Hakuna Matata: Does being happy make experiences feel more authentic?

Weirdly, or perhaps not so weirdly, I discovered from the article featured in this post that watching the Lion King movie puts people in a good mood, and is often used in psychological research for that purpose. Alison Lenton, Letitia Slabu, Constantine Sedikides, and Katherine Power, used the Lion King to get their subjects in the mood for their 2013 study I feel good, therefore I am real: Testing the causal influence of mood on state authenticity. published in Cognition & Emotion.

The Take Aways
The study found that getting people in a relatively good mood (as opposed to a neutral or sad mood) correlated more strongly with their reports of feeling more authentic, or more themselves, after the target experience. The study included three different experiments, all arriving at the same conclusion.

This study builds on others similar studies demonstrating that the self-reporting of authenticity is higher when people are in a positive mood; and that the correlation of  positivity and authenticity in these self-reports. There are various reasons that this might be the case. Some are ventured (and supported through other studies mentioned in this article). For example, acting in misalignment with one’s inner self (lying) does not feel as good, and requires more effort, being transparent.

The study is quite in-depth and offers many other fascinating insights, but for this post I can’t get past this: people think authenticity correlates with feeling good, and with good things. But does it?

Existential Authenticity
Authenticity is not about positivity or negativity. Authenticity, from a psychological and philosophical perspective, is about the alignment of the inner and outer selves.

This study is so interesting because it is looking at affect (emotional state) and its relationship to perceptions of authenticity. A positive correlation between positive affect and authenticity suggests to me that people think they are feeling more authentic when they are feeling good, because authenticity feels good. (Hence why it is considered an experiential marketing strategy). Is this positivity an inner feeling (because we don’t have to exert the energy to pretend we are something we are not) or is this because we are conditioned to associate authenticity with happiness (even though catfishing makes some people feel good).

Philosophers Kierkegaard and Heidegger, are two foundational figures of existentialism who spent quite a bit of time on the authenticity question. They did not feel that authenticity necessarily correlated to happiness or positivity. They did ascribe a positive value to aligning ones inner self, they didn’t really mean one would be happy.

So, how closely related is happiness to authenticity? The cynic in me says that happiness positively correlates to authenticity because we want to believe that we are happier when our inner and outer selves align. But is that belief a a constructed version of ourselves, like our Facebook and Linked In pages? Or, is the relief of not having a facade, not having to fake our emotion, what makes us happy–even if we are miserable inside?

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Ads in the Digital Age: Does more entertaining = more authentic?

Zhihong Gao , Hongxia Zhang & Sherry F. Li address some fascinating questions in their 2014 article “Consumer Attitudes Toward Advertising in the Digital Age: A China–United States Comparative Study” in the Journal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising. As they point out, advertising in the digital age is not just more pervasive than ever before; part of the digital advertising experience is not just about exposing your to messages, but is also about capturing your behaviour in order to more effectively sell to you in future.

Gao’s study asks some interesting questions. For example, in heavily regulated advertising environments, like China, do consumers feel advertising should be more heavily regulated? (They do.) In a society that has been consumerist for longer, like the USA, do they feel more strongly that advertising promotes materialism? (They do.)

Gao’s study also draws a connection between the entertainment value of advertising and the halo effect this has on the consumer’s view of the institution sas well as advertising in general:

“This study also found that positive beliefs toward advertising correlated with each other. Thus, a consumer entertained by advertisements may be more likely to see the institution as playing a positive role in other areas, which in turn helps generate a favorable attitude toward advertising in general. On the flip side, the same can be said about negative beliefs, which also correlated with each other in this study. Thus, a consumer who considers advertising as corrupting social values is also likely to find it false and intrusive.”

The study demonstrated that when advertising reaches saturation point it begins to have a negative effect on the consumer’s perception of advertising, and often associated institutions. The authors point to the dissatisfaction rating with Facebook, tied to its increased advertising presence and more pervasive data collection of its users.

The Take Aways
Why would entertaining advertising be somehow more acceptable than informational advertising? And why would the halo effect of making advertising content entertainment not only affect the institution but also affect advertising in general?

