Bem’s theory of self-perception: definition and characteristics

Social psychology has always tried to understand the behavior of people in social situations. In addition, he was also concerned with understanding how our attitudes are formed and how these guide our behavior.

Daryl Bem’s Theory of Self-Perception tried to explain how people determine our attitudes towards different situations and behaviors. In this article we will know in detail.

    Associated psychological concepts

    Let’s get to know a few previous concepts in order to better understand Bem’s theory of self-perception.


    Attitudes are different dispositions to behave, that is to say to guide our conduct. Eagly and Chaiken (1993) define an attitude as a psychological tendency which involves the evaluation of the favorability or the unfavorability towards an object.

    For example, it would be the positive attitude towards the elderly, which predisposes to helping these people in the street when they need it.

    cognitive dissonance

    What happens when we act against our attitudes or beliefs? There is counter-attitude behavior, which causes cognitive dissonance.

    The cognitive dissonance 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 has two thoughts at the same time that are in conflict, or by a behavior which conflicts with theirs. beliefs.

    Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that when it occurs, people tend to try to reduce this dissonance, For example changing attitude, so that our beliefs, attitudes and behaviors are consistent with each other.

    Bem’s theory of self-perception appears as an alternative to this theory.

    Bem’s theory of self-perception

    Daryl Bem was an American social psychologist who proposed the theory of self-perception (1965, 1972), and who attempts to explain how we deduce our attitudes from counter-attitude behaviors.

    Bem eliminates cognitive dissonance as an explanatory factor for behavior and, unlike Festinger, argues that subjects infer their attitudes from it. their past behavior in relevant or similar situations. Indeed, the internal signals (inspection) proposed by other theories (like that of Festinger) are often weak, ambiguous or not interpretable.

    We will analyze in detail the two fundamental elements of Bem’s theory of self-perception.

    Past behavior and environmental conditions

    Bem (1972) understands attitudes not as a determinant of behavior, but as an explanatory factor for past behavior, and suggests that people they develop attitudes based on their own behaviors and the situations in which these occur, as we will see below.

    The theory holds that when cognitive dissonance occurs, or when we are unsure of our attitudes, we are not trying to change attitudes to motivate us to reduce our psychological distress, but rather we perform an attribution process on its own behavior.

    He argues that, through interpersonal relationships, the attitudes of any subject are inferred, from the observation of two elements: the behavior itself (external and observable) and the environmental conditions of the context. All of this serves to understand behavior.

    In other words, people use the keys to our own behavior and our external conditioning to deduce what our own internal states are (beliefs, attitudes, motivations and feelings). this it is also applied to determine the internal states of others, Which are deducted in the same way as theirs. All this serves to reason the most probable causes and determinants of our behavior.

    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 self-perception processes posed by Bem’s theory they appear when we want to determine our own attitudes (We observe our behavior to know how we feel); these appear when we have to deal with unknown events (Fazio, 1987).

    So we feel the need to find out how we feel about a new situation or in which we acted contraactitudinalmente.

    For example, when we ate a large piece of cake at a party, just as we 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 my cake, the birthday must have been important”, to avoid a negative impact . or self-awareness.

    This way we convince ourselves of ourselves, and sometimes it can be helpful, even if we are somehow wrong.

    Theory problems

    Bem’s theory of self-perception allows us to explain many cases, but not all, because it assumes that people have no attitude until the behavior occurs, And this is not always the case.

    Usually we have attitudes before we act, and it is precisely these attitudes that guide our behavior. Moreover, these can change due to our behavior (as supported by Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance).

    Thus, Bem’s theory of self-perception would only be applied in situations where we have not yet formed attitudes or they are very weak.

    Bibliographical references:

    • Worchel, S. (2004). Social psychology. Ed. Thomson: Madrid
    • Gerrig, R. and Zimbardo, P. (2005). Psychology and life. Prentice Hall Mexico: Mexico
    • López-Zafra, I. (2010). Consumer behavior: contributions from psychology. Official College of Psychologists.

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