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definition - Self-perception_theory

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Self-perception theory


Self-perception theory (SPT) is an account of attitude change developed by psychologist Daryl Bem.[1][2] It asserts that people develop their attitudes by observing their behavior and concluding what attitudes must have caused them. The theory is counterintuitive in nature, as the conventional wisdom is that attitudes come prior to behaviors. Furthermore, the theory suggests that a person induces attitudes without accessing internal cognition and mood states.[3] The person reasons their own overt behaviors rationally in the same way they attempt to explain others’ behaviors.


  Original experiment on self-perception theory

In an attempt to decide whether individuals induce their attitudes as observers without accessing their internal states, Bem used interpersonal simulations, in which an “observer-participant” is given a detailed description of one condition of a cognitive dissonance experiment. Subjects listened to a tape of a man enthusiastically describing a tedious peg-turning task. Some subjects were told that the man had been paid $20 for his testimonial and another group was told that he was paid $1. Those in the latter condition thought that the man must have enjoyed the task more than those in the $20 condition. The results obtained were similar to the original Festinger-Carlsmith experiment. Because the observers, who did not have access to the actors’ internal cognition and mood states, were able to infer the true attitude of the actors, it is possible that the actors themselves also arrive at their attitudes by observing their own behavior.

  Another study on self-perception theory

Bem used a series of employed self-perception theory to try to reduce anxiety in heterosocially anxious or shy college students. The study conducted by an interaction among members of the opposite sex in order to overcome their shyness by attributing their successful outcomes to themselves and their own behaviour. The results indicate that the treatment is highly effective for both sexes. Also, the effects are fairly permanent and subjects find it enjoyable. Furthermore, the treatment is not a result of the expectancy-of-treatment outcome.

  Further evidence

There are numerous studies conducted by psychologists that support the self-perception theory, demonstrating that emotions do follow behaviors. For example, it is found that corresponding emotions (including liking, disliking, happiness, anger, etc.) were reported following from their overt behaviors, which had been manipulated by the experimenters.[4] These behaviors included making different facial expressions, gazes and postures. In the end of the experiment, subjects inferred and reported their affections and attitudes from their practiced behaviors despite the fact that they were told previously to act that way. These findings are consistent with the James-Lange theory of emotion.

Evidence for the self-perception theory has also been seen in real life situations. After teenagers participated in repeated and sustained volunteering services, their attitudes were demonstrated to have shifted to be more caring and considerate towards others.[5]


One useful application of the self-perception theory is in changing attitude, both therapeutically and in terms of persuasion.

  Psychological therapy

Firstly, for therapies, self-perception theory holds a different view of psychological problems from the traditional perspectives which suggest that those problems come from the inner part of the clients. Instead, self-perception theory perspective suggests that people derive their inner feelings or abilities from their external behaviors.[6] If those behaviors are maladjusted ones, people will attribute those maladjustments to their poor adapting abilities and thus suffer from the corresponding psychological problems. Thus, this concept can be used to treat clients with psychological problems that resulted from maladjustments by guiding them to first change their behavior and later dealing with the ‘problems’.

One of the most famous therapies making use of this concept is therapy for ‘Heterosocial Anxiety'.[7][8] In this case, the assumption is that an individual perceives that he or she has poor social skills because he/she has no dates. Experiments showed that males with heterosocial anxiety perceived less anxiety with females after several sessions of therapy in which they engaged in a 12-minute, purposefully biased dyadic social interactions with a separate females. From these apparently successful interactions, the males inferred that their heterosocial anxiety was reduced. This effect is shown to be quite long-lasting as the reduction in perceived heterosocial anxiety resulted in a significantly greater number of dates among subjects 6 months later.

  Foot-in-the-door technique

Secondly, self-perception theory is an underlying mechanism for the effectiveness of many marketing or persuasive techniques. One typical example is the foot-in-the-door technique, which is a widely-used marketing technique for persuading target customers to buy products. The basic premise of this technique is that, once a person complies with a small request (e.g. filling in a short questionnaire), he/she will be more likely to comply with a more substantial request which is related to the original request (e.g. buying the related product).[9][10][11][12] The idea is that the initial commitment on the small request will change one’s self image, therefore giving reasons for agreeing with the subsequent, larger request. It is because people observe their own behaviors (paying attention to and complying with the initial request) and the context in which they behave (no obvious incentive to do so), and thus infer they must have a preference for those products.

  Challenges and criticisms

The self-perception theory was initially proposed as an alternative to explain the experimental findings of the cognitive dissonance theory, and there were debates as to whether people experience attitude changes as an effort to reduce dissonance or as a result of self-perception processes. Basing on the fact that the self-perception theory differs from the cognitive dissonance theory in that it does not hold that people experience a "negative drive state" called "dissonance" which they seek to relieve, the following experiment was carried out to compare the two theories under different conditions.

An early study on cognitive dissonance theory shows that people indeed experience arousal when their behavior is inconsistent with their previous attitude. Waterman[13] designed an experiment in which participants were asked to write an essay arguing against the position they agreed. Then they were asked immediately to perform a simple task and a difficult task and their performance in both tasks were assessed. It was found that they performed better in the simple task and worse in the difficult task, compared to those who had just written an essay corresponding to their true attitude. As indicated by social facilitation, enhanced performance in simple tasks and worsened performance in difficult tasks shows that arousal is produced by people when their behavior is inconsistent with their attitude. Therefore, the cognitive dissonance theory is evident in this case.

