Bem’s Theory Of Self-perception: Definition And Characteristics

Bem's self-perception theory

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

Daryl Bem’s self-perception theory has attempted to explain how people determine our attitudes towards different situations and behaviors. In this article we will know it in detail.

Related psychological concepts

Let’s get to know some previous concepts to better understand Bem’s theory of self-perception.


The 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 evaluation of favorability or unfavorability toward an object.

For example, it would be the positive attitude towards older people, which predisposes one to help these types of people on the street when they have a need.

Cognitive dissonance

What happens when we act against our attitudes or beliefs? A counter-attitudinal behavior occurs, which causes cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance proposed by Leon Festinger consists of the tension or internal disharmony of the system of ideas, beliefs and emotions that a person perceives when they have two thoughts that are in conflict at the same time, or due to behavior that conflicts with their beliefs.

Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance suggests that when it appears, People tend to try to reduce this dissonance for example by changing our attitude, so that our beliefs, attitudes and behavior are consistent with each other.

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

Bem’s self-perception theory

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

Bem eliminates cognitive dissonance as an explanatory factor of behavior, and in contrast to Festinger, proposes that subjects infer their attitudes from your 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 uninterpretable.

We are going to 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 factor that determines behavior, but as the explanatory factor of past behavior, and suggests that people develop attitudes based on their own behaviors and the situations in which these take place, as we will see below.

The theory states that when cognitive dissonance occurs, or when we are unsure of our attitudes, we do not try to change our attitudes for the motivation of reducing our psychological discomfort, but instead we try to change our attitudes. we carry out an attribution process on our own behavior.

It states that through interpersonal relationships the attitudes of any subject are inferred, from the observation of two elements: one’s own behavior (external and observable) and the environmental conditions of the context. All of this serves to understand behavior.

That is, people use the keys of our own behavior and external conditions to infer what our own internal states are (beliefs, attitudes, motives and feelings). This It is also applied to determine the internal states of other, which are inferred in the same way as their own. All of this serves to reason about the most probable causes and determinants of our behavior.

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For example, if a person cleans a street for free, we probably infer that his attitude toward cleaning his 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 proposed 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 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 large 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 deceive ourselves in a way.

Theory problems

Bem’s theory of self-perception allows us to explain many cases, but not all, since assumes that people do not have attitudes before the behavior occurs and this is not always the case.

Generally, we have attitudes before we act, and precisely those attitudes guide our behavior. Furthermore, these can change as a result of our behavior (as Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance maintains).

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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