Inspired living

Are you true to you?


In Act 1, Scene 3 of Hamlet Polonius offers the advice “This above all, to thine own self be true”. Although Shakespeare’s original intended meaning may have been a little more prosaic than the way we take it these days, this phrase strikes a chord for anyone has ever had to compromise their values. When you behave in ways that conflict with your sense of your “true” self then it is uncomfortable and new research shows that your behaviour changes as a result.

Researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities conducted a series of experiments that were based around asking subjects to either write about a time when they had behaved in an “inauthentic” way or when they had behaved in authentic way. Instances of inauthenticity might be anything such as “faking it” to try and fit in with a crowd.

In the first experiment the researchers found that people who wrote about being inauthentic reported feeling more out of touch with their true selves and feeling impure, dirty or tainted compared to people who write about feeling authentic. They also showed lower moral self-regard and rated themselves as less generous and co-operative.

The researchers then found that people prompted to write about inauthenticity were more likely to fill in missing letters in words to make cleansing related words; so “w _ _ h” was more likely to be completed as “wash” than “wish”. These subjects also reported a greater tendency to want to engage in cleansing behaviours and use cleansing products.

Finally, people who had thought about being inauthentic were more likely to help the experimenter with a 15 minute test than were people who wrote about when they had failed a test or just about what they had done on the previous day. The failing a test scenario was included to distinguish inauthentic memories from just “bad” memories. However, “inauthentic” subjects were less likely to help the experimenter when they had the chance to wash their hands with handwash. It seems the “washing” of the hands expunged the moral guilt of having been inauthentic.

So when you behave inauthentically it seems that your sense of your moral self is damaged and you need to reassert it. Of course, in the real world where you have to serve the organisation you work for, or the clients of that organisation, what you “have” to do will not always be in total accord with your inner sense of your self and your moral compass will be knocked askew so that you need to compensate. At the very least you might want to keep a container of handwash nearby… “Out, damned spot! Out!”.


Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.