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.