Self-Perception Theory: What You Do Affects What Attitudes You Build

Psychologist Daryl Bem conducted an experiment that involved subjects who listened to a recording of a man describing a supposedly boring and monotonous task enthusiastically.

One group was told that the man was paid $1 for this testimonial, while the other group was told he was paid $20 for it. The $1 group believed that the man enjoyed this monotonous and nonsensical task more than how much the $20 group believed he enjoyed it.

Interestingly, the conclusions of the two observing groups, who did not have access to the participants’ internal cognition and mood states, were able to infer their true attitudes. Because the groups were able to correctly guess how the participants felt, it was concluded that the participants must have realised what they felt by observing their own behaviour as well.

The Self-Perception Theory (SPT) is an account of attitude formation developed by Daryl Bem, proposed in 1972.

Self-Perception Theory asserts that people develop their attitudes by observing their own behaviour and concluding what attitudes must have caused it, especially when there is no previous attitude due to a lack of experience, and the emotional response is ambiguous.

Therefore, a person is in the same position as an observer who must rely upon external cues to infer their inner state of mind. Self-perception theory proposes that people adopt attitudes without access to their states of mood and cognition.

Through this, Bem proposed a different mechanism of change than the Cognitive Dissonance Theory. Dissonance theory explains how people change their attitudes when they find themselves acting in opposition to the attitudes they already hold, while self-perception theory explains how people create their attitudes in the first place.

According to Cognitive Dissonance Theory, the participants who gave the testimonials inferred their mental attitudes from their own behaviour. When they were asked: “Did you find the task interesting?”, they decided that they must have found the task interesting, because that is what they said in their testimonial.

Their replies suggested that the participants who were paid $20 had an external incentive to adopt that positive attitude. They were likely to have perceived the $20 as the reason for saying the task was interesting, rather than saying the task actually was interesting. But the participants who were paid $1 must have actually found the task interesting because the $1 external incentive wasn’t strong enough.

Although the two theories appear contradictory, evidence suggests that dissonance theory and self-perception theory each explain different aspects of how people adjust their attitudes and behaviours to one another.

The theory of self-perception is counterintuitive in nature, because it’s conventional wisdom that attitudes determine behaviours. Furthermore, it suggests that people develop attitudes without accessing their internal cognition or mood states. People interpret their own behaviours in the same way they attempt to explain others’ behaviours-through observation. Our attitudes are sometimes socially influenced and not produced out of our own free will, as we might expect.

A number of studies since have confirmed that self-perception theory exists, and furthermore, influences us in many unexpected contexts. Jeremy N. Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, reports on one study involving participants who are immersed in a virtual environment via a head-mounted display. Some participants watched a virtual doppelgänger identical to them exercise, some watched someone else’s virtual doppelgänger exercise, and some watched their own doppelgänger stand still. Those who watched their “selves” exercise reported a higher belief that they could exercise successfully, and later reported in a follow-up questionnaire that they had worked out for almost one hour more than the other two participant groups.

This however doesn’t mean that you can trick yourself into building habits by exercising, reading, studying repeatedly. Self-perception theory prevails only when the emotional response is ambiguous, and attitude change is momentary. Habit building take focus and conscious effort to build.


If you want someone to believe or feel something about themselves, first get them to do it. A salesperson might ask you for something relatively small, such as filling out a questionnaire, which is a trick. This makes it easier to ask you for a larger commitment later. The act of fulfilling the small request leads you to alter your attitude to rationalise your act. You filled out the survey, therefore you must be liking their products as well. Self-perception theory is the basis behind this foot-in-the-door tactic.

This works best when they have no particular view or belief about the area in question. If they already have a strong belief, you will need to call that belief into question, for example by giving disconfirming examples to bring them into a state of confusion. Then you can get them to try something to make them adopt a new belief system. The ‘Get a Mac’ ad campaign was a clever tactic by Apple to play on perceived weaknesses of the PC thereby swinging the target user towards the Mac. Now all they had to do was visit a store and give the Mac a try.

Similarly, you can try the self-perception theory upon yourself to change your mood. If you have had a terrible day, and you visit your friends later, the friendly exchanges would help you change your attitude. It is challenging to maintain irritability at a party with friends. So you smile, and pretend to be happy. For most of us, our original feelings of irritability decrease after smiling and exhibiting “happy” behaviour. Our behaviour changes our attitude-at least for a while.

Forcing yourself to smile at strangers helps your develop kindness. Forcing yourself to run in the morning would help you develop a healthy attitude towards fitness. Being able to solve a tricky problem would make you feel pretty smart about yourself. This is far easier than changing others’ attitudes and beliefs, but mind you, none of these are permanent changes. You are only tricking your System 1 by this-temporarily. The affect wears off as soon as you cease the activities. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t use this understanding to persuade others and profit from them.

The gym in the neighbourhood might give you 3 free passes to give them a try. If you visit once or twice you might start to like it and buy a 6-month package. This guarantees their payment, but this doesn’t guarantee that you would be hitting the gym for six months.

Next time, when people ask you to do things (or pay money) about which you have no clear or permanent point of view, ask yourself, what could they gain from your belief in something about yourself in this matter. It would save you from a lot of pain and unnecessary gym memberships.

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