Understanding Self-Perception Theory


Self-perception theory is a psychological theory proposed by Daryl Bem in 1967. This theory suggests that people come to understand their own attitudes, emotions, and internal states by observing their own behavior and the context in which it occurs.

In other words, individuals infer their own thoughts and feelings based on how they perceive themselves acting in a given situation. This theory is often used to explain how people develop their self-concept and make sense of their own internal experiences.

Key principles of self-perception theory

Observational Behavior

According to this theory, individuals do not have a fixed, pre-existing set of attitudes or emotions. Instead, they look at their own behavior and draw conclusions about their attitudes or emotions based on how they behaved in a particular situation.

For example, if someone observes themselves smiling and laughing at a comedy show, they may conclude that they found the show funny and that they have a positive attitude toward comedy.

Inference Process

Self-perception theory posits that people engage in an inference process, much like an outside observer would, to understand their own internal states. They analyze their actions, the context, and any available cues to draw conclusions about their inner feelings and attitudes.

Limited to Ambiguous Situations

This theory is particularly relevant in situations where a person’s internal states or attitudes are not entirely clear or are ambiguous. When people have a strong and well-defined attitude or emotion, they typically rely on that pre-existing knowledge rather than inferring their feelings from their behavior.

Over-justification Effect:

Self-perception theory can also help explain the over-justification effect, which occurs when individuals attribute their behavior to external rewards or incentives rather than internal motivations.

For example, if someone originally enjoyed a hobby like painting for its own sake but then started receiving monetary rewards for their artwork, they might begin to perceive their motivation as being primarily driven by the external reward rather than their intrinsic love for painting.

Self-perception theory in the workplace

Self-perception theory can operate in various ways in the workplace, influencing how employees perceive and interpret their own attitudes, motivations, and behaviors, as follows:

Job Satisfaction

Employees may use self-perception theory to gauge their job satisfaction. For example, if an employee regularly finds themselves looking forward to going to work, taking on extra tasks voluntarily, and experiencing a positive mood at work, they may infer that they are satisfied with their job.


Self-perception theory can also be relevant to understanding motivation at work. Employees may evaluate their level of intrinsic motivation by observing their own behavior. If they consistently engage in tasks enthusiastically and without external pressure, they may conclude that they have a high level of intrinsic motivation for those tasks.

Attitude Change

In a workplace setting, employees may change their attitudes and beliefs over time based on their behavior and experiences.

For instance, an employee who initially had a negative attitude toward a particular project may develop a more positive attitude if they find themselves willingly contributing ideas and putting in extra effort to make the project successful.

Over-justification Effect

Self-perception theory helps explain the over-justification effect in the workplace. If employees were initially motivated by intrinsic factors such as a sense of achievement or enjoyment of their work, and then their motivation shifts to external factors like monetary rewards or bonuses, they may start to attribute their behavior to these external incentives. This can potentially decrease their intrinsic motivation for the tasks they once enjoyed.

Employee Engagement

Self-perception theory can also influence how employees perceive their engagement with their work and the organization. Employees who actively participate in company initiatives, volunteer for leadership roles, and contribute ideas may see themselves as highly engaged and committed to the organization.

Organizational Change

When organizations undergo significant changes, such as mergers, restructuring, or changes in leadership, employees may evaluate their own reactions and attitudes toward these changes based on their observable behavior.

Their responses, such as whether they adapt to new procedures or express resistance, can inform their perceptions of their own acceptance or resistance to change.

Relationship to Other Theories

Self-perception theory is related to several other psychological theories that also seek to explain how individuals perceive and interpret their attitudes, emotions, and behaviors. Two notable theories that are often compared and contrasted with self-perception theory are cognitive dissonance theory and the self-determination theory.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory


  • Both cognitive dissonance theory and self-perception theory deal with how individuals make sense of their attitudes and behaviors.
  • They both acknowledge that individuals may sometimes experience inconsistency or conflict between their attitudes and actions.


  • Cognitive dissonance theory, proposed by Leon Festinger, suggests that when people experience cognitive dissonance (a state of psychological discomfort resulting from conflicting beliefs or actions), they are motivated to reduce this discomfort by changing their attitudes or behaviors to align with one another.
  • In contrast, self-perception theory posits that individuals primarily infer their attitudes from their observed behaviors without necessarily experiencing cognitive dissonance. Self-perception theory doesn’t emphasize the discomfort aspect.
  • Cognitive dissonance theory typically involves situations where individuals have pre-existing attitudes or beliefs that are in conflict with their actions. Self-perception theory, on the other hand, is often applied to situations where individuals may not have well-established attitudes or where the attitudes are ambiguous.

Self-Determination Theory


  • Both self-perception theory and self-determination theory are concerned with understanding human motivation and how it influences behavior in various contexts, including the workplace.


  • Self-determination theory, developed by Deci and Ryan, focuses on the role of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in driving behavior. It emphasizes that individuals have innate psychological needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness, and that the fulfillment of these needs leads to more self-determined and satisfying behaviors.
  • Self-perception theory, on the other hand, doesn’t explicitly address these psychological needs and focuses more on the inference of attitudes from behavior.
  • Self-determination theory proposes that intrinsic motivation (engaging in an activity because it is inherently enjoyable or personally meaningful) is a key driver of long-term behavior and well-being.
  • In contrast, self-perception theory primarily deals with how individuals interpret their behavior and the attitudes they attribute to themselves based on their observable actions, which may or may not involve intrinsic motivation.


What is Self-Perception Theory?

Self-perception theory posits that people determine their attitudes and preferences by interpreting the meaning of their own behavior. In a workplace context, this means employees may form opinions about their job satisfaction, commitment, and work ethic based on observing their actions and reactions in work situations.

How Does Self-Perception Affect Employee Motivation?

Employees might infer their level of motivation from their own behavior. For example, if they consistently work late, they might conclude they are highly motivated and committed to their job, which can in turn actually increase their motivation.

Can Self-Perception Theory Help in Understanding Job Satisfaction?

Yes, employees often assess their job satisfaction based on their actions and emotional reactions at work. Positive experiences and proactive behavior might lead them to perceive higher job satisfaction.

What Role Does Self-Perception Play in Leadership?

Leaders may use self-perception theory to assess their leadership style and effectiveness. For instance, if they notice they frequently provide feedback and support to their team, they might perceive themselves as transformational leaders.

How Does Self-Perception Influence Workplace Relationships?

Employees may form opinions about their relationships with colleagues based on interactions and behaviors. Positive and collaborative behaviors can lead to a perception of strong, healthy working relationships.

Can Self-Perception Theory Be Used to Improve Performance?

Yes, by encouraging positive behaviors and providing constructive feedback, employers can influence employees’ self-perception, leading them to view themselves as competent and valuable, which can improve performance.

Is There a Link Between Self-Perception and Employee Burnout?

If employees perceive themselves as constantly stressed or overwhelmed, they may conclude they are experiencing burnout, which can exacerbate actual feelings of burnout.

How Does Self-Perception Affect Decision-Making in the Workplace?

Employees’ perception of their own decision-making skills can influence their confidence in making future decisions. Positive experiences can enhance confidence, while negative ones can lead to indecision or reliance on others.

Can Self-Perception Theory Impact Organizational Culture?

Yes, the collective self-perception of employees can shape the overall culture of an organization. A culture that promotes positive behaviors and attitudes can foster a more positive self-perception among employees.

How Can Employers Use Self-Perception Theory to Enhance Employee Engagement?

Employers can design work environments and tasks that allow employees to engage in behaviors that foster a positive self-perception, such as teamwork, innovation, and responsibility, thus enhancing overall engagement.

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