Self-Perception Theory

In everyday life, people observe other people’s actions and behaviors and make inferences about others’ attitudes based on what they observe. When people see how another person acts in a particular situation, they often attribute the behavior to the person’s traits and attitudes. For example, if you view someone in a park recycling a plastic water bottle rather than throwing it in the garbage, you might infer that the individual is concerned about the environment. Similarly, if you witness a school child scowling at her teacher, you might infer that she is upset or angry with the teacher. Interestingly, sometimes people also observe their own behavior, much as an outsider might do, and make similar inferences about their own attitudes based on their behavior. According to self-perception theory, when people are unsure of their own attitudes, one way to infer them is by looking at their behaviors. Daryl Bem proposed self-perception theory in 1967 when he argued that people sometimes analyze their own behavior in the same fashion as they would analyze someone else’s behavior.

Self-Perception TheoryAt the time, Bem was proposing something that was counter to how people’s attitudes and behaviors were thought of. Most people would agree, for example, that a person who perceives himself or herself as interested in road biking may, as a result of that interest, buy bicycling equipment and go on long cycling rides. That is, the person’s attitudes and self-perception influence his or her behavior. Bem, however, reversed this relation by suggesting that it is also possible that people understand their attitudes and interests because they have made inferences based on their behavior. Thus, this person could infer that he or she is interested in road biking on the basis of frequent cycling trips and lavish spending on a nice road bike.

Self-perception theory provides a similar explanation for emotion by suggesting that people infer their emotions by observing their bodies and their behaviors. In other words, people’s emotions and other feelings come from such actions as facial expressions, postures, level of arousal and behaviors. In this way, feelings are consequences of behavior rather than the other way around. People are angry because they scowl and are happy because they smile—this is the self-perception effect.

Everyone has experienced the self-perception effect. Imagine for a moment that you have had a terrible day—several things have gone wrong and you feel very irritable and grouchy. However, you have made previous plans to meet up with some friends for a small social gathering that evening. When you arrive, you smile and elicit warm, polite behavior. When others at the gathering greet you with “Hi, how’s it going?” you respond with “Fine, how are you?” It is challenging to scowl and maintain your irritability at a party with friends. So, you smile instead and—in effect—pretend to be happy. For most of us, our original feelings of irritability decrease after smiling and exhibiting “happy” behavior. Our behavior changes our attitude.

Even the way people walk can affect the way they feel. Test this with yourself. When you get up, walk back and forth across the room, shuffling with your shoulders hunched and your eyes looking down at the floor. What do you feel? Similarly, imagine sitting slouched over all day, sighing when people speak to you and talking in a really low voice. You probably feel a bit down or depressed. Now try walking across the room taking long strides, swinging your arms high, and smiling. These different behaviors can elicit a different emotional experience.

Research Support for Self-Perception Theory

Several studies have been done since the proposal of self-perception theory that support Bem’s hypothesis. As self-perception theory predicts, research has demonstrated that people who are induced to act as if they feel something, such as happiness, report actually feeling it, even when they are unaware of how their feelings arose. This effect has been demonstrated for a wide variety of feelings and with an even wider variety of behaviors.

For example, in a simple study designed to demonstrate whether facial expression influenced affective responses—a phenomenon closely related to self-perception—psychologists examined whether facial expressions influenced individuals’ emotion responses to cartoons. To manipulate facial expressions or facial activity, subjects were asked to hold a pen in their mouth in one of two ways: (1) between their teeth with their lips open to facilitate the muscles typically associated with smiling or (2) pursed between their lips because it inhibited the muscles used during smiling. (Try this to see if you can get a sense of what your facial expressions would have been if you were in the experiment.) The task for the participants was to read a series of cartoons, with the pen in their mouth, and rate them for their degree of funniness. As self-perception theory would predict, the psychologists found that those who were holding the pen in between their teeth (facilitating a smile) reported higher levels of humor based on the cartoons than did the participants who were holding the pen between their lips. The researchers concluded that the perceived funniness of the cartoons depended on producing the muscle action involved in smiling.

