Deutsch: Selbstwahrnehmungstheorie / Español: Teoría de la Autopercepción / Português: Teoria da Auto-Percepção / Français: Théorie de l'Auto-Perception / Italiano: Teoria dell'Auto-Percezione

Self-Perception Theory is a psychological concept that suggests individuals infer their attitudes and emotions by observing their own behavior and the context in which it occurs. This theory contrasts with traditional views that attitudes and feelings precede and guide behavior. Instead, it proposes that when individuals are unsure of their attitudes, they deduce them in the same way an outside observer might, by looking at their behavior and the circumstances under which it happens.


The Self-Perception Theory, introduced by psychologist Daryl Bem in the 1960s, challenges the classical assumption that internal states, such as attitudes, feelings, and emotions, directly cause behavior. According to Bem, under certain conditions, people form their self-attitudes and emotional states by observing their own behavior and the context, especially when internal cues are weak or difficult to interpret. This process of self-observation and inference can influence an individual's self-concept and the way they perceive their own personality traits, attitudes, and beliefs.

For instance, if someone frequently finds themselves participating in volunteer work, they might conclude that they must value altruism and community service. This inference is particularly likely if they perceive their actions as not externally coerced, but rather as freely chosen. The theory also extends to emotions; for example, one might deduce they are happy because they are smiling or they enjoy a task because they engage in it frequently without obvious rewards.

The implications of Self-Perception Theory are broad, touching on various aspects of psychology including attitude change, motivation, and the self. It has been applied to understand phenomena such as the overjustification effect, where high external incentives for engaging in an intrinsically rewarding activity can lead to a decrease in intrinsic motivation. This is because individuals attribute their behavior to external rewards, rather than their own interest, thus altering their perception of why they perform the activity.

Application Areas

Self-Perception Theory is utilized across various fields within psychology, particularly in social psychology, clinical psychology, and areas concerned with motivational strategies and behavioral change. In therapeutic settings, understanding how clients perceive their own behaviors and attitudes can aid in developing strategies for cognitive restructuring and behavior modification. In organizational and educational psychology, the theory informs approaches to motivation, suggesting that intrinsic rewards and autonomy in tasks can enhance self-perception of competence and motivation.

Well-Known Examples

The classic example of Self-Perception Theory in action is Bem's experiment on attitude change, where participants were asked to perform a task and then tell a subsequent participant (a confederate) that the task was enjoyable, for which they were paid either a small or large sum of money. Those paid a small sum later reported higher enjoyment of the task, presumably because they attributed their behavior (claiming the task was enjoyable) to their genuine feelings, rather than the external reward.

Treatment and Risks

While not a clinical theory per se, the concept of self-perception has implications for mental health and therapy. Misinterpreting one’s behavior can lead to inaccurate self-perceptions, potentially contributing to issues like low self-esteem or imposter syndrome. Therapeutic approaches might focus on helping individuals accurately interpret their behaviors and the motives behind them, thereby fostering healthier self-perceptions and mitigating psychological distress.

Examples of Sentences

  • "After volunteering regularly, I've started to see myself as more altruistic, a classic example of Self-Perception Theory in action."
  • "He didn't think he liked painting until he realized how often he chose to do it, a realization attributed to Self-Perception Theory."

Similar Terms or Synonyms

  • Self-observation theory
  • Behavioral self-concept formation


Self-Perception Theory offers a unique perspective on how individuals understand and form their attitudes and emotions, suggesting that they do so by observing their own behavior and the context in which it happens. It has significant implications for attitude change, motivation, and self-concept, influencing approaches in various psychological fields, from therapy to education. Understanding this theory can help individuals and professionals alike in developing strategies for positive behavioral change and self-understanding.


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