One of the reasons this is an important question is because advertising in the digital age goes beyond traditional broadcast content (like TV), search engine sponsorship (like Adwords) or banner ads.  Institutions, commercial and non-commercial alike are competing with each other for eyeballs across the internet by developing content they hope will go viral amongst their audience. an old standby  in traditional advertising is to make your ad so entertaining that people will watch it again and again; in the digital world that usually results in a viral ad: the gold standard of content creators everywhere.

Do viral ads lead to more sales? It worked for Blendtec, a blender company that, with their Will It Blend channel uses their product as a kind of postmodern form of entertainment. Although their blender sales did not increase at te same rate as their page views, they reported exponential sales in their product since the campaign commenced. But then it might not work for everyone, as there is no evidence that the cute and cuddly Budweiser Superbowl ads lead to more Bud consumption.

The ads that go viral for the right reasons (their entertainment value) do demonstrate their ability to resonate with us on an authentic level, cutting through the noise and jabber of ubiquitous advertising to speak to something in us. And they do this through understanding cultural cues that trigger genuine emotion. When we watch the puppy and horse in the Bud ad engage in an anthropomorphised relationship, we know that the connection is unlikely. We know that the horse is a Clydesdale, a totem of the Budweiser company.  But it pushes buttons in us that makes us want to see the puppy united with that horse over and over again.

Constructive Authenticity
Constructive authenticity is about using cultural codes to engender authentic communication of key messages. For Blendtec, who recently used their product to blend an iPhone 5 (destroying consumer electronics is a mainstay of their videos), the key message they are sending is that their blender is powerful. The way in which they send it is through a television mainstay tropes of game shows and mad scientist laboratories. They also gleefully destroy things, which has also been a broadcast television mainstay, often on late night TV. By combining these cultural tropes, they create a sense of entertainment, as well as nostalgia and authentic connections.

How many TripAdvisor reviews are fake? And does it matter?

Full disclosure: I am not the first to write about this groundbreaking research in this blog post. The Economist beat me to it in their article  “TripAdvisor’s fake battle”. This article by Mayzlin, Dover & Chevalier and published on the Social Science Research Network in 2012 is called “Promotional Reviews: An Empirical Investigation of Online Review Manipulation”. As the title suggests, the focus of the paper is are customer reviews, specifically fake ones. They use an economist’s perspective to theorise who may profit the most from false positive and false negative reviews on travel sites. Then they test the theory using Expedia.com as a control group (as only those who book through Expedia can post reviews there) versus TripAdvisor as an experimental group (where anyone can post a review without evidence of ever having stayed at the accommodation). They do a whole bunch of other stuff to ensure their data is valid for comparison.

Before going to the take aways, there are two things to note. First, more research on inauthentic reviews have to do with what people say in their review. These authors pioneer a new way of looking at it, by looking at probabilities of reviews being fake by both the context of the review, reviewer and the object of the review. Second, this is the first study that uses a control and experimental group for reviews in this particular way. Third, these authors theorise about who is most likely to post fake reviews and then look at those specific profiles.

The Take Aways
This article really has to be read, because the reason the authors believe what they do, and then the way they go about testing their theory is really fantastic. I don’t like to gush, but this is Freakonomics territory. Some takeaways:

(1) The authors posit that accommodation providers most likely to post false reviews (positive on their site, negative on their adjacent competition’s site) are independently-owned or small operators (or both). Their study supports this.

(2) The authors posit that fake reviews are more likely to be either 1, 2 or 5 star. Fake reviews are more likely to come from single posters (reviewers with only one or two posts). The data bears out that this is likely to be the case.

(3) The authors posit there is more positive manipulation (fake good feedback about your own hotel) than negative manipulation (fake negative feedback about the competition in the neighborhood). The study bears this out.

(4) The authors propose that about five percent of reviews are fake for isolated small hotels. The authors propose if a hotel is not isolated, the number of fake reviews would climb to about 10 percent.

(5) Although there is more manipulation for positive reviews, the effect of a negative review on the average star rating of a hotel is more significant. Therefore, although there are less fake negative reviews, they carry a greater weight overall in affecting the hotels overall score.

