What is Self-Perception Theory?


Self-perception theory (SPT) is an account of attitude formation developed by psychologist Daryl Bem.

It asserts that people develop their attitudes (when there is no previous attitude due to a lack of experience, etc. – and the emotional response is ambiguous) by observing their own behaviour and concluding what attitudes must have caused it. The theory is counterintuitive in nature, as the conventional wisdom is that attitudes determine behaviours. Furthermore, the theory suggests that people induce attitudes without accessing internal cognition and mood states. The person interprets their own overt behaviours rationally in the same way they attempt to explain others’ behaviours.

Bem’s Original Experiment

In an attempt to decide if individuals induce their attitudes as observers without accessing their internal states, Bem used interpersonal simulations, in which an “observer-participant” is given a detailed description of one condition of a cognitive dissonance experiment. Subjects listened to a tape of a man enthusiastically describing a tedious peg-turning task.

Subjects were told that the man had been paid $20 for his testimonial and another group was told that he was paid $1. Those in the latter condition thought that the man must have enjoyed the task more than those in the $20 condition. The results obtained were similar to the original Festinger-Carlsmith experiment. Because the observers, who did not have access to the actors’ internal cognition and mood states, were able to infer the true attitude of the actors, it is possible that the actors themselves also arrive at their attitudes by observing their own behaviour. Specifically, Bem notes how:

“the attitude statements which comprise the major dependent variables in dissonance experiments may be regarded as interpersonal judgments in which the observer and the observed happen to be the same individual.”

Further Evidence

There are numerous studies conducted by psychologists that support the self-perception theory, demonstrating that emotions do follow behaviours. For example, it is found that corresponding emotions (including liking, disliking, happiness, anger, etc.) were reported following from their overt behaviours, which had been manipulated by the experimenters. These behaviours included making different facial expressions, gazes, and postures. In the end of the experiment, subjects inferred and reported their affections and attitudes from their practiced behaviours despite the fact that they were told previously to act that way. These findings are consistent with the James-Lange theory of emotion.

In 1974, James Laird conducted two experiments on how changes in facial expression can trigger changes in emotion. Participants were asked to contract or relax various facial muscles, causing them to smile or frown without awareness of the nature of their expressions. Participants reported feeling more angry when frowning and happier when smiling. They also reported that cartoons viewed while they were smiling were more humorous than cartoons viewed while they were frowning. Furthermore, participants scored higher on aggression during frown trials than during smile trials, and scored higher on elation, surgency, and social affection factors during smile trials than during frown ones. Laird interpreted these results as “indicating that an individual’s expressive behavior mediates the quality of his emotional experience.” In other words, a person’s facial expression can act as a cause of an emotional state, rather than an effect; instead of smiling because they feel happy, a person can make themselves feel happy by smiling.

In 2006, Tiffany Ito and her colleagues conducted two studies to investigate if changes in facial expression can trigger changes in racial bias. The explicit goal of the studies was to determine “whether facial feedback can modulate implicit racial bias as assessed by the Implicit Association Test (IAT).” Participants were surreptitiously induced to smile through holding a pencil in their mouth while viewing photographs of unfamiliar black or white males or performed no somatic configuration while viewing the photographs (Study 1 only). All participants then completed the IAT with no facial manipulation. Results revealed a spreading attitude effect; people made to smile (unconsciously) at pictures of black males showed less implicit prejudice than those made to smile at pictures of white males. Their attitudes change as a result of their behaviour.

Chaiken and Baldwin’s 1981 study on self-perception theory dealt with environmental attitudes. Each participant was identified as having well or poorly defined prior attitudes toward being an environmentalist or conservationist. Participants then completed one of two versions of a questionnaire designed to bring to mind either past pro-ecology behaviours or past anti-ecology behaviours. For example, questions such as “Have you ever recycled?” call to mind the times an individual has recycled, emphasizing their engagement in environmentalist behaviour. On the other hand, questions like “Do you always recycle?” bring to mind all the times an individual did not recycle something, emphasizing a lack of environmentalist behaviour. Afterward, participants’ attitudes toward being an environmentalist/conservationist were re-measured. Those with strong initial/prior attitudes toward the environment were not really affected by the salient manipulation. Those with weak prior attitudes, however, were affected. At the end, those in the pro-ecology condition (“Have you ever recycled?”) reported themselves as being much more pro-environment than those in the anti-ecology condition (“Do you always recycle?”). Bringing to mind certain past behaviours affected what people believed their attitudes to be.

