Designer knock-offs and Lana Del Rey: Our quest for authenticity

Would you ever consider buying a 'Chanel' bag out of a suitcase on the sidewalk? Would you feel ok about getting a cheaper version of one of those flashy Hermes belts? Chances are that you will be at least very hesitant about it. What about all those different high-street versions of the Isabel Marant Dicker boots? Or what if you got some MAC eyeshadows off the internet, but later found out that they're fake? But they worked just as well, so what's the problem? Hm....A few weeks ago Kristina from PinkChampagneBeauty asked me how psychologists would explain our strive for authenticity and why we are so adamantly against fakes. I did some research and it turns out that our obsession might not be a completely cultural phenomena, but instead something that's very innate to all humans.

First of all, we are generally fans of authentic stuff. We don't like frauds (definition= intentional deception made for personal gain or damage of others) and all legal systems have strict penalties for crimes like identity theft or false advertising. Our society also favours people that are authentic: those who have (or seem to have) a stable personality, solid values and, most importantly, no hidden motives. They say what they think and do what they think is right. We don't like anyone who seems to be hiding their true self or who we can convict of a hidden motive; and we are wary of those we can't quite figure out. We like our politicians to not ever change their mind because to us, consistent opinions are a sign of stable values and motives, thus authenticity. We also tend to get hung up on small, abstract details, i.e. inconsistencies of personalities. Lana del Rey is a good example of someone who received a lot of criticism for essentially not being authentic enough, for changing her name and look after a failed album for example. To the public (the authenticity police) these changes seem to indicate that she is hiding her true self (her original image and name), making her new image and name nothing more than an act that was put on to lure us into buying her songs.

So basically, authenticity is a highly sought after trait and the opposite isn't. To us, consumer goods with a fake label are essentially the same thing as a corrupt politician covering up his tracks, they are "something pretending to be something else", and we don't trust those kinds of things.

But why is that so?  We tend to feel an immediate negative reaction towards wearing fake goods, but a logical explanation for it is slightly harder to pin down. Technically,  if someone just adores the brown Louis Vuitton design but can't afford it, why shouldn't he buy the cheaper version? But also: what is so wrong about pretending to own an expensive hand bag? That's the thing about innate responses: they work instinctually; we don't make the decision to have them, we just have them. Our strive for authenticity is something like a protective mechanism. It protects a concept that is very important for our everyday life because it helps us make sense of the world.

Our world is filled with so many little pieces of information and we have to make a million decisions every day. We cannot possibly take in everything that is available to us and analyse it thoroughly each time, we would get absolutely nowhere. For that reason our brain has created lots of different systems and rules of thumb to enable us to make quick decisions. For example, if you are hungry you might recognise a tasty-looking apple on a tree. But what if that object that is shaped exactly like an apple, is really a painted rock? You would be super confused. Your brain's elaborate system for recognising apples is worthless if there are other things posing as apples. Your brain (and therefore you) wouldn't know what to think anymore.

Authenticity plays an equally big role for all kinds of social relationships. It is literally vital that we find out what a person's true intentions are, because in the worst-case scenario they could be nice to you and then stab you when you turn your back. Slightly less dramatic: they could steal from you or rip you off or even just pay you a compliment to get you to do something. Whenever we observe a person and hear them talk, we are subconsciously (or consciously) evaluating how trustworthy they are.

Another thing we judge in others is their status: their rank in a group, their financial standing, their social environment (which tells us about their attitudes and their values). These pieces of information will help us e.g. when choosing who to make business with, finding a partner or just finding people to get along with. One of the many ways we infer a person's status is by evaluating the clothes/jewellery/bags they wear, i.e. their status symbols (no matter how cheap or expensive an item is, if it lets others infer your status, it is a status symbol). This information is readily available because we all cover ourselves in status symbols everyday (which is fine, we have to wear something).

So when we wear something that pretends to be something else"(usually something cheap pretends to be something expensive") we are portraying a different kind of status to the one we truly have, in a sense we are pretending to be someone we are not.  That also means, we are messing up someone else's attempts to judge us.

Our quest for authenticity satisfies our need for authenticity: we need things (and especially people) to be what they really are to understand our world and because of our innate distaste for all things fake this, rule of authenticity is socially enforced, i.e. authentic things/people are applauded while frauds are punished. 

Note that the deception part is what makes an imitation a fraud: things are generally only considered not genuine if they pose as a genuine (usually more desirable) product. Consider all the high-street versions of the Isabel Marant Dicker boots.  No one would consider them a designer knock-off because they don't have a big fat Isabel Marant label on them, they are not posing as something else. Also, we are much more tolerant if people admit to faking things, like hiding information or even plastic surgery, because this reduces the lying/hidden motive aspect.

*image via Terry Richardson