(6) In their study, 23% of the TripAdvisor reviews would have been eligible to be considered fake. They were posted by one time reviewers and were on the extreme end of the spectrum.

The authors conclude that even though the proportion of reviews that can be considered fake is high, they are not attempting to prove that any one particular review is fake, and they do not believe that the proportion necessarily negatively affects the customer impressions on an open-ended system: “Our empirical results show that the hotels are essentially able to self-police so that while they engage in some manipulation, the amount is not big enough to overwhelm the informational value of the site.”

Objective Authenticity
This post focuses on Objective Authenticity. According to Wang (1999), Objective Authenticity is when something is what it claims to be. Whereas one of the sites studies uses a system where only those who book through the system can leave a review, the other is an open system, meaning anyone can post. All you need is an email.

Objective authenticity is really important for these site’s credibility. An open system is attractive because it casts the widest net for opinions; however it leaves the largest margin for duplicity.

Moreover, an averaging star rating based on reviews means that negative reviews (fake or authentic) weigh more significantly than positive ones. So those with an intent to punish n establishment, are more incentivised to generate a lower score.

TripAdvisor has mechanisms to attempt to weed out fakes. They have an internal system, as well as the ability for hotel operators to identify reviews that may by fake. However whether something is fake or not is left to TripAdvisor to adjudicate.

Sure, there is a bit of caveat emptor here. If one is using a site to make a buying decision, it would behove one to understand how the site works. However, presumably the credibility of the site, and the reviews on it, also something that grows and changes as the person uses, or doesn’t use the site.

However, if users of the site found that the reviews on the site did not mirror their experience in some way, it would not be as successful as it is. Existential Authenticity, is where someone’s experience is consistent with a product expectation, with enough variance to engender genuineness, develops when one’s experience is close enough to TripAdvisor for the user to decide it is a useful guide, without the expectation that their experience is exactly what TripAdvisor says.

Why does catfishing make some people feel good?

A recent (2014) paper by Leonard Reinecke and Sabine Trapte in the journal Computers in Human Behaviour indicates that authentic, positive social network interaction can enhance well-being offline. Their article “Authenticity and well-being on social network sites: A two-wave longitudinal study on the effects of online authenticity and the positivity bias in SNS communication” has a few key findings on authenticity and social media engagement that are hard to ignore.

The Take Aways
First, this paper consolidates previous studies about individual contributions to social networks. The research indicates that positive messages in social media generate more engagement than neutral or negative messages. This positive bias encourages people to post positive messages (rather than negative) on these networks.

Second, when authentically positive messages are posted and social engagement occurs (usually positive in response), it has the effective of increasing the wellbeing of the person who posts the comment. So this means someone who is already feeling positive, then posts something positive, gets lots of engagement from their online friends, and then (offline) feeling more positive.

Third, people who did not have high levels of well being, regardless of how much engagement their post generates and how (inauthentically positive) it may be, do not get an increase in well-being form their social media interaction.

So basically, authentic online positive social media interactions increase well-being.

How this relates to catfishing
A catfish is someone who uses a false identity on the internet, usually in a romantic context. If the TV show Catfish is anything to go by, then most catfishers are people who are not happy in their own lives.

Many of the catchers claim that the only part of the relationship that was inauthentic was their identity (Objective and Commercial Authenticity). They claim the core of their interaction (Cultural and Existential Authenticity) was authentic. Applying this study, we can infer that when the catfisher is engaging the catifshee in discussions about their (positive) feelings that the interaction generates offline well-being for the catfisher.

So, even though they are pretending to be someone else, catfishers are gaining genuine greater well being from positive interactions as their assumed identity.

So are catfishing relationships authentic? If they generate authentic feelings on both sides, isn’t there something real going on?

The answer to that question is yes and no. If you use the 360 Degree Authenticity analysis, the catfishers will likely have some authenticity (Constructive, Existential) but not other kinds (Objective, Commercial). As the 360 degree model treats authenticity as a holistic measure, without having all the kinds of authenticity in place, one is not authentic from every angle.

