Role Theory

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”: With these lines from As You Like It, William Shakespeare succinctly captured the essence of role theory. In short, people’s behavior stems from the parts they play in life. In social psychology, a role is defined as the collection of expectations that accompany a particular social position. Indeed, the word originates from the French role, which denoted the parchment from which an actor read his lines. Each individual typically plays multiple roles in his or her life; in different contexts or with different people, a particular person might be a student, a friend, or an employee.

Each of these roles carries its own expectations about appropriate behavior, speech, attire, and so on. What might be rewarded for a person in one role would be unacceptable for a person occupying a different role (e.g., competitive behavior is rewarded for an athlete but not a preschool teacher). Roles range from specific, in that they only apply to a certain setting, to diffuse, in that they apply across a range of situations. For example, gender roles influence behavior across many different contexts; although someone may be a cashier when she is on the clock, she is a woman across all settings. Role theory examines how these roles influence a wide array of psychological outcomes, including behavior, attitudes, cognitions, and social interaction.

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Role Theory Background

Role TheoryWithin social psychology, role theory has generally focused on roles as causes of (a) behaviors enacted by individuals or groups and (b) inferences about individuals or groups. One of the fundamental precepts of social psychology is that the social and physical environment exerts a profound influence on individuals’ thoughts and behavior. Role theory posits that the roles that people occupy provide contexts that shape behavior. For example, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated that normal college students displayed strikingly different behaviors depending on whether they were assigned to be guards or prisoners in a simulated prison environment. Within a short time, prisoners began to show meek, submissive behaviors, whereas prison guards began to show dominant, abusive behaviors. In general, people are motivated to behave in ways that fit valued social roles. Rewards stem from alignment to valued social roles, and punishments stem from misalignment to such roles.

Role theory also examines how observers form inferences about others’ personality and abilities based on their roles. Indeed, one of the first questions asked to get to know someone is, “What do you do?” A classic illustration of the power of roles to influence beliefs about others is a study in which individuals participated in a quiz show with a partner. Their roles as questioner or contestant were randomly assigned by a flip of a coin, in plain sight of both participants. The questioner was instructed to write a series of general knowledge questions based on anything that he or she knew, and then the questioner posed these questions to the contestant. After this trivia game, participants rated the general knowledge ability of themselves and their partners. Both the contestants and observers rated the questioners as more knowledgeable than the contestant. In fact, according to objective tests, the questioners and the contestants did not differ in knowledge. This study clearly showed that observing someone in a particular role leads to the inference of related traits, even when his or her behaviors are required by a particular role, that role is arbitrarily assigned, and role assignment is obvious to all involved.

These trait judgments form partly because observers infer that individuals possess the personality traits that equip them to perform their roles. For example, seeing someone care for a puppy would likely lead to the inference that this individual is sensitive and kind. In contrast, seeing someone play a game of basketball would lead to the inference that the individual is aggressive and competitive. Observers typically assume that people have the personal qualities or motivation to behave a certain way, and thus observers underestimate how much roles elicit behaviors.

Mechanisms: How Do Roles Lead to Behavior?

External Mechanisms

One basic way in which roles influence behavior is via role affordances, or opportunities for different actions. For example, competitive roles typically promote self-assertion but inhibit kindness. In the quiz-show study described earlier, the role of questioner afforded the display of knowledge. This display led to the inference that the questioner was extremely knowledgeable, even though both partners tested similarly in general knowledge and the questioner was allowed to pick questions that he or she knew.

The expectations of others based on one’s role also powerfully influence behavior. Many experiments have documented the effects of the self-fulfilling prophecy, in which an individual’s beliefs about a target are confirmed because the individual elicits such behavior from the target. For example, Robert Rosenthal and colleagues demonstrated the power of expectancies on others by providing teachers with lists of students who had been identified as likely to develop special abilities throughout the school year. In truth, these students did not initially differ from other students. However, the teachers assessed these children as more curious, interesting, and likely to succeed, and by the end of the school year, the “late bloomer” students actually performed better than other students. Studies of the self-fulfilling prophecy have effectively demonstrated how expectancies about different role occupants (e.g., that CEOs will be aggressive or women are emotional) can become reality.

Internal Mechanisms

With repeated experience in a role, aspects of that role can become internalized in the self-concept—for example, repeated experience of competing against others might lead one to identify as “competitive.” These internalized constructs become an important part of identity and are carried across the boundaries of different roles. Indeed, identity transformations frequently happen when individuals enter or leave roles. Major life transitions, such as going to college, starting a new job, or getting married, represent some of these role-identity shifts.

When someone occupies a certain role, he or she is socialized to perform certain behaviors. In addition, more experience in role-related tasks fosters comfort and expertise in specific domains. Individuals may thus begin to feel greater self-efficacy in roles they have previously occupied. Moreover, socialization into diffuse roles (e.g., gender roles) can lead to greater comfort in activities that are compatible with those roles, with the result that individuals choose specific roles that fit with their diffuse role socialization. For example, the tendency to socialize girls more than boys to attend to others’ needs can contribute to women’s greater selection of communal or caring-oriented careers.

Role Theory Implications

Role theory has provided an important framework for understanding perceived and actual group differences. Just as perceivers fail to correct for the influence of roles on individuals’ behavior, they fail to correct for the influence of roles on group members’ behaviors. The role perspective on stereotype content has been applied to understand stereotypes based on gender, age, ethnicity, and culture. According to the social role theory of sex differences and similarities, the traditional division of labor (in which women are concentrated in caretaking roles and men in breadwinner roles) leads to the inference that men and women possess the traits that equip them to perform their roles. Moreover, group members may differ in their behaviors because of current or historical distributions into certain social roles. As detailed previously, role occupancy can lead to constraints on the performance of behaviors, as well as to the development of skills and abilities associated with those roles.

Role theory also provides an explanation of the sources of prejudice against certain groups. Role congruity theory posits that negativity stems from the lack of fit between the requirements of valued social roles and the perceived characteristics of an individual or group. For example, negativity occurs when a group’s stereotype (e.g., women are kind) does not align with the characteristics required by the role (e.g., leaders are aggressive). As a way of understanding how behavior derives from the surrounding context, role theory thus provides a useful framework to understand the behaviors, thoughts, and attitudes of oneself and others.


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