Evidence for the self-perception theory has also been seen in real life situations. After teenagers participated in repeated and sustained volunteering services, their attitudes were demonstrated to have shifted to be more caring and considerate towards others.

Recent Research

Research incorporating self-perception theory has continued in recent years, appearing in conjunction with studies dealing with motivational “crowding out,” terrorism, mindwandering, and the inclusion of others in the self.

Guadagno and her fellow experimenters did a study in 2010 addressing the recruitment of new members by terrorist organisation via the internet. In addition to looking at how such an organisation might influence its targets to support more extreme ideologies (primarily through simple requests gradually increasing to larger commitments – an example of the foot-in-the-door technique), the authors looked at how “the new converts may form increasingly radical attitudes to be consistent with their increasingly radical behavior.” Self-perception theory, then, has strong ties to social identity and social influence in this scenario.

Also in 2010, Clayton Critcher and Thomas Gilovich performed four studies to test a connection between self-perception theory and mindwandering. Self-perception theory posits that people determine their attitudes and preferences by interpreting the meaning of their own behaviour. Critcher and Gilovich looked at whether people also rely on the unobservable behaviour that is their mindwandering when making inferences about their attitudes and preferences. They found that “Having the mind wander to positive events, to concurrent as opposed to past activities, and to many events rather than just one tends to be attributed to boredom and therefore leads to perceived dissatisfaction with an ongoing task.” Participants relied on the content of their wandering minds as a cue to their attitudes unless an alternative cause for their mindwandering was brought to their attention.

Similarly, Goldstein and Cialdini published work related to self-perception theory in 2007. In an extension of self-perception theory, the authors hypothesized that people sometimes infer their own attributes or attitudes by “observing the freely chosen actions of others with whom they feel a sense of merged identity – almost as if they had observed themselves performing the acts.” Participants were made to feel a sense of merged identity with an actor through a perspective-taking task or feedback indicating overlapping brainwave patterns. Participants incorporated attributes relevant to the actor’s behaviour into their own self-concepts, leading participants to then change their own behaviours. The study addresses the self-expansion model: close relationships can lead to an inclusion of another person in an individual’s sense of self.


One useful application of the self-perception theory is in changing attitude, both therapeutically and in terms of persuasion.

Psychological Therapy

For therapies, self-perception theory holds a different view of psychological problems from the traditional perspectives. Traditionally, psychological problems come from the inner part of the clients. However, self-perception theory perspective suggests that people derive their inner feelings or abilities from their external behaviours. If those behaviours are maladjusted ones, people will attribute those maladjustments to their poor adapting abilities and thus suffer from the corresponding psychological problems. Thus, this concept can be used to treat clients with psychological problems that resulted from maladjustments by guiding them to first change their behaviour and later dealing with the “problems”.

One of the most famous therapies making use of this concept is therapy for “heterosocial anxiety”. In this case, the assumption is that an individual perceives that he or she has poor social skills because he/she has no dates. Experiments showed that males with heterosocial anxiety perceived less anxiety with females after several sessions of therapy in which they engaged in a 12-minute, purposefully biased dyadic social interactions with a separate females. From these apparently successful interactions, the males inferred that their heterosocial anxiety was reduced. This effect is shown to be quite long-lasting as the reduction in perceived heterosocial anxiety resulted in a significantly greater number of dates among subjects 6 months later.

Marketing and Persuasion

Self-perception theory is also an underlying mechanism for the effectiveness of many marketing or persuasive techniques. One typical example is the foot-in-the-door technique, which is a widely used marketing technique for persuading target customers to buy products. The basic premise of this technique is that, once a person complies with a small request (e.g. filling in a short questionnaire), he/she will be more likely to comply with a more substantial request which is related to the original request (e.g. buying the related product). The idea is that the initial commitment on the small request will change one’s self-image, therefore giving reasons for agreeing with the subsequent, larger request. It is because people observe their own behaviours (paying attention to and complying with the initial request) and the context in which they behave (no obvious incentive to do so), and thus infer they must have a preference for those products.

