Thursday, May 20, 2010

Faking It Won't Make It

"The hardest thing in the world to fake," the old saying goes, "is sincerity". Like all successful and durable one-liners, this pokes at a truth: ultimately, authenticity cannot be mimicked. It's an observation that resonates increasingly.

In marketing and beyond, authenticity can be treated as something of a buzz word and is often cast as a trend ('2010 is the year of authenticity'). This misses the central role that authentic communication and truthfulness play in our lives, and in the way we interact with each other. Except for a few saints and angels, all of us play a false note some time, and register from others how much it devalues us. Being true is what matters most, what rewards most.

There are ethical reasons for pursuing authentic relationships with people in your private and professional life, and also compelling practical reasons.

We live in a world where, ever more, voices clamor for the fractured attention of a less and less receptive audience. By necessity, people are more decisive in selecting the people and organizations they engage with. We rely on a well-tuned antenna for fakery, an intuitive and often unconscious gut-check to navigate the smog of unending data. We weed out more than just big-talking sales archetypes; rather, we filter voices of all volumes and persuasions, alert for signals of emotional truth relevant to our lives, as well as timely and resonant.

The impact of inauthentic behavior on how we act and interact is revealed by a new study published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science. Researchers from Harvard Business School, Duke University and the University of North Carolina showed that, when two groups are allocated branded sunglasses - and one is told they have the real thing, and the other that they are fake - the counterfeit group is shown to later cheat on tests, as well as harbor negative thoughts about themselves and others. The study showed that the ’counterfeit’ group was oblivious to this negative behavior, leading the authors to call their study, "The Counterfeit Self: The Deceptive Costs of Faking It".

If something as trivial as a pair of fake sunglasses can play such havoc with our behavior, then the psychological power of authenticity can't be ignored. In an age where there are enough facts to go around to fit any argument, and where proof for any proposition is a mouse-click away, only authentic stories grounded in truth will go the distance (I'm not a fan of Nike's redemption spot using Tiger's father's words for this very reason).