Humans aren’t all that hard to understand. We smile when we’re happy. We act confident when we feel sure of ourselves. We do favors for the people we like.
Not so fast, psychologists say; the reverse of those statements is also true.
If you make yourself smile, you’d most likely start feeling happier.1 If you started acting confident, you’d probably start to feel more sure of yourself.2 If I were to ask you to do me a small favor and you complied, you would actually come to like me more than you did prior to doing me the favor.3
The explanation for these odd reversals of conventional wisdom is self-perception theory. First proposed by psychologist Daryl Bem, self-perception theory posits that “People draw inferences about who they are … by observing their own behavior.”4 Our brains aren’t just observing the world around us; they’re also observing our own actions with great curiosity. We’re steadily learning about our own preferences and molding a stronger sense of our own identity through self-perception.
Who am I?
I like to think that I know who I am and how I feel about the world, but the science of self-perception says otherwise. It turns out that my brain isn’t sure about these things, and it’s constantly trying to figure them out by observing my own actions. To a certain extent, “we are strangers to ourselves.”4 This might seem odd, but on closer inspection, we’ll see that it actually makes sense.
Our brains use self-perception to determine who we are because our identities change a great deal throughout our lives. Who you are and what you’re capable of have changed enormously since you were a child and will continue to change enormously as you grow older. Every year, even every day, we change a little bit. It’s in our best interest to constantly update our sense of self to match our current abilities and circumstances.
There is, in every person at all times, a bi-directional feedback loop of actions, thoughts, and emotions.5 Each of these elements influences the others: When one changes, the others change.
However, not all change is equally easy. It is essentially impossible to directly change our emotions.5 It is very hard–but possible–to change our thoughts. It is simple–though not easy–to change our actions. Actions are the least difficult element to change.
This is an important idea. It means that when we want to change how we feel, we might have to start with an action.5 If we want to change a behavior, we have to start before we think or feel that we’re ready.6
But why does it work this way?
Your mind likes there to be consistency between your actions, thoughts, and emotions, so it will automatically try to align your thoughts and feelings with whatever actions you’re taking.3
If you start doing something you wouldn’t normally do, your brain will start to think of reasons to justify what you’re doing, and it will then adjust your emotions to make these actions and thoughts feel more like they are reflections of who you really are. This is why you like someone more after you do him a favor.3
It is also why behavior is the great driver of personal change.
“Start before you feel ready.” 6 –James Clear
One of the most important applications of self-perception theory is for motivation. The conventional wisdom is that we take action when we feel motivated, which is, of course, true.
Motivation causes action:
However, the reverse is also true. We start to feel motivated when we start taking action.5
Action causes motivation:
If you struggle with procrastination – if you’re human – this is a crucial idea. If you need to get something done but don’t feel like you have the energy to do it, just start. The energy will come.
Behavioral Change and Personal Growth
“Fake it till you become it.” 2 –Amy Cuddy
Self-development is notoriously difficult, establishing good habits is an uphill battle, and quitting bad habits is something most people find next-to-impossible. Self-perception theory can help.
The theory–as well as the evidence that supports it–teaches that if we start acting differently, we will begin to “infer dispositions that weren’t there before.”4 We will start to convince ourselves that we really are the person we’re acting like. In fact, as we repeat those behaviors over and over again, our malleable brains rewire and grow in a physical transformation that parallels the transformation of our identity.
It is very helpful just to know these facts. This knowledge makes it easier to get over the inertia of who we currently are, and start doing the work that will transform us into the people we want to be. We can push through the arduous, early stages of behavioral change powered by the faith that it will get easier.
The “just start” technique described above is but one example of how we can use self-perception to change our behavior and improve ourselves. There are many instances where we can build desirable character traits by acting as if we already have them. For example, even if I don’t feel like the kind of person who is responsible and organized, I can become such a person by consistently going through the motions.
This turns out to be one of the primary benefits of making your children do chores. Parents may simply be trying to get their children to lend a hand around the house, but that is merely a short-term benefit–albeit a nice one. The long-term benefit is that the chore-doing children are subconsciously learning to be response-able. These children will grow up to be more responsible adults because they’ve practiced the behaviors enough for them to become ingrained in their identity.
Likewise, a student who feels disorganized and claims to “be” disorganized is likely to also feel that becoming organized is beyond his abilities because it’s not who he “is.” Self-perception theory, however, teaches us that such a student could start going through the motions without ever feeling ready. That student could sort the papers in his binder, begin using a planner, tidy up his desk at home, and start tracking his study-time. The more often he practices these behaviors, the more he’ll start to feel like – and become – an organized person.
Self-perception theory can also be applied to academic situations in which a student doesn’t feel capable.
Every time we avoid doing something difficult because we don’t feel like we’re able to handle it, we reinforce the feeling–and the belief–that we’re not capable. Thankfully, the reverse is true as well: If we don’t feel like we can handle a particular challenge, but we try anyway, we start to feel more capable.
For example, it’s common to feel nervous before giving a speech, but if you go for it, fight through your anxiety, and deliver the speech, you’ll not only feel relief about being done, you’ll feel more confident because you proved to yourself that you can do it. Next time you have to give a speech, you’ll feel a little less nervous. On the other hand, if you fake illness and bail on giving the speech, you’ll have proved to yourself that you really can’t handle it and you’ll feel even more nervous next time.
Self-perception theory reminds us that we have to face our fears before we can feel brave. Acting brave often precedes feeling brave.
This aligns precisely with Malcolm Gladwell’s description of Londoners during the German bombings of WWII in his book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Although 40,000 were killed and another 40,000 were injured in the bombings, the vast majority of London’s eight million people survived the bombings physically unscathed. Initially scared–and understandably so–most Londoners became brave to the point where they were almost indifferent to the bombings and largely ignored the warning sirens.7 After facing their fears and surviving, they became almost unimaginably brave.
The residents of London became desensitized to the risks of bombing, perhaps, one could argue, too desensitized. But it’s perfectly safe to apply this model to how students learn to handle risks because school, unlike war, is not dangerous. Students must learn that making a mistake is not life-threatening, despite how it sometimes feels.
To discover our potential, we have to take risks. I don’t mean the sort of risks daredevils and extreme skiers take. I mean the sort of risks that entrepreneurs take when they put energy into a business that might not succeed. I mean the sort of risks that scientists take when they try experiments that have never been done before. I mean the sort of risk that a student takes when she raises her hand in class to give an answer that she’s not sure is correct.
A simple and super-safe example of risk-taking is putting an answer down on paper when you’re unsure whether or not it’s right. A similar example is starting a math problem when you’re not sure what to do.
Here at Northwest Educational Services, we consistently work with students on taking these risks. When we ask a question and students say, “I don’t know,” we say, “Guess anyway.” More often than not, they surprise themselves by ‘guessing’ right. When students have math problems they aren’t sure how to approach, we say, “Try something.” Usually, they try something that takes them closer to the solution.
Self-perception theory teaches us that we actually have more power and more potential than we often believe. It is one of the great ironies of human psychology that we often cannot feel like we’re able to do something until after we’ve already done it. Taking action to change your life takes boldness and bravery.
But there is a limit to the power of self-perception.
For example, if a person has a deep insecurity about himself, it’s unlikely that consistently acting confident will remove this insecurity. He might learn that acting confident is a way to do better in life–more dates, better jobs, etc.–and so he’ll get really good at acting confident. Meanwhile, he’ll actually feel more confident, because of self-perception. He may even come to believe that he truly is confident now, but his deep insecurities will remain hidden beneath the surface.
Addressing such deep issues is not the role of this blog, and it is my obligation to make clear the limitations of the information I have to offer. As powerful as it is, “fake it till you become it” only takes you so far. As always, remember that there’s no substitute for the professional help of a therapist.
Despite these limitations, there are countless ways to apply self-perception theory to better our lives. The game-changing idea to take away from this article is that you’re not stuck with your current feelings, abilities, or identity. You can improve all of those things; you can choose your identity. So decide who you’d really like to be, start taking action, and one step at a time, become that person.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Wenner, Melinda. “Smile! It Could Make You Happier: Making an emotional face—or suppressing one—influences your feelings.” Scientific American. September 1, 2009.
2 Cuddy, Amy. “How Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” TED Global 2012.
3 Cialdini, Robert B. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Revised Edition. Harper Business, 2006.
4 Wilson, Timothy D. “We Are What We Do