Social psychology has always tried to understand people’s behaviour in social situations. Furthermore, it has also been concerned with understanding how our attitudes are formed, and how these guide our behaviour.
Daryl Bem’s theory of self-perception has tried to explain how people determine their attitudes to different situations and behaviours. In this article we will know it in detail.
Related psychological concepts
Let’s get to know some previous concepts in order to better understand Bem’s theory of self-perception.
Attitudes are different dispositions to behave, that is, they guide our behavior . Eagly and Chaiken (1993) define an attitude as a psychological tendency that involves the assessment of favourability or unfavourability towards an object.
For example, it would be the positive attitude towards older people, which predisposes to help these types of people on the street when they have a need.
What happens when we act against our attitudes or beliefs? A counter-attitudinal behaviour occurs, which causes a cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance as posed by Leon Festinger consists of the internal tension or disharmony of the system of ideas, beliefs and emotions that a person perceives when he or she has two conflicting thoughts at the same time, or by a behavior that conflicts with his or her beliefs.
Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that when cognitive dissonance appears, people tend to try to reduce that dissonance , for example by changing attitude, so that our beliefs, attitudes and behaviour are consistent with each other.
Bem’s theory of self-perception emerges as an alternative to that theory.
Bem’s theory of self-perception
Daryl Bem was an American social psychologist who put forward the theory of self-perception (1965, 1972), and who tries to explain how we infer our attitudes from counter-attitudinal behaviour .
Bem eliminates cognitive dissonance as an explanatory factor of behavior, and in contrast to Festinger, he states that subjects infer their attitudes from their past behavior in relevant or similar situations . This happens because the internal signals (inspection) proposed by other theories (such as Festinger’s) are often weak, ambiguous or not interpretable.
Let’s look in detail at the two fundamental elements of Bem’s theory of self-perception.
Past behaviour and environmental conditions
Bem (1972) understands attitudes not as a factor that determines behaviour, but as the explanatory factor of past behaviour, and suggests that people develop attitudes as a function of their own behaviour and of the situations in which these take place, as we shall see below.
The theory states that when a cognitive dissonance occurs, or when we are not sure of our attitudes, we do not try to change the attitudes by the motivation of reducing our psychological discomfort, but rather we carry out a process of attribution on our own behavior .
It proposes that through interpersonal relations the attitudes of any subject are inferred, based on the observation of two elements: the behaviour itself (external and observable) and the environmental conditioning factors of the context. All this serves to understand the behaviour.
That is, people use the keys to their own behavior and external conditions to infer what their own internal states are (beliefs, attitudes, motives and feelings). This also applies to determine the internal states of others , which are inferred in the same way as one’s own. All this serves to reason out the most probable causes and determinants of our behaviour.
For example, if a person cleans a street for free, we probably infer that their attitude towards cleaning their city is very positive. On the other hand, if this same act is performed by a person charging for the service, we will not make such an inference.
When is Bem’s theory useful?
The processes of self-perception proposed by Bem’s theory appear when we want to determine our own attitudes (we observe our behavior to know how we feel); these appear when we must face unfamiliar events (Fazio, 1987).
Thus, we feel the need to discover how we feel in relation to a new situation or in which we have acted counter-attitudinally.
For example, when we eat a big piece of cake at a party, just when we had started a diet. If we orient ourselves according to Bem’s theory of self-perception, we will observe our behavior and think, for example, “because I ate the cake, the birthday must have been important,” to escape a negative impact on our self-esteem or self-awareness.
In this way, we are persuading ourselves, and sometimes it can be useful, even if we are fooling ourselves in some way.
Bem’s theory of self-perception explains many cases, but not all of them, since assumes that people do not have attitudes before behavior occurs , and this is not always the case.
Generally, we have attitudes before we act, and it is precisely those attitudes that guide our behavior. Moreover, they can change as a result of our behavior (as Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance argues).
In this way, Bem’s theory of self-perception would be applied only in situations where we do not yet have formed attitudes or these are very weak.
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