The need for authenticity, living in accordance with our sense of self, emotions, and values, may be so fundamental that we actually feel immoral and impure when we violate our true sense of self, new research suggests
The sense of impurity, in turn, may lead us to act in cleansing or charitable ways as a mechanism for clearing our conscience.
Psychologist Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University said:
“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."
Kouchaki and her colleagues Francesca Gino of Harvard Business School and Adam Galinsky of Columbia Business School, suspected that inauthenticity may have similar psychological consequences as immoral behaviors like lying or cheating. Both types of behaviors, they recognized, are a violation of being true, whether to others or oneself.
Moral Distress and Impurity
In other words, when we fake excitement for 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. So the researchers hypothesized that inauthenticity should also invoke feelings of moral distress and impurity.
Study 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.
Sure enough, they also reported lower moral self-regard, rating themselves as less generous and cooperative, for example, than the authentic participants.
To ease our conscience, we may be tempted to wash these feelings of moral impurity away. Almost literally.
Researchers observed that the 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, but not other products, and engage in cleansing behaviors, but not other behaviors, than the authentic participants.
Additional data indicate that performing good deeds may be another strategy by which we try to shore up our tainted moral character.
“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 notes.
“We are very much interested in better understanding both the psychological and behavioral consequences of authenticity and inauthenticity and are further examining the power of such experiences."
F. Gino, M. Kouchaki, A. D. Galinsky. The Moral Virtue of Authenticity: How Inauthenticity Produces Feelings of Immorality and Impurity. Psychological Science, 2015; DOI: 10.1177/0956797615575277
Photo: Surian Soosay/flickr