Self Perception Theory
The Basic Idea
We typically view the interaction between attitudes and behaviors as a causal sequence that progresses linearly from attitude to behavior. We might have an attitude towards work ethic, for example, which would translate into some behavior, like working overtime to get the job done. To assume a reversal in the sequence of causation; for example, behavior leading to attitude would seem counterintuitive. It can certainly seem backwards to presume working overtime causes a belief in work ethic, rather than work ethic causes hard work.
Self perception theory proposes such a causal link. This theory argues that people become aware of certain attitudes by observing their own behavior. This is the case when internal cues such as sentiment are unclear, and the individual attributes their attitude or belief to some form of self perception around their behavior. It is a similar process to how we would infer another individual’s inner state by observing their behavior.
Consider Dave, a carpenter who works 50 hours a week. Dave has never really stopped to think about how he feels towards standardized work weeks and labor regulations, or work ethic in general. One evening, at the bar with some friends, someone mentions the 35-hour work week in France and an article she read about increased productivity gains at companies who introduced four-day work weeks. Dave has never heard such talk and doesn’t have any preexisting attitudes towards the concept. When someone asks what he thinks, he supposes that 40 hours isn’t that much, after all, he tends to work 50.
Theory, meet practice
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Cognitive Dissonance: A state of discomfort following information that is inconsistent with one’s existing attitudes or beliefs. (See more on the concept here.)
Self-perception theory was first proposed by Daryl Bem in 19671 as an alternative account of cognitive dissonance, where certain circumstances lead to self-described attitudes that are a function of the individual’s observations of their own behavior. Bem cited evidence from a number of studies that support his theory, such as changes in belief and attitude statements following induced role-play. He also drew a key parallel between self-perception theory and the inferences we make regarding others’ attitudes, where assumptions we make about ourselves are analogous to the assumptions an outside observer would have about us. “Just as a communicator is more persuasive to others if he is known to be receiving no payment for his communication,” he wrote, “so too, it is found that he is more likely to believe himself under such circumstances.”
A social psychologist at Cornell University, Bem is known for first proposing self perception theory. He also happens to be known as a proponent of parapsychology, where he published a paper offering statistical evidence for “precognition,” a phenomenon that has been deemed pseudoscience by a number of academics.
Although self perception theory was initially seen by some as a concept that challenged cognitive dissonance, further research building on Bem’s work has concluded that self perception theory and cognitive dissonance do indeed have different applications, with the two phenomena being complements rather than substitutes.2 The critical difference is that self perception theory relates to situations where an individual’s attitude is ambiguous or weak. If we consider the example highlighted earlier, with Dave the carpenter, had Dave had an existing strong belief in work ethic along with an aversion to idleness, his rejection of his friend’s comments around shortened work weeks could be labeled cognitive dissonance, as the information she was presenting was inconsistent with his existing beliefs. However, in the case where his attitude was unclear, he presumably relied on the observation of his own behavior to inform his attitude.
Self perception theory has had notable consequences in marketing and consumer research. The well known foot-in-the-door technique, where getting a customer to agree to a small request increases the chances of them agreeing to a larger request down the road, has been explained by some researchers as the same process as self perception. As the authors of a paper3 from The Association of Consumer Research wrote, “it is hypothesized that the foot-in-the-door is effective because people use their own behavior as a cue regarding their attitudinal dispositions. Since external pressure for the initial behavior is assumed to be minimal, people infer a positive attitude from their compliant behavior, which in turn guides subsequent action.”
The theory has also been applied in psychotherapeutic settings, as it offers an outline for how self described attitudes and beliefs may be operating during counseling or psychotherapy.4 It is common in this arena for individuals to explore attitudes that may be vague, relying on their personal narrative to probe such feelings. For example, someone struggling with alcoholism may go from having an ambiguous attitude towards a person to inferring that person makes them anxious as they look back and see that they drank prior to seeing the other person. Self perception theory has also been used within psychotherapy in regard to heterosexual anxiety,5 where individuals form the attitude that they have poor social skills because they have had no dates. Therapeutic techniques aimed at shifting this attribution have been found to be an effective treatment in overcoming the mental barrier.
As mentioned earlier, the initial view that self perception theory and cognitive dissonance were competitive theories sparked controversy. Since then, it has become accepted that both theories apply in different situations, however this can still result in debate. It is not always clear whether someone’s attitudes are vague or already predefined, so in non-experimental settings, determining whether an individual’s response was cognitive dissonance or self perception might be challenging under certain scenarios.
In regard to self perception theory as the underlying mechanism behind the foot-in-the-door technique, it is worth mentioning that this notion has also been challenged. Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University published a study in 1999 concluding that the two phenomena are unrelated.6 His main argument was that self perception may indeed be a factor in compliant behavior during a foot-in-the-door intervention, however there are additional psychological processes at play such as norm conformity and commitment, among others, that likely outweigh the influence of self perception.
Related TDL resources
This article discusses how our perception of our abilities affects how we perform. One of the studies highlighted found participants did better on an attention task when wearing a white doctor’s coat.
Though not directly related to self perception theory, this article looks at how self perception may be guided by social stereotypes, particularly around gender.
- Bem, D. J. (1967). Self-perception: An alternative interpretation of cognitive dissonance phenomena. Psychological review, 74(3), 183.
- Fazio, R. H., Zanna, M. P., & Cooper, J. (1977). Dissonance and self-perception: An integrative view of each theory’s proper domain of application. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 13(5), 464-479.
- Sternthal, B., Scott, C. A., & Dholakia, R. R. (1976). Self-Perception as a Means of Personal Influence: The Foot-in-the-Door Technique. ACR North American Advances.
- Robak, R. W. (2001). Self-definition in psychotherapy: is it time to revisit self-perception theory?. North American Journal of Psychology, 3(3).
- Montgomery, R. L., & Haemmerlie, F. M. (1986). Self-perception theory and the reduction of heterosocial anxiety. Journal of social and clinical psychology, 4(4), 503-512.
- Burger, J. M. (1999). The foot-in-the-door compliance procedure: A multiple-process analysis and review. Personality and social psychology review, 3(4), 303-325.