And before getting all judgy about online catfishers, I have personally been witness to many an offline relationship where Objective authenticity was in play, but Existential authenticity was absent. Just because you say who you really are, doesn’t men both people are authentically invested in the relationship whether you are online or offline. If you want evidence of that, just watch one of my other favourite (MTV) reality shows: Teen Mom 3.

Authenticity in a Terrible Tweet

Generally these posts will be about articles on authenticity. However, an incident occurred on Twitter recently that is just crying out for authenticity analysis.

The Incident
Geoffrey Miller, a tenured professor in the USA, recently tweeted to prospective PhD students “Dear obese PhD applicants: If you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation #truth“. Predictably, the internet world freaked out. Miller then did a few things:

First, he deleted the tweet.

Then he apologised.

Then, when the scrutiny did not abate, he claimed the tweet was part of a research project. However neither of the institutions he works for indicated he had applied for ethics for such a project. This meant that either he was conducting research not sanctioned by his institutions (unlikely) or he was making that up as an excuse (lying, in other words).

Then a completely unrelated study found that if you are obese, especially if you are a woman, you are less likely to be selected for postgraduate study, due to a bias on behalf of those performing candidate selection.

For those of us interested in authenticity, this is an interesting situation. I don’t know Miller, but I am guessing his tweet was authentic. I believe him when he indicated that opinion, and there is no evidence to the contrary. In fact, in his apology, he apologised for saying it–not for thinking it.

Moreover, the subsequent study demonstrated that not only is Miller authentic about his own opinion, he likely gave voice to opinions held by others (at least on some PhD admissions boards).

So was authenticity s good thing in this case?

The case analysed through 360da
Let’s run through this case quickly on a 360da grid:

Objective: Miller tweeted his own opinion under his own name, and represented himself accurately as far as we can see.

Constructive: Miller did not take into account the number of people who would see and then react to his tweet. If this isn’t the reaction he was looking for (and it doesn’t seem to be) then he made a serious misstep. However, the message was authentic, he was authentic when he was saying it and…the audience received it in an authentic way. So his authenticity on this note was 100%; the wrong note was his expectation that people agree with him.

Commercial: Miller was true to himself. Although his tweet didn’t do much for him from a public relations perspective; he knows who he is and potentially just attracted a whole bunch of carb-hating prospective grad students his way.

Existential: His inauthentic move was to apologise and delete the tweet; he would have seemed like a more authentic person if he admitted it was badly worded but it was his perspective as an evolutionary psychologist (and then provided research demonstrating his reasons for thinking it). Instead he was forced by social forces to retract his comment. Giving in to those forces is an inauthentic move.

The verdict
Miller said what he genuinely thought; then tried to backtrack which came across as grossly inauthentic. Then it was revealed that others share his view–they just don’t talk about it (they might not even be aware they share his view). Transparency is a big part of authenticity, so Miller gets points for that.

What is interesting about this case is that his authenticity is, to many, socially repulsive. It is not socially acceptable in a lot of cultures to declare that fat people are less worthy of something than thin people. So although his comments are authentic, this case doesn’t make many look on Miller more positively.

The institutions he represents attempt to maintain the perception of an intellectual meritocracy: where students earn their place through academic rigour. Not eating carbs is not considered academic rigour. And although Miller might have a large say in who ends up being his students, his institution does too. So his perspective as a staff member of a university was not authentic to his employer. And it angered them.

Moreover, rather than put forward the scientific evidence to support his view, he backtracked. This will have lost those (silent) people out there that agree with his point of view. It also made him come across as someone who uses his academic credentials to give his opinion, rather than take an evidence-based approach to his views.

The take away
First, and most obviously, understand the medium one uses to broadcast a message. There is a cautionary tale here for those of us who forget that the internet=the whole world. The whole world=people who don’t agree with you.

Secondly, be prepared to support your view authentically, especially if it is a controversial view.

Thirdly, if you represent an organisation when you say something, that organisation pays you and you wish to continue to be paid, it is important to take into consideration the way that organisation sees itself and wishes to have the public see it.

From a marketing perspective, it is OK to be controversial. It is one of the ways that we make our product/brand stand out. However, doing it strategically, authentically and unapologetically is an approach that Miller, and the rest of us, can learn from.