Back in 1951, Solomon Asch conducted one of the most famous psychology experiments in history. Whether familiar with it or not, it’s worth a recap.
It began with an invitation for students to participate in a simple perceptual task. In groups of 8, participants were asked to view a card with a line on it, alongside another card with three lines labelled A, B and C. One of the options clearly matched the first card. The other two options were longer and shorter – not by a few millimetres, but by an unambiguous margin (something like the diagram below).
One after the other, each participant was then asked to say out loud which line matched the length on the first card. But here’s where it got interesting. Only the last participant to read their answer was a genuine participant. The others were actors, in on an experiment to test real participants’ levels of conformity.
As the answer reading begins, things seem normal. The actors choose the answer that is clearly correct, and the participant also chooses the correct answer. But then the actors start to deliberately choose an incorrect answer.
If you’re familiar with the study, you know what happens next. As the real participant sees the others choosing a seemingly ludicrous option, they begin to question what their eyes are seeing. They convince themselves they must be wrong if everyone else is choosing another answer. In the end, their mind defies what their eyes are seeing. They conform with the majority.
In fact, such is the extent of this influence, 76% of participants chose to conform with an incorrect answer at least once. And this isn’t a one off. Repeat studies over the years have identified similar levels of conformity.
What Is Authenticity?
It is the conformers who over the years have had the lion’s share of attention. After a world war that still proves hard to fathom, it is perhaps understandable that certain questions came to dominate. Questions like: How could observation of the obviously incorrect sow such powerful seeds of doubt? And what was it that pushed people from independent thought to conformity?
As we’ve pondered and explored these questions, we’ve rarely stopped to consider the other side. What of those who hold their own? What of the 24% who didn’t conform even once? Deep down, what was is that characterised the non-conformers?
In his recent book, Authentic: How to Be Yourself and Why It Matters, Professor Stephen Joseph suggests that non-conformers exhibit one of the crucial tenets of authenticity: they own themselves. These participants were confident in their choices, holding their ground in the face of a majority going against their view.
Put differently, they own their actions and choices. They don’t blame anyone else, nor seek to shift their line of thinking to peripheral influences. They recognise what is true of everyone, most but not all the time: we have ourselves to blame.
The other tenets of authenticity, Joseph says, are knowing yourself and being yourself.
Knowing yourself is about more than recognising our own strengths and weaknesses. It means being honest with ourselves, pragmatically listening to our gut and changing our opinions in the weight of contradictory evidence. It means fostering an ability to be in the present moment.
Being yourself, on the other hand, is about backing up our convictions in actions. As Joseph puts it, “With authenticity comes integrity.” Authentic people are believed and believe in what they are saying and doing.
Research on Authenticity
So why does this all matter?
Humanistic psychology research offers some important insights on the impact of authenticity on our well-being. One study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology showed that those who score higher on levels of authenticity reported greater happiness, higher self-esteem and better relationships with others.
Similar results were found in an earlier study, again finding that higher authenticity measures were a solid predictor of higher reported happiness and self-esteem. What’s more, research has shown that when individuals feel more authentic in a particular life role, they exhibit lower stress, anxiety, and depression.
Research has even linked authenticity with closer relationships and lower levels of attachment avoidance. Participants scoring higher on authenticity measures were found to be more satisfied with their choices and relationships.
You get the picture. Those living lives that feel true to themselves seem to be happier – with their choices, their relationships, their lives, and with themselves.
The Authentic Power of Your Gut
If you’ve read until this point, reflect for a moment on whether you tick all the boxes of authenticity. Ask yourself honestly, do you know yourself and own yourself? Do you pass your days being yourself?
I know I don’t. But that in itself is a step towards ticking one of them: knowing myself.
Not meeting all the criteria doesn’t mean we pass our days being different people, nor does it mean we spend them conforming. On the contrary, we might challenge views forcefully and hold our ground independently.
But that shouldn’t be enough.
The real question is whether we are living our lives in a way that feels true to ourselves over the long term. This is the salient question that underpins the deathbed test I wrote about not long ago.
Think about it. We all have a moment in our lives when we didn’t go with our gut: a relationship, a job, a purchase. We felt something deep down, but we defied our inner voice. In that moment, we made a decision that felt logical, but it wasn’t authentic.
The damage of these inauthentic decisions can vary. They can endure for years or minutes. That’s a risk we take.
But though our guts are powerful, I’m not advocating a life that relies exclusively on it. That would be foolish. Instead, we must learn to use it in the right moments.
Meanwhile, we must learn to be in the present moment, to challenge our own weaknesses, to hold our ground. And most importantly, we must begin to learn exactly what it is we want from our life.
As we learn, we become more authentic. As we become more authentic, research suggests the chances are we become happier.