Jun 18 2019

Is Authenticity a Thing?

Authenticity is a tricky concept when it comes to people, and is increasingly being challenged both in psychology and even with regard to physical objects (with regard to objects, the value rather than reality of authenticity is questioned).  Writing for Scientific American, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman deconstructs the psychological concept of authenticity nicely. But let’s start with a standard psychology definition of what this means:

Authenticity generally reflects the extent to which an individual’s core or true self is operative on a day-to-day basis. Psychologists characterize authenticity as multiple interrelated processes that have important implications for psychological functioning and well-being. Specifically, authenticity is expressed in the dynamic operation of four components: awareness (i.e., self-understanding), unbiased processing (i.e., objective self-evaluation), behavior (i.e., actions congruent with core needs, values, preferences), and relational orientation (i.e., sincerity within close relationships). Research findings indicate that each of these components relates to various aspects of healthy psychological and interpersonal adjustment.

My issue with this definition is that each of those components don’t necessarily add up to something greater than the sum of the parts. I understand the concept of unbiased processing, for example,  but this still tells me nothing about how it leads to authenticity, and by extension what authenticity is. How is it different than just being psychologically healthy, as measured by more specific traits?

Kaufman reviews the research on authenticity and show that really it’s just a rationalization for holding a favorably biased view of ourselves. People tend to think they are being authentic when they are acting on their virtues, being their best self, and also acting in ways that are congruent with societal expectations. The concept of authenticity is, in essence, used to manage one’s reputation. I am being authentic when doing things that other people will view positively, and not being my true self when I do things that will harm my reputation.

But as Kaufman points out – everything we do is a manifestation of some aspect of our true self. If you are acting in a way that is not congruent with your core values, you are still doing it for a reason that is part of your overall personality – that is part of your “true self.” If you are engaging in biased processing, or being insincere, these are part of who you are also – otherwise you wouldn’t be doing them.

In the end we have to recognize that we are very complex and multifaceted psychological and intellectual beings, and our thoughts and behaviors are the net result of a very messy process. All of it makes up ourselves. Identifying some subset of all this as our “authentic” selves is just self-serving ego-gratification. Kaufman, I think, convincingly argues that it is not a useful concept in psychology, except perhaps to study how people use the concept.

The notion of authenticity may also be related to another concept in psychology – internal vs external behavioral factors. There is something called the fundamental attribution error. We tend to attribute our own faulty behavior to external factors, while assuming other people’s behavior is due to internal factors. If I do something wrong it’s because the situation forced my hand. If someone else does something wrong it’s because they are a bad person. The concept of authenticity may serve the attribution error. When I do something wrong I am not being my authentic self, but you are.

However the sliver of truth here might be that extreme enough external factors may cause us to act in a way that is not congruent with our self-image and our normal behavior. An extremely non-violent person may be forced to act violently in order, for example, to protect a loved-one. They might think – that is not who I am. I am a victim of the situation. This is a common theme in fiction, where everyday people come to do extraordinary things (good or bad) because of unusual circumstances.

The courts even recognize this concept. There is the reasonable person standard – would your average reasonable person have acted this way given the circumstances? Is the defendant a victim of those circumstances, or are they really just a bad person who deserves to be punished?

But even here I don’t see how the concept of the authentic self adds anything to our understanding of human behavior.

What about for physical objects – is there a difference between an authentic object and an exact copy? Sometimes the concept is framed as “historicity.” Is there any intrinsic value to the microscope used by Charles Darwin because it was used by Charles Darwin? People pay more money for props that were used on screen, or for memorabilia that has a connection to some famous person or event. We feel as if this gives us a connection to history. But does it?

I have heard this question offered as the last bastion of magical thinking for skeptics, or the last hold out of faith for atheists. Bruce Hood argues that the concept of historicity of objects is a manifestation of our psychological tendency to imbue people and things with a magical “essence.” It’s part of human psychology.

I think these are all reasonable arguments, but not complete. There is some legitimate value in objects with genuine historicity. First there is rarity. There can be only one Darwin’s actual microscope (actually he owned several microscopes, but you get the idea). There can be many similar microscopes, but only one that sat on his desk, that he peered through for hours, and used to make certain discoveries. Rarity has value. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. I know this is a bit of a circular argument – the rarity is based on the concept of historicity, which is justified by rarity. But that is often how markets work. People want things because other people want those things. Value is mostly subjective, except for direct utilitarian value.

But I think the most objectively valuable thing about historicity is the unknown. There may be something that scientific investigation can tell us about Darwin or his discoveries by examining his physical microscope. This is unlikely, but to give a more obvious example – let’s consider the Shroud of Turin. Obviously any scientific investigation into the age and exact nature of this artifact requires the authentic artifact, not a copy.

Authenticity has undeniable value when considering whether an alleged artifact has historical use. Is that really Lincoln’s diary (to pick a random made-up example), or is it a modern forgery? The former can give us genuine insights into the mind of an historically important figure, and serve to document some details of history. The latter is worthless. Unless, ironically, it becomes a famous hoax, and then has value for the history of the attempted forgery itself. It will tell us about the mind, intentions, and historical context of the forger, if not Lincoln himself (a genuine fraud).

As an example of the currently unknown value to science, prior to DNA analysis we had no idea that physical objects could retain microscopic treasure troves of evidence about their history. Archaeologists used to clean artifacts when they found them. Now doing so would be scientifically destructive. Did Darwin suffer from some specific disease? Maybe his microscope retains some tiny clue.

I think that scientists value genuine articles for this reason, and this increases the respect and value for genuineness itself. Historicity isn’t just some magical essence – it is history. Objects are one type of document of history, and authenticity in this regard matters.

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