People have an avid interest in understanding the causes of behavior, both theirs and others, and doing so helps us meet the important goals of other-concern and self-concern. If we can better understand how and why the other people around us act the way they do, then we will have a better chance of avoiding harm from others and a better chance of getting those other people to cooperate with and like us. And if we have a better idea of understanding the causes of our own behavior, we can better work to keep that behavior in line with our preferred plans and goals.
In some cases, people may be unsure about their attitudes toward different attitude objects. For instance, perhaps Joachim is a bit unsure about his attitude toward schoolwork versus listening to music (and this uncertainty certainly seems to be increasing in light of his recent behavior). Might Joachim look at his own behavior to help him determine his thoughts and feelings, just as he might look at the behavior of others to understand why they act the way that they do? Self-perception occurs when we use our own behavior as a guide to help us determine our own thoughts and feelings (Bem, 1972; Olson & Stone, 2005).
Research Focus: Looking at Our Own Behavior to Determine Our Attitudes
Eliot Aronson and J. Merrill Carlsmith (1963) conducted an experiment to determine whether young children might look at their own behavior to help determine their attitudes toward toys. In
their research, they first had the children rate the attractiveness of several toys. They then chose a toy that a child had just indicated he or she really wanted to play with and—this was
rather mean—told that child he or she could not play with that toy. Furthermore, and according to random assignment to conditions, half of the children were threatened with mild punishment if
they disobeyed and the other half were threatened with severe punishment. In the mild threat condition the experimenter said, “I don’t want you to play with the toy. If you play with it, I
would be annoyed,” whereas in the harsh threat condition the experimenter said, “I don’t want you to play with the toy. If you play with it, I would be very angry. I would have to take all of
my toys and go home and never come back again.” The experimenter then left the room for a few minutes to give the children the time and opportunity to play with the other toys and to resist
the temptation of playing with the forbidden toy, while watching the children through a one-way mirror. It turned out that both the harsh and the mild threat were sufficient to prevent the
children from playing with the forbidden toy—none of the children actually did so. Nevertheless, when the experimenter returned to the room and asked each child to again rate how much he or
she liked the forbidden toy, the children who had received the harsh threat rated the toy significantly more positively than the children who had received the mild threat. Furthermore, the
children who had only received the mild threat actually rated the forbidden toy less positively than they had at the beginning of the experiment. And this change was long lasting. Even when
tested several weeks later, children still showed these changes (Freedman, 1965).
The results of this study indicate that the children’s self-perceptions of their behaviors influenced their attitudes toward the toys. Assume for a moment that the children were a bit unsure about how much they liked the toy that they did not play with and that they needed some information to determine their beliefs. The children in the harsh threat condition had a strong external reason for not having played with the toy—they were going to get into really big trouble if they did. Because these children likely saw the social situation as the cause of their behavior, they found it easy to believe that they still liked the toy a lot. For the children in the mild threat condition, however, the external reasons for their behavior were not so apparent—they had only been asked not to play with the toy. These children were more likely to conclude that their behavior was caused by internal, personal factors—that they did not play with the toy simply because they did not like it that much.
We can use the principles of self-perception to help understand how Joachim is interpreting his behavior of staying out all night at the club rather than studying. When Joachim looks at this behavior, he may start to wonder why he engaged in it. One answer is that the social situation caused the behavior; that is, he might decide that the band he heard last night was so fantastic that he simply had to go hear them and could not possibly have left the club early. Blaming the situation for the behavior allows him to avoid blaming himself for it and to avoid facing the fact that he found listening to music more important than his schoolwork. But the fact that Joachim is a bit worried about his unusual behavior suggests that he, at least in part, might be starting to wonder about his own motivations.
Perhaps you have experienced the effects of self-perception. Have you ever found yourself becoming more convinced about an argument you were making as you heard yourself making it? Or did you ever realize how thirsty you must have been as you quickly drank a big glass of water? Research has shown that self-perception occurs regularly and in many different domains. For instance, Gary Wells and Richard Petty (1980) found that people who were asked to shake their heads up and down rather than sideways while reading arguments favoring or opposing tuition increases at their school ended up agreeing with the arguments more, and Daryl Bem (1965) found that when people were told by the experimenter to say that certain cartoons were funny, they ended up actually finding those cartoons funnier. It appears in these cases that people looked at their own behavior: if they moved their head up and down or said that the cartoons were funny, they figured that they must agree with the arguments and like the cartoon.