  Disproof of Self-Perception Theory?

There was a time when it was debated whether or not dissonance or self perception was the valid mechanism behind attitude change. The chief difficulty was in finding an experiment where the two flexible theories would make distinctly different predictions. Some prominent social psychologists such as Anthony Greenwald thought it would be impossible to distinguish between the two theories.

In 1974, Zanna and Cooper conducted an experiment in which individuals were made to write a counter-attitudinal essay. They were divided into either a low choice or a high choice condition. They were also given a placebo; they were told the placebo would induce either tension, relaxation, or exert no effect.

Under low choice, all participants exhibited no attitude change, which would be predicted by both cognitive dissonance theory and self-perception theory.

Interestingly, under high choice, participants who were told the placebo would produce tension exhibited no attitude change, and participants who were told the placebo would produce relaxation demonstrated larger attitude change.

These results are not explainable by self-perception theory as arousal should have nothing to do with the mechanism underlying attitude change. Cognitive dissonance theory, however, was readily able to explain these results: if the participants could attribute their state of unpleasant arousal to the placebo, they wouldn't have to alter their attitude.

Thus, for a period of time, it seemed the debate between self-perception theory and cognitive dissonance had ended.

  Reviving self-perception theory: The Truce Experiment

Fazio, Zanna, and Cooper conducted another experiment in 1977 that demonstrated that both cognitive dissonance and self-perception could co-exist.

In an experimental design similar to the previous one, another variable was manipulated: whether or not the stance of the counter-attitudinal essay fell in the latitude of acceptance or the latitude of rejection (see Social judgment theory). It appeared that when the stance of the essay fell into the latitude of rejection, the results favoured cognitive dissonance. However, when the essay fell in the latitude of acceptance, the results favoured self-perception theory.

Whether cognitive dissonance or self-perception is a more useful theory is a topic of considerable controversy and a large body of literature. There are some circumstances where either theory is preferred, but it is traditional to use the terminology of cognitive dissonance theory by default. The cognitive dissonance theory accounts attitude changes when people’s behaviors are inconsistent with their original attitudes which are clear and important to them; while the self-perception theory is used when those original attitudes are relatively ambiguous and less important. Studies have shown that in contrast to traditional belief, a large proportion of people’s attitudes are weak and vague. Thus, the self-perception theory is significant in interpreting one’s own attitudes, such as one’s assessment of one’s personality traits[14][15] and whether one would cheat to achieve a goal.[16]

According to G. Jademyr and Yojiyfus, the perception of different aspect in the interpretending theory can be due to many factors, such as circumstances regarding dissonance and controversy. This can also be because of the balance-theory is transformed into the attitude towards account and dimensions.

  See also


  1. ^ Bem, D. J. (1967). Self-Perception: An Alternative Interpretation of Cognitive Dissonance Phenomena. Psychological Review, 74, 183-200.
  2. ^ Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-Perception Theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 6, pp.1-62). New York: Academic Press.
  3. ^ Robak, R. W., Ward, A., & Ostolaza, K. (2005). Development of a General Measure of Individuals’ Recognition of Their Self-Perception Processes. Psychology, 7, 337-344.
  4. ^ Laird, J. D. (2007). Feelings: The Perceptions of Self. New York: Oxford University Press.
  5. ^ Brunelle, J. P. (2001). The impact of community service on adolescent volunteers’ empathy, social responsibility, and concern for others. The Sciences and Engineering, 62, 2514.
  6. ^ Bem, D. J. (1972). Self-perception theory. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, (6th ed.). New York, NY: Academic.
  7. ^ Haemmerlie, F. M., & Montgomery, R. L. (1982). Self-perception theory and unobtrusively biased interactions: A treatment for heterosocial anxiety. Journal of Counseling, Psychology, 29, 362-370.
  8. ^ Haemmerlie, F. M., & Montgomery, R. L. (1984). Purposefully biased interactions: Reducing heterosocial anxiety through self-perception theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 47, 900-908.
  9. ^ Snyder, M., & Cunningham, M. R. (1975). To comply or not comply: testing the self-perception explanation of the foot-in-the-door phenomenon. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 64–67.
  10. ^ Uranowitz, S. W. (1975). Helping and self-attributions: a field experiment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 852–854.
  11. ^ Seligman, C., Bush, M., & Kirsch, K. (1976). Relationship compliance in the foot-in-the-door paradigm and size of the first request. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 33, 517–520.
  12. ^ Burger, J. M. (1999). The foot-in-the-door compliance procedure: a multiple-process analysis and review, Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 303–325.
  13. ^ Waterman, C. K. (1969). The facilitating and interfering effects of cognitive dissonance on simple and complex paired associates learning tasks. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 5, 31-42.
  14. ^ Schwarz, N., Bless, H., Strack, F., Klumpp, G., Rittenauer-Schatka, & Simons, A. (1991). Ease of retrieval as information: Another look at the availability heuristic. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61, 195-202.
  15. ^ Tice, D. M. (1993). Self-concept change and self-presentation: The looking glass self is also a magnifying glass. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63, 435-451.
  16. ^ Dienstbier, R. A., & Munter, P.O. (1971). Cheating as a function of the labeling of natural arousal. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17, 208-213.
  • Gilovich, T., Keltner, D., & Nisbett, R. E. (2006). Social Psychology. New York: Norton & Company.
  • Bem, D. J. (1972). "Self-perception theory". In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in Experimental Social psychology, Vol. 6, 1-62. New York: Academic Press. Full text (PDF). Summary.

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