Challenges and Criticisms

Self-perception theory was initially proposed as an alternative to explain the experimental findings of the cognitive dissonance theory, and there were debates as to whether people experience attitude changes as an effort to reduce dissonance or as a result of self-perception processes. Based on the fact that the self-perception theory differs from the cognitive dissonance theory in that it does not hold that people experience a “negative drive state” called “dissonance” which they seek to relieve, the following experiment was carried out to compare the two theories under different conditions.

An early study on cognitive dissonance theory shows that people indeed experience arousal when their behaviour is inconsistent with their previous attitude. Waterman designed an experiment in which 77 male college freshmen were asked to write an essay arguing against the position they actually agreed with. Then they were asked immediately to perform a simple task and a difficult task; their performance in both tasks was assessed. It was found that they performed better in the simple task and worse in the difficult task, compared to those who had just written an essay corresponding to their true attitude. As indicated by social facilitation, enhanced performance in simple tasks and worsened performance in difficult tasks shows that arousal is produced by people when their behaviour is inconsistent with their attitude. Therefore, the cognitive dissonance theory is evident in this case.

Apparent Disproof

Debate ensued over whether dissonance or self-perception was the valid mechanism behind attitude change. The chief difficulty lay in finding an experiment where the two flexible theories would make distinctly different predictions. Some prominent social psychologists such as Anthony Greenwald thought it would be impossible to distinguish between the two theories.

In 1974, Zanna and Cooper conducted an experiment in which individuals were made to write a counter-attitudinal essay. They were divided into either a low choice or a high choice condition. They were also given a placebo; they were told the placebo would induce either tension, relaxation, or exert no effect. Under low choice, all participants exhibited no attitude change, which would be predicted by both cognitive dissonance theory and self-perception theory. Under high choice, participants who were told the placebo would produce tension exhibited no attitude change, and participants who were told the placebo would produce relaxation demonstrated larger attitude change.

These results are not explainable by self-perception theory, as arousal should have nothing to do with the mechanism underlying attitude change. Cognitive dissonance theory, however, was readily able to explain these results: if the participants could attribute their state of unpleasant arousal to the placebo, they would not have to alter their attitude.

Thus, for a period of time, it seemed the debate between the self-perception theory and cognitive dissonance had ended.

Truce Experiment

Fazio, Zanna, and Cooper conducted another experiment in 1977, demonstrating that both cognitive dissonance and self-perception could co-exist.

In an experimental design similar to Zanna and Cooper’s 1974 study, another variable was manipulated: whether or not the stance of the counter-attitudinal essay fell in the latitude of acceptance or the latitude of rejection (refer to social judgement theory). It appeared that when the stance of the essay fell into the latitude of rejection, the results favoured cognitive dissonance. However, when the essay fell in the latitude of acceptance, the results favoured self-perception theory.

Whether cognitive dissonance or self-perception is a more useful theory is a topic of considerable controversy and a large body of literature. There are some circumstances in which a certain theory is preferred, but it is traditional to use the terminology of cognitive dissonance theory by default. The cognitive dissonance theory accounts for attitude changes when people’s behaviours are inconsistent with their original attitudes which are clear and important to them; meanwhile, the self-perception theory is used when those original attitudes are relatively ambiguous and less important. Studies have shown that, in contrast to traditional belief, a large proportion of people’s attitudes are weak and vague. Thus, the self-perception theory is significant in interpreting one’s own attitudes, such as the assessment of one’s own personality traits and whether someone would cheat to achieve a goal.

According to G. Jademyr and Yojiyfus, the perception of different aspect in the interpreting theory can be due to many factors, such as circumstances regarding dissonance and controversy. This can also be because of balance theory as it applies to the attitude towards accountability and dimensions.

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PLA Navy Personnel in Relation to Attitudes & Barriers to Mental Healthcare

Research Paper Title

Attitudes and perceived barriers to mental healthcare in the People’s Liberation Army Navy: study from a navy base.


The People’s Liberation Army (PLA, China) Navy is increasingly conducting military operations other than war overseas. Factors such as confrontations with pirates, special environments and long sailing times have resulted in mental health problems. However, the navy’s actual utilisation of mental health services is low.

This study examined members’ rate of willingness to seek help and the factors that act as barriers to willingness to seek mental health services in the PLA Navy.


