Becoming Authentic: The Fallacy of the Unique Personality
Why Personalities Are Not Unique
In 1948, psychologist Bertram Forer gave his introductory psychology students a questionnaire and told them that they would each receive a unique personality analysis based on their answers. But unbeknownst to his students, Bertram was conducting an experiment. Instead of each student getting a unique analysis, each student got the following paragraph:
“You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity, which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others’ statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life.”
The students scored the paragraph on a five-point scale. Zero meant that the paragraph didn’t relate to them at all; five meant it absolutely related. The average rating given by the students was 4.26. It was said that Forer actually took the astrology section from the prior night’s newspaper and copied a line here and a line there. He wasn’t even scientific in writing the paragraph.
Synchronicity or Subjective Validation?
Often we read something that appears to relate to us, and we confuse it with synchronicity. When we are living our truth, life does take on a magical quality where things seem to line up. We’re at the perfect place at the perfect time. The world seems to give us road signs pointing in the direction of our goals and dreams. Those meaningful coincidences provide a carrot for staying true to our Self. Synchronicity pulls us forward.
On the other hand, Bertram Forer’s experiment fit within the realm of subjective validation. Subjective validation occurs when we accept a statement as valid or even true because we can identify with some part of it. Our false self uses identification with generalizations to justify our limitations or weaknesses and hold us back in life. It labels our characteristics normal and unchangeable. It might even connect our weaknesses to a false sense of humility.
Psychics, clergy, and even used car salesmen are often accused of using subjective validation-type manipulation. Their statements are general enough to fit a wide range of people. We can’t deny the statement so we accept it. This effect works so well because all of us have a desire to be seen and to be understood. If we can’t be seen as our true Self, being seen as a false self appears to be the next best thing.
A Sucker Born Every Minute
This effect has also been used in marketing, and it is called the Barnum Effect after the circus magnum P.T. Barnum’s observation that he had something for everyone. Barnum is also credited by many (although it is unproven) as having been the author of the famous quote “There is a sucker born every minute.” Oddly, these two quotes have more in common than appears at first glance. Many have used Barnum’s ideas as a formula for success when it is actually a formula for manipulating people to think they want or need your product.
The paragraph authored by Forer, for his unsuspecting students, describes a very common state of mind, as well as a common personality. If you think in this way, you would feel like you fit in with most people. You would feel like you could sympathize with others. You’d feel understood. Most people would probably say that you were likeable. But what you would not be is unique or authentic.
Most personalities are designed for the purpose of fitting in. We develop the facade that gets us into the right group or the persona that gets us attention or accolades. Sometimes our personalities get us the girl or guy or the job. We create personalities because we feel that our true Self won’t accomplish the end we seek. In short, personalities are mostly about impressing others.
The Roots of the Persona
The etymology of the word persona comes from the ancient theatre. It relates to the idea of wearing a mask or a character. But I once learned in an ancient theatre class that characters were usually chosen not because they could act the part but because they matched the part. It seems that the idea of acting like someone else is a relatively modern concept.
This made perfect sense to me. I still remember the day when I first realized that I could pretend to be someone else. I was about 24 years old. I was standing in the street in front of my house. By this time, I had been married for a few years to a man who had already mastered the art of the persona. In many ways, I thought he was a great communicator. He seemed to have the right line for every occasion.
I, on the other hand, seemed to embarrass myself on a regular basis. Whatever I thought just exploded out of my mouth; I didn’t have a filter or a mute switch. Suddenly, I felt my mind split, and I realized that I had a secret world within my mind. I could now say one thing and think another. I’ve told this story many times, and people laugh and call me a slow learner.
Let’s face it; the big money earners in our society are often great actors. But perhaps there is more to the story. A persona is not bad; in fact, it can be quite entertaining. But we have to know that it is a persona. When we think that we are the characters we play, we lose ourselves. Since I remembered what life was like before my mind split, I was not happy with my new and improved persona even thought it brought me attention and accolades. I missed my true Self. I felt incredibly incongruent.
True Self or Persona?
I learned a great lesson from watching an interview with the actor, Forest Whitaker. In “The Last King of Scotland,” Whitaker played the brutal Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin. He said that he really had to transform his mind to play that role, and it took him three months to shake off the personality of Idi Amin. “Wait a minute,” I thought, “Three months to shake off a persona. That’s all it takes.” We aren’t talking about Bambi’s personality. We’re talking about Idi Amin.
That got me thinking, great actors do take on the full persona of their character. But like Whitaker, when the show is over, they shake off the persona. How can they do that in such a short period of time when most people wear their persona for a lifetime? The answer was so easy. They can do it because they know it is not them. That is the secret to returning to our true Self.
Our ancient ancestors knew how to discriminate between the true Self and the false self or persona. But most human’s today, can’t distinguished between the two. The true Self can be described in words that speak of unity. Freedom, unconditional love, beauty, joy, peace, truth, wisdom, omnipotence are all words that were not created to have an opposite. They are just plain true. We are all born with these qualities. And while we cover them up with beliefs and character traits that form our persona, we never lose those divine gifts. What Forer described were traits that are common in the false self. We only think they are true because they are common. The good news is that since they are false, we can let them go just like Whitaker let go of Idi Amin. When we let them go, we return to the true qualities that I described.
So the key lesson to learn from Forer’s experiment and P.T. Barnum’s success formula is not what most people learned from these two men. Wherever we identified with Forer’s paragraph, we are not yet authentic. Our true Self never has a need for approval; it is never critical. It has no unused capacity or weakness. The true Self is unemotional; it doesn’t worry. It knows it is safe and secure. It never has to make a decision; the next step is always obvious. It has no pride. It is truthful without fear of being misunderstood. It is neither extroverted nor introverted. And since it can do anything, no goal is unrealistic.
Forer’s paragraph made sense to so many of us because authorities convinced us that we are limited, insecure, and weak. Somehow society turned our innocence into gullibility and sold the false-self model as right and good. We’ve proven Barnum and his cronies right and made them rich men. But Forest Whitaker’s experience offers a powerful secret. We can shake off a persona and just be ourselves when we realize what is true and what is false, moment-by-moment, day-by-day. When we stop listening to our false self, we no longer believe others who capitalize on it. Slowly that gap in our mind goes away, we return to our true Self; and we enjoy the life we were born to live.
Cathy Eck is the founder of Gateway To Gold and her blog http://gatewaytogold.com. She has studied the ancient mystery school teachings for decades. She is passionate about cracking the code of life’s greatest mysteries and translating the ancient wisdom in a way that is practical, simple, and empowering so that everyone can remember their true Self and live a perfect life.