Did You Know

What Is Self-perception Theory?

The self-perception theory was developed by Daryl Bem.


The self-perception theory states that people develop attitudes by observing their behavior and deciding on which attitudes may have caused the reaction. This theory is based on a situation where there was no previous attitude on a subject due to lack of experience in that area. The theory suggests that people look at their actions just like an outsider would observe a character and make conclusions on why they were motivated to do what they did. A psychologist by the name Daryl Bem developed this theory.

Self-perception can be described as the opposite of common sense/intuition, normal expectation, or simply counterintuitive. It is expected that a person’s attitudes and personality play a role in their actions, but this theory differs. The theory argues that we become what we do and our actions originate from our self-observations and not from our free will and the state of moods at a time.

Experiments Supporting The Theory

The first experiment by Daryl Bem involved test subjects listening to an audio of a man describing a task animatedly. One group was informed that the actor was paid $1 while the other group was told the man was paid $20. When the group's perceptions were compared, the $1 group felt like their actor enjoyed the task more than how the $20 group felt about their actor. These results corresponded with the feelings of the individual actors, showing that the actors had also observed their behaviors just like the outsiders.

In the year 2006, Tiffany Ito and her co-workers tested racial bias as influenced by the facial expressions of test subjects. Participants were made to smile by holding a pencil in their mouths. They were then showed pictures of unfamiliar black and white men. The results showed that participants made to smile at the black men showed less bias as compared to those who only smiled at the pictures of white men.


The self-perception theory has been seen to work in therapy and persuasion scenarios.

Application in therapy

Traditional theory was based on people’s actions and attitudes originating from inner psychological problems. The theory suggests that since people react with feelings and actions from their external behaviors, in turn these behaviors can be adjusted appropriately to influence a person’s feelings and attitudes. For example, teenagers exposed to community service had better perceptions of themselves and were less likely to be involved in risky behavior.

Application in marketing and persuasion

The foot in the door technique that is used by marketers is one application of the theory. By convincing clients to agree with a small request, it becomes easier to convince them to partake in a bigger request that is related to the initial request. A client who has filled out a questionnaire is more likely to buy the product in question.

Challenges And Criticisms

The self-perception theory was developed as a substitute for the cognitive dissonance theory. Experiments used to test the theory have been questioned because the participants had not been told the pre-experiment attitude of the observed subject. It, however, makes sense that prior attitudes do not hold much significance after one observes their behavior in a more recent setting. The outcome of comparisons between actual experiments and interpersonal simulations indicate that they should be carried out at the same time.

Bem agrees that the experiments are not conclusive representations of the theory. He follows that it is easy to manipulate the result of the experiment depending on the information given to the observer/subject. He also holds that it is possible to derive multiple interpretations from a single case. This suggests that actual experiments are more conclusive than simulations.

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