- You may have been told to behave authentically and “be yourself,” but how useful is this advice?
- Behaving authentically is useful when “expressive accuracy” matters the most.
- Behaving authentically is not associated with positive personal or social outcomes (e.g., well-being).
It is normal to feel anxious before a potentially evaluative social situation (e.g., first date, meeting your partner’s parents, job interview, work meeting).
Part of the anxiety comes from wanting to make a good impression and yet having limited control over how we will be perceived or evaluated.
A common piece of advice given in these situations is this: Be authentic. Or, in layperson’s terms: Just be yourself. But is that good advice?
Published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, a recent study by Mignault and colleagues suggests that although “being told to be oneself elicits more accurate first-impression perceptions,” it does not “bear immediate personal or social consequences.”
Below, I summarize the study’s methods and findings.
Investigating First Impressions
There were two samples labeled target and observer.
Sample: Participants consisted of 204 undergraduates (136 women), average age of 21 years old, mostly Caucasian (N = 144).
Methods: Participants designed as targets first answered questions about their personality traits. This was followed by a video interview, during which targets answered additional questions.
Participants were told that the investigation concerned “accuracy of impressions,” and their videos would be rated at a later time by “observers” (as described in the “observer phase” below).
Those in the experimental condition were additionally told to “try to be yourself as much as possible throughout the interview.”
To produce video sets for “observer” viewing, responses to two questions were used: ‘‘What are your passions?’’ and ‘‘What do you do in your leisure time?’’
- Personality ratings by self and close others: The 44-item Big Five Inventory was used. Sample items include “Is full of energy,” “Is intelligent,” and “Receives very good grades.”
- Target post-interview well-being: Self-esteem and life satisfaction were assessed. For example, the researchers looked for agreement with the item, “I have high self-esteem.”
Sample: Participants consisted of 373 undergraduates (204 women), average age of 22 years old, mostly Caucasian (N = 229).
Methods: Participants designated as observers watched multiple target video interviews; every target video, in turn, was viewed by multiple observers. This resulted in over 4,000 unique observer–target pairs.
Observers were asked to rate the personality and likability of the targets.
- Personality ratings: Targets’ personalities were rated using a subset of the Big Five Inventory, and intelligence-related items (e.g., “Is bright”) were also given in the target phase.
- Target likability: Likability was rated based on the extent of agreement with the item, “Is very likable.”
Being Yourself Only When Genuine Expression of Your Personality Matters
The results showed that the targets instructed to be authentic were “seen significantly more in line with their distinctive personality profile.”
Additionally, targets’ expressions of their socially evaluative aspects (e.g., how reliable they were) helped observers learn what targets valued and cared about.
But the results also showed that targets told to be themselves were not “viewed more in line with the average, socially favorable personality profile,” nor “perceived as more likable.”
And they did not experience any positive changes in their well-being.
In summary, although the advice to be yourself may encourage an authentic expression of personality, it does not appear to have any positive psychological or social effects.
The advice to be yourself encourages authenticity and motivates people to reveal more self-relevant information and to behave in ways that agree with aspects of themselves that are observable and socially evaluative.
Hence, this advice is of particular benefit for people with low self-esteem because they are less willing or able to express themselves accurately and, as a result, more likely to be misunderstood.
At the same time, the suggestion to be yourself does not appear to have a positive impact on either personal or social outcomes.
For instance, in the study discussed, authenticity was not associated with greater well-being, likability, or other positive personal, psychological, or social consequences.
Perhaps the association between authenticity and good outcomes (e.g., empowerment, self-control, self-knowledge) holds for people with favorable characteristics, especially in situations where these traits are highly valued.
Some examples are genuine expressions of characteristics such as conscientiousness, honesty, ambition, self-confidence, loyalty, dependability, positivity, and a good sense of humor, which may be valued by a job interviewer or a potential romantic partner.
To compare, people with less desirable traits—like antisocial, avoidant, schizoid, psychopathic, or paranoid tendencies—are less likely to make a good first impression if they express themselves authentically.
In short, if you value being perceived accurately, then just be yourself is good advice. However, perhaps a better piece of advice for situations where you truly desire a certain outcome (e.g., a new job or romantic relationship) is this: Highlight and emphasize your positive traits, particularly qualities valued by the person you want to impress.
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