When do you feel the most authentic, or true to yourself? Does this depend on your personality? For example, would introverts (people who tend to be quiet and introspective) answer this question differently than extraverts (those who tend to be bold and sociable)? You might think that you would feel most authentic when you act in line with your general level of extraversion as that is how you typically act. But that's not the case. Regardless of how introverted or extraverted people usually are, research shows that they feel more authentic when they act more extraverted.

This finding seems counterintuitive, and led us to ask the question: Why is it that people feel more authentic when being more extraverted?

Positive Affect as an Explanation

One of the most robust findings in personality psychology is that extraverts feel more positive emotions. Might positive emotions explain the link between extraversion and authenticity? Several theories in the psychological literature support this idea. First, people might use their positive emotions as a rule of thumb for judging authenticity: "I feel good, so I must be acting like myself." Positive feelings might also lead to approaching goals and exploring new environments, behaviors that could be viewed as steps toward one's true potential. And positive affect could signal broader perceptions of flourishing, including authenticity.

Putting the Positive Affect Explanation to the Test

We conducted a few studies testing whether positive affect explains the link between extraverted behavior and authenticity. In one study, 97 undergraduate participants interacted in group activities once a week over 10 weeks. The activities included playing Twister, trying to solve the parking problem on campus, and discussing the meaning of a painting. The activities were meant to produce variation in behaviors, including introverted and extraverted behaviors. After each session, participants rated their extraversion, positive affect, and authenticity during the activity. We found that, regardless of trait extraversion, people felt more authentic when acting extraverted and that positive affect partially explained this association. That is, when people acted more extraverted, they felt more authentic, and part of the reason was because they also felt more positive.

Because the previous study took place in a somewhat contrived laboratory setting, we tried to replicate our findings as people went about their daily lives. In one study, we simply asked 129 adult participants to report on their extraversion, positive affect, and authenticity over the previous hour 4 times per day for 15 days. In another study, we wanted to see whether the results would hold when we told people to behave in certain ways. In this study, 147 adult participants were divided into two groups. One group was told to act extraverted in their daily interactions: "In your interactions with other people across the next week, act in a bold, talkative, outgoing, active, and assertive way, as much as possible." The other group was told to act more introverted: "In your interactions with other people across the next week, act in an unassuming, sensitive, calm, modest, and quiet way, as much as possible." Participants reported on their extraversion, positive affect, and authenticity over the previous hour 6 times per day for 1 week.

We thought that instructing people to behave in different ways might negate the benefits of extraversion for authenticity. However, in both studies, positive feelings explained nearly all the association between extraverted behavior and authenticity, and this held for introverts and extraverts alike.

An Invitation for Introverts

Regardless of whether you're in a lab situation, free to choose your actions in daily life, or told to act in a certain way, our studies suggest that extraverted behavior is associated with authenticity, and that this can be explained by increased positive affect. Does this mean introverts should act extraverted all the time to experience the benefits of positivity and authenticity? Is your "real" self extraverted, even if you identify as an introvert?

We wouldn't go so far as to make such claims. After all, differences between people in personality and behavior are inherently valuable and may be adaptive in different situations. And some research shows that increasing extraversion over longer time periods can fatigue more introverted people. However, introverts worried that acting extraverted could feel phony or fake can be reassured that they may feel better and potentially more like themselves, at least in the short term. And when introverts act extraverted, perhaps it is not a contradiction of their real selves, but rather a normal and natural way of behaving that could come with psychological benefits.

For Further Reading

Wilt, J. A., Sun, J., Jacques-Hamilton, R., & Smillie, L. D. (2023). Why does it feel authentic to be and act extraverted? Exploring the mediating role of positive affect. Self and Identity, 22(6), 896-931. https://doi.org/10.1080/15298868.2023.2246672

Fleeson, W., & Wilt, J. (2010). The relevance of Big Five trait content in behavior to subjective authenticity: Do high levels of within-person behavioral variability undermine or enable authenticity achievement? Journal of Personality, 78(4), 1353-1382. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.2010.00653.x

Jacques-Hamilton, R., Sun, J., & Smillie, L. D. (2019). Costs and benefits of acting extraverted: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(9), 1538. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000516

Joshua A. Wilt is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. His research focuses on existential issues such as authenticity, meaning, and religion/spirituality, as well as personality structure, process, and dynamics.

Jessie Sun is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Her research focuses on moral improvement, the connections between well-being and morality, and which kinds of social experiences matter for well-being.

Rowan Jacques-Hamilton is a Scientific Assistant at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence. His research includes topics related across personality psychology and behavioral ecology, with a particular interest in well-being and quantitative methods.

Luke D. Smillie is an Associate Professor in the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. His research focuses causes and consequences of individual differences in personality, with emphases on biological bases of personality as well as the implications of personality for individual and interpersonal outcomes, including emotion, well-being, and morality.