The self-perception effect might also carry over to later behavior. For example, imagine that ordinarily you are shy at parties but have recently decided that you want to make new friends. You have decided that at the next party, you will make an effort to be especially talkative to meet new people and it goes well. This behavior influences your attitude about social behavior and leads you to perceive a greater outgoingness in yourself. The next time you are at a party, you exhibit outgoing social behavior without nearly as much effort. Act as if you are outgoing and you might become more so.

In a study demonstrating this carryover effect, researchers looked at the impact of a community service experience on adolescent volunteers’ levels of empathy, social responsibility, and concern for others. The findings from this study suggest that community service positively influences sympathy and compassion for others, sense of concern for society at large, and a willingness to take action to help others and the community. This demonstrates that the behavior— engaging in volunteer helping experience—can create a shift toward more caring and helping attitudes and sustained action in service.

In another interesting investigation of how behaviors affect attitudes, Mark Lepper and colleagues found giving people external reasons (e.g., monetary rewards) for performing a behavior they already enjoy decreases their intrinsic motivation to do it—a phenomenon called overjustification effect. For example, in a study testing this effect, children who were initially interested in a drawing activity reported significantly lower intrinsic interest in drawing after two weeks of receiving extrinsic reward, whereas children who did not receive external reward for engaging in the activity did not report a reduction in interest after the two weeks. According to self-perception theory, people undergo overjustification effect when their actions can no longer be attributed to their intrinsic motivation but, rather, to the anticipation of an extrinsic reward. In the previous example, the principles of self-perception theory would argue that the children’s initial interest in the activity was undermined by creating a situation in which activity was an explicit means to an extrinsic goal—in other words, the extrinsic rewards turned “play” (i.e., an activity engaged in for it’s own sake) into “work” (i.e., an activity engaged in only when extrinsic incentives are present).

In the decades following Bem’s original article, a great deal of research was aimed at trying to distinguish self-perception theory from the widely accepted cognitive dissonance theory, which argues that the inconsistency presented by believing one thing and doing another generates emotional discomfort that directs behavior toward the goal of reducing the inconsistency or dissonance. However, dissonance arises when there is inconsistency or hypocrisy between attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. Thus, attitudes or beliefs in these situations are known. Years of research in this area have led to the conclusion that cognitive dissonance and self-perception theories have different applications: Self-perception theory is more applicable in situations in which people’s attitudes are initially vague, ambiguous, or weak.

Importance and Implications of Self-Perception Theory

Because self-perception theory suggests that when people’s internal awareness of their attitudes or emotions is weak or ambiguous they can view themselves in much the same way as an outside observer, it is possible to rely upon external cues or behaviors to infer people’s inner states. You may be able to relate to the following experiences: “This is my second sandwich; I guess I was hungrier than I thought,” or, “I’ve been biting my nails all day; something must be bugging me.” In both cases, attitudes or emotions are inferred from the behavior. Thus, even if people are generally self-aware, they cannot always be accurate about why they feel the way they do. The self-perception effect allows people to gather important cues from their external environment and apply them to understand what attitudes or emotions they are experiencing internally.

The self-perception effect also may have an important application when attitudes and behaviors are incongruent or when behavior change is desired. For example, therapists working with individuals with alcohol addiction have reported that the principles of self-perception theory assist in creating change. Individuals who begin to consciously observe the amount they are drinking might infer from their behavior that they are tense or anxious and then do something about it other than drinking. Similarly, behavior change might inform individuals of their internal attitudes about drinking. For example, individuals who communicate their intentions about drinking out loud may infer their attitudes about drinking from hearing themselves speak. In other words, the behavior of telling others, “I am going to cut down on my drinking” may allow individuals to infer the attitude or internal awareness that their drinking has created problems for themselves or others. In sum, researchers in psychology have applied the self-perception theory to a wide variety of attitudes and behaviors with very interesting and important implications.

References:

  1. Bem, D. J. (1967). Self-perception: An alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychology Review, 74, 183-200.
  2. Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-perception theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental psychology (Vol. 6, pp. 1-62). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  3. Lepper, M. R., Greene, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (1973). Undermining children’s intrinsic interest with extrinsic reward: A test of the “overjustification” hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 129-137.