This cross-sectional study was conducted at the Zhoushan Base, operated by the East Sea Fleet, between March 2019 and April 2019.

The researchers distributed a 12-item questionnaire to examine participants’ attitudes and perceived barriers to mental healthcare. They recruited 676 navy personnel. Participants’ willingness to seek help if they had mental health problems was also assessed.


The response rate was 99%. A total of 88.44% of the sample reported being willing to seek help. Univariate analysis suggested that those not willing to seek help were more likely to agree with the items, ‘Mental healthcare does not work’ and ‘My unit leadership might treat me differently’ and all organisational barriers, and they were more likely to have concerns about ’embarrassment’ and ‘being weak’ than those willing to seek help.

After controlling for demographic characteristics, binary logistic regression analyses confirmed that a lack of knowledge regarding the location of mental health clinics and being perceived as weak were the main factors preventing participants’ willingness from seeking help.


Extensive efforts to decrease organisational barriers and stigma towards mental healthcare should be a priority for researchers and policymakers to improve the usage of mental health services.

Psychoeducation aimed at de-stigmatising mental health problems should be delivered and the accessibility and availability of mental health services should be increased.


Gu, R-P., Liu, X.R> & Ye, X.F. (2020) Attitudes and perceived barriers to mental healthcare in the People’s Liberation Army Navy: study from a navy base. BMJ Military Health. doi: 10.1136/bmjmilitary-2019-001396. Online ahead of print.

Changing Attitudes & Stigma toward Mental Health in Nursing Students

Research Paper Title

Attitudes and stigma toward mental health in nursing students: A systematic review.


This systematic review seeks to ascertain whether mental health-specific education reduces stigmatising attitudes in nursing students.


A systematic review of the literature was performed.


Thirteen studies met the inclusion criteria.

Most of the results show an improvement in attitudes toward mental health, both in theory and clinical experience, but a greater improvement toward these stigmatising attitudes was observed in clinical placements than in theory.


Mental-health-specific training seems to improve perceptions toward mental health.

Clinical placement underpins theory, leading to a decrease in negative attitudes and stigma regarding mental health.


Palou, R.G., Vigue, G.P. & Tort-Nasarre, G. (2020) Attitudes and stigma toward mental health in nursing students: A systematic review. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care. 56(2), pp.243-255. doi: 10.1111/ppc.12419. Epub 2019 Jul 28.

Is there a Gender Difference in Mental Health Literacy that Affects Mental Health Attitude?

Research Paper Title

Mental Health Literacy Affects Mental Health Attitude: Is There a Gender Difference?


In the current study, the researchers aimed to compare the levels of and factors associated with mental health attitude between males and females. Of particular interest was ascertaining the degree to which mental health literacy was related to mental health attitude and whether this relationship would vary by gender.


A total of 732 participants aged 18 years or more were recruited from attendees at the 2016 Minnesota State Fair. They used the Mental Health Literacy Scale (MHLS) to measure attitude toward and literacy of mental health.


The multivariate analysis reported that males’ mental health attitude was significantly lower than females. Some factors associated with mental health attitude differed by gender as well. Among men, receiving more social support, experiencing higher levels of depression, and being married predicted greater mental health attitude. Among women, older age was associated with lower mental health attitude levels. However, mental health literacy was the strongest factor regardless of gender. Men and women with greater mental health literacy had a more positive mental health attitude.


Provision of tailored mental health literacy education both for males and females could potentially improve the public’s mental health attitude toward mental illness.


Lee, H.Y., Hwang, J., Ball, J.G., Lee, J., Yu, Y & Albright, D.L. (2020) Mental Health Literacy Affects Mental Health Attitude: Is There a Gender Difference? American Journal of Health Behaviour. 44(3), pp.282-291. doi: 10.5993/AJHB.44.3.1.

Does Early Maternal Separation Exert a Negative Influence on Student’s Depression & Dysfunctional Attitude?

Research Paper Title

The impacts of maternal separation experience and its pattern on depression and dysfunctional attitude in middle school students in rural China.


In China, because of the growth of economically driven rural-to-urban migration, there are lots of children in rural area who are separating or have separation experience with their parents.

Until now, few studies focused on solely maternal separation and no research studied whether its pattern will affect children’s later psychological status.

The aim of this study was to determine whether early or late maternal separation affects depression and dysfunctional attitude in middle school students and what is the role of cumulative duration and meeting frequency.


Maternal separation experience was obtained by using questionnaires. The researchers got early maternal separation group first. Then, late maternal separation and control group were obtained with the same number by matching grade, sex and family socioeconomic status.

All the students in the three groups completed the scales of Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI) and Dysfunctional Attitude Scale (DAS).


Both CDI and DAS scores of early separation group are higher than the other two groups.

  • When the researches split the data by sex, only females presented the same results.
  • When cumulative duration is short, there is significant difference in both scores of CDI and DAS among the three groups, which showed the scores of early separation group are higher than the other two groups.
  • When the cumulative duration is long, there is no significant difference among the three groups.
  • When meeting frequency is high, there is no significant difference among the three groups.
  • When it is low, there is significant difference among the three groups, which showed the CDI and DAS scores of early separation group are higher than the other two groups.

Furthermore, the same results are also found in females.


Early maternal separation may exert negative influence on student’s depression and dysfunctional attitude.

The sex, cumulative duration and meeting frequency may also play important roles in the effect.


Cao, X.J., Huang, Y.X., Zhu, P. & Zhang, Z.G. (2020) The impacts of maternal separation experience and its pattern on depression and dysfunctional attitude in middle school students in rural China. The International Journal of Social Psychiatry. 66(2), pp.188-197. doi: 10.1177/0020764019895795. Epub 2020 Jan 2.

New Channel 4 TV Series on Mental Health – Losing It: Our Mental Health Emergency


As attitudes to mental health change during a surge in the number of people asking for help or harming themselves, this series joins the frontline care services in Nottinghamshire

Outline Series 01

Channel 4 begins broadcasting a new series on mental health on Tuesday 21 January 2020 at 10 pm.

Titled Losing It: Our Mental; Health Emergency, the series gains access to Nottinghamshire Healthcare, one of the UK’s largest mental health trusts.

With demand rising and resources stretched like never before, this series explores the unprecedented pressure on mental health services and the seemingly impossible decisions that clinicians have to make every day.

The series places viewers at the heart of the complex decision-making process, giving a unique insight into the pressures and challenges mental health trusts and patients must deal with daily.

Told with a frank first person perspective, this series gives a very personal view of mental illness in 2019; the tragedy, humour and complex challenges.

Outline Series 01, Episode 01

Two weeks after becoming a mum, Laura is sectioned having tried to drive into a brick wall.

And is 11-year-old Briena really suicidal, or is the underlying diagnosis more complicated?

About Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

Nottinghamshire Healthcare provides integrated healthcare services, including mental health, intellectual disability and physical health services.

Over 9000 dedicated staff provide these services in a variety of settings, ranging from the community through to acute wards, as well as secure settings.

The Trust manages two medium secure units, Arnold Lodge in Leicester and Wathwood Hospital in Rotherham, and the high secure Rampton Hospital near Retford.

It also provides healthcare in prisons across the East Midlands.

Its budget for 2019/20 is £465m.

Why Do It?

The Trust made the decision to take part in the series in April 2019 to try and further reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

The production company, Story Films, has an impressive track record in making sensitive films that deal with difficult topics.

Filming took place across Nottinghamshire during the summer of last year and features patients with a wide variety of diagnoses, including young people, families and people in crisis.

Production & Filming Details

  • Production: Story Films.
  • Distributor: Channel 4.
  • Release Date: 21 January 2020 (UK).
  • Running Time: 50 minutes.

Working with Diversity

People trained in mental health first aid are not expected to have specialist knowledge of different groups’ attitudes and beliefs about mental health.

The most important thing is to avoid making assumptions about the person to whom you are offering support.

For instance, do not assume that the person shares the same attitudes as you hold.

When suggesting that a person seeks further help, it is best to ask who they would feel most comfortable approaching rather than immediately suggesting their general practitioner (GP).

Similarly, it is best to use simple language like ‘low mood’ or ‘sadness’ rather than using terms like depression when talking about a person’s mood or feelings.

These guidelines hold true in any situation. It is always better to avoid making assumptions about another person and to check out that person’s feelings and preferences before offering advice and support.