Out-of-character past mistakes can help us improve ourselves

HAMILTON, New Zealand — As much as we all would like to be, no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes and in the heat of the moment poor decisions and wrong choices happen. In many cases, these mistakes go directly against how we define ourselves. A new study by researchers at the University of Waikato investigated how out-of-character past mistakes influence how we see ourselves moving forward. They conclude that memories of times when we weren’t true to ourselves or our beliefs serve as motivation and guidance to be better and more authentic in the future.

Researchers analyzed how both authentic and inauthentic past actions impact people in the long-run via a series of surveys focusing on authenticity in the workplace. The team selected an employment setting since prior studies suggest that employees often feel like they’re in a “tug of war” at the workplace over staying true to themselves and adhering to strict rules or occupational expectations. For example, when a manager asks a lower-level employee to lie.

An analysis of all that data revealed that people tend to use memories of authentic actions, or instances in which we stayed true to ourselves, as validation to further define or enhance our sense of identity and self-knowledge. Moreover, when we’re feeling truly authentic, it usually leads to greater self-fulfillment in general.

“Data from the past decades has provided strong support for this view by demonstrating that authenticity is positively related to engagement in work and to well-being in general, and is therefore of distinct value for individuals, employing organizations and society at large,” says study co-author Dr. Anna Sutton in a media release.

Using mistakes to redefine ourselves

Memories of past actions and decisions serve as the basis for each person’s ever evolving self-concept, study authors explain.

“For example, a memory of the past may be used to determine the extent to which one has changed or developed over time. This evaluation is seen as providing a link between who I am now and who I was then, creating a coherent developmental understanding of sometimes discrepant behaviors or attitudes,” Dr. Sutton adds.

When it comes to recalling past mistakes or inauthentic decisions, researchers say thinking back on those occasions isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Reflecting on the moments we would rather forget “has an adaptive function within the greater plot of our lives” that helps us better navigate and succeed in future scenarios.

“This is a small-scale study,” Dr. Sutton notes, “so of course we need to explore this area further. But it’s very exciting that we’re starting to see how we use memories of authentic and inauthentic experiences in quite different ways, and that both can be beneficial.”

“By clarifying these memory functions, we hope to have provided the basis for developing future interventions that may improve authenticity and well-being,” the study authors conclude.

The study appears in the journal Social Psychological Bulletin.