Self-Perception Theory (Psychology Definition)

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Practical Psychology

If you’ve seen any of my videos about affirmations and body language, you might have heard this piece of advice: Before you walk into a room, look in the mirror and smile. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fake smile. Smile for long enough and your mood will start to improve. 

It sounds silly, but it works! In the 1970s, James Laird conducted a series of experiments on participants in which he asked them to tense their facial muscles in a way that would make them smile or frown. After the experiment, he assessed their attitudes. The people who were asked to smile during the experiment reported that they were happier than those who were asked to frown.

Smile more, and you’ll feel happier! 

Why does this work? It seems counterintuitive that our behaviors (the smile) would influence our attitudes (happiness.) 

But that’s the ideas presented by the self-perception theory. This theory seems counterintuitive, but multiple studies starting in the 1970s prove that behaviors can influence attitudes. 

Bem and Self-Perception Theory

Daryl Bem was the first psychologist to write about self-perception theory. Bem’s theory suggests that people develop attitudes by observing behaviors. Maybe the behaviors were a new experience or the person’s attitudes weren’t completely formed before the behavior occurred. 

Bem’s theory also suggests that the assessment is based on external factors (aka behavior) rather than internal factors (mood, judgement, etc.) 

So how did Bem come to his conclusion? In the late 1960s, he used the idea that the way people assess another person’s attitude is a mirror of their own attitude. 

His first study on self-perception theory asked participants to listen to one of two scenarios. One group listened to a scenario in which a man gave a false testimony for $1. The other group listened to a scenario in which the man gave a false testimony for $20. Both groups were asked to assess the man’s attitudes toward lying. The first group was more likely to believe that the man lied because he enjoyed lying. 

This isn’t a situation that most people find themselves in. The participants in the study were not given any insight into the man’s financial situation, the nature of the testimony, or other factors that would contribute to the man’s behavior. So Bem concluded that the participants assessed their own attitudes based on the behavior presented. 

Other Studies On Self-Perception Theory

The original experiments on self-perception theory took place in the 1970s, but notable studies on the same theory have continued until 2010. One study in 2010 involved behaviors more extreme than just lying for $1. Psychologist Rosanna Guadagno and her team looked at people who joined extreme terrorist organizations. 

How does self-perception theory play out here? The researchers believed that attitudes may follow behaviors throughout their involvement in the organization. As the members commit more violent and extreme behaviors, they may change their attitudes to justify their actions. 

Self-Perception Theory and Cognitive Dissonance 

Do our behaviors influence or attitudes? Many would think that the opposite occurs. Self-perception theory challenges a lot of current ideas about how people make decisions and justify their actions. One idea in particular is cognitive dissonance. 

You’ve probably heard of cognitive dissonance before - it’s more widely known than self-perception theory. This theory says that when we are faced with two differing opinions or attitudes toward something, they feel uncomfortable. They adjust their attitude in order to reduce that discomfort. 

Cognitive dissonance usually occurs before a choice is made or a behavior is exhibited. This is one way in which the self-perception theory differs from the theory of cognitive dissonance. Another difference is that there appears to be no discomfort or conflict when people change their attitudes after exhibiting certain behaviors.

Which Idea Is “True?” 

The debate between cognitive dissonance and self-perception theory has been going on since the 1970s. Some experiments appeared to prove that cognitive dissonance was superior to self-perception theory. Other experiments said the opposite. 

Can both of these ideas exist? Some experts say yes. Psychologists believe that people are more likely to experience cognitive dissonance when they are set in their beliefs or attitudes. If the behavior is new, or the person’s attitudes are less set, they are more likely to go by the process described in self-perception theory. 

This goes back to the central idea of the self-perception theory. If someone is unsure about their motives or attitude, they will look to their previous behaviors to determine how they feel about something. 

Yes Ladders and Self-Perception Theory 

Even though self-perception theory is quite controversial, it is widely used as a marketing and persuasion technique. Have you ever heard of the “foot-in-the-door technique?” Or the “Yes Ladder?” Both of these ideas use a customer’s initial behavior to influence their later attitudes (and additional behaviors.) 

Here’s how it works. A salesperson knocks on a customer’s door with the intention of making a sale. The customer doesn’t want to buy immediately, so the salesperson just asks if they can come in and chat. This is a small favor, and easy for the customer to justify when they say “yes.” 

As the conversation continues, the salesperson slowly climbs the “Yes Ladder.” The customer agrees to checking out the product, trying it out, and then maybe signing up for a trial. Even though the customer originally did not want to make a purchase, their behaviors say otherwise. The customer adjusts their attitude to justify their behavior. Attitude follows behavior. 

It seems a little tricky, but it can help people see that they’re capable of more than they think. 

Using The Self-Perception Theory on Yourself

Don’t think you’re capable of walking into a room and making new friends? Don’t psych yourself out. Go out into that room and start introducing yourself to people. (Remember to smile real big in the mirror before you do!) 

You don’t have to let your beliefs about yourself hold you back from what you want to do. When faced with something that you’re scared of, just go out and do it! You can always change your attitudes later once you assess your behaviors and what you’ve accomplished.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2019, December). Self-Perception Theory (Psychology Definition). Retrieved from

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