Authenticity Is Made Up Of These Three Parts

Psychologist Petra Kipfelsberger imparts wisdom on how to live your life as authentically as possible.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | August 18, 2022

A new study published in Personality and Individual Differences explains how self-awareness and a little help from the outside can help young people live an authentic life.

I recently spoke to psychologist Petra Kipfelsberger to understand the inner workings of authenticity. Here's a summary of our conversation.

We all define authenticity a bit differently (informed by a general understanding of it). Which definition of authenticity was your study based on?

Our study was based on the notion that, in a nutshell, authenticity means being true to oneself.

To measure the extent to which our participants could be true to themselves, we relied on the tripartite conceptualization of authenticity by Wood et al. (2008). This means that we measured authenticity along three dimensions:

  1. A low level of self-alienation
  2. A high level of authentic living
  3. And, a low level of accepting external influence

Let me briefly explain these three subdimensions a bit further:

  1. Self-alienation can be illustrated by the subjective experiences of 'being out of touch' with oneself or even 'not knowing oneself.'
  2. Authentic living results from behaving in ways which are true to one's core self in most situations.
  3. Accepting external influences means that one is driven by and conforms to others' expectations instead of one's own values and beliefs.

Could you differentiate the 'consistency' and 'congruence' definitions of authenticity for us through an example? Why did you pick the latter?

The consistency definition of authenticity suggests that one's personality would be stable across different situations and social roles.

To provide a concrete, evidence-based example that showcases the inconsistency: there are variations between one's authentic self at "work" versus at "home".

In detail, research findings show that many people have higher levels of conscientiousness in the work role than in their role at home. But the consistency definition of authenticity would suggest that one should and could be the same authentic self at work and at home.

Therefore, we have chosen the congruence definition of authenticity.

This means that the individual strives for an alignment between the inner self (i.e., cognitions, emotions, values, and beliefs) and its outward expression. This definition implies that individuals may struggle to achieve authentic self-expression in many contexts and roles, such as at work and at home.

Could you walk us through the methodology of your study? What would you say were your key findings?

We used a quasi-experimental design that tests whether an eight-month career and personal development program (CPDP) can help young adults develop authenticity during their first year at university.

At the start of their first year, all 1200 students were invited to join informational events about the CPDP and to apply for a total of 65 places offered. Participation in the CPDP was voluntary, free of charge, and not monetarily rewarded. We obtained usable data from 58 treatment group participants and 112 control group participants pre- and post- intervention on measures of self-rated authenticity and control variables.

The final sample (i.e., treatment and control group) included 58 women (34.10 %) and 112 men between the ages of 18 and 24 years (M= 20.00 years, SD = 1.15 years).

In total, we got the following three key findings:

  1. First, we found differential effects on the three dimensions of authenticity: some authenticity dimensions developed naturally, while others developed through the intervention.
  2. Second, our intervention, the CPDP, increased the level of authentic living, but did not affect self-alienation.
  3. Third, acceptance of external influence decreased naturally, but more so with our intervention.

What advice would you have for a young person who struggles to live their life with authenticity and who might be inclined to overthink or question their decisions?

This is a good question. I would put on my coaching attitude and ask the young person on which factors or behaviors he/she can observe that he/she is struggling with authentic living.

Indeed, it is already an important first step to gain awareness by self-reflection that something in one's life is not as it should or could be.

The differentiation between should and could is not trivial here; while the "shoulds" might represent some norms, conformity to others' expectations but also to one's own values and beliefs, the "coulds" might symbolize the hidden potential or one's dreams.

Let's assume that the person would like to get rid off his/her own doubts about made decisions, another coaching question here would be: "what are the advantages of these doubts? What might they tell you?"

These questions might allow the person to see the benefits of his/her thoughts, and in best case, letting him/her keep the positive side of self-reflection, doubts, and hesitance, while uncovering the hindrance factors and potential paralysis included in those thoughts.

Do the results of your study have practical takeaways for people who might have crossed their 20s?

I would like to answer this question from two different perspectives.

The first perspective highlights that people who have crossed their 20s might be able to help people in their 20s to develop their authenticity by engaging as coaches, that is, asking them good questions, listening to them, and helping them to experiment with different options of authentic living.

The second perspective, I would like to take on, is that people in their 30s and beyond might still struggle to be true to oneself in many situations not because they have had to less (natural or formal) development but rather because authenticity is a lifelong journey.

And these people might also benefit from good practices of self-reflection, deep-level conversations with friends or coaches, and a natural attitude of seeing one's life as a journey of discovery of one's core self.

How do you hope your research affects future intervention efforts?

I wish that our research helps educational institutions to showcase that authenticity development at a business school is possible and that it is worth the effort. While our study did not focus on the outcomes of authenticity, there is a plethora of authenticity research showing the importance of it for performance and well-being.