guided more by your inner states, regardless of your circumstances. In one fascinating study, when a steak landed on their plates, high self-monitors tasted it before pouring salt, whereas low self-monitors salted it first. As the psychologist Brian Littleexplains, “It is as though low self-monitors know their salt personalities very well.”

Low self-monitors criticize high self-monitors as chameleons and phonies. They’re right that there’s a time and place for authenticity. Some preliminary research suggests that low self-monitors tend to have happier marriages and lower odds of divorce. With your romantic partner, being authentic might lead to a more genuine connection (unless your name is A. J. Jacobs).

But in the rest of our lives, we pay a price for being too authentic. High self-monitors advance faster and earn higher status, in part because they’re more concerned about their reputations. And while that would seem to reward self-promoting frauds, these high self-monitors spend more time finding out what others need and helping them. In a comprehensive analysis of 136 studies of more than 23,000 employees, high self-monitors received significantly higher evaluations and were more likely to be promoted into leadership positions.

So now we know the secret to my success.  Sorry if you think I’m a phony :-).


About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

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