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Self-Perception Theory: Definition and Examples

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  • 0:05 Self-Perception Theory
  • 1:14 When Do We Use…
  • 2:48 Facial Expressions & Emotions
  • 3:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Have you ever felt confused about what you were feeling? Self-perception theory offers an explanation for what people do when they aren't sure what they feel. In this lesson, we'll look closer at self-perception theory and some studies that tell us more about how we decide what we're feeling.

Self-Perception Theory

Imagine this: You are asked to do a tedious and boring task, like fit wooden pegs into holes. After you have done the task, someone pays you to lie about what it's like. 'I really enjoy doing it,' you tell another person, 'and I think you will, too!'

If you are like many people, you probably believe that you know what you feel and what the lie is. But, believe it or not, some studies have shown that people don't always know exactly how they feel. Instead, they use their own behavior to guess about what they are feeling. Self-perception theory says that, 'When people are unsure about their feelings and motivations, they will use their own behavior to infer what they feel.'

What does that have to do with the scenario above? When we lie to someone else, we sometimes begin to believe our own lies. We look at our own behavior - in this case the lie - and make an inference. So, in the example above, lying about your feelings could cause you to believe your own lie! You are using your behavior to figure out how you feel about something. You might be surprised at how often this happens.

When Do We Use Self-Perception Theory?

Obviously, we don't use self-perception all the time. If we walked around every day saying to ourselves, 'I'm eating a salad, so I must feel strongly about being healthy,' or 'I just yelled at my girlfriend, so I must be angry with her,' it would take up a lot of time and seem pretty silly.

In fact, most of the time, we know what we're feeling without having to examine our behaviors for clues. But, there are two things that can increase the likelihood that we will use self-perception to tell us about our attitudes.

1. Our initial feelings are weak or unclear.

Sometimes, we're just not sure how we feel about something. For example, when you first meet someone, you might not be sure whether you like them or not. If you do something to help them out, you're likely to conclude that you do like them. In fact, there have been many studies that show that you're more likely to like someone based on how much you've helped them, versus how much they've helped you!

2. Our behavior is perceived to be done freely.

If you are forced or coerced to help someone out, you might not conclude that you like them any more than if you didn't help them. But, if you believe that your helping them was a decision made of your own free will, then you're more likely to use your behavior as a clue for what you feel.

Think about our example about the boring task. If you are paid a lot of money to lie and say that it's interesting, you could tell yourself that you lied for the money. But, lying without getting paid can cause people to assume that the lie is true.

Facial Expressions and Emotions

Self-perception theory might seem a little weird at first. After all, we usually know what we're feeling and act accordingly. But, there are many studies that have been done showing that people use self-perception to help them out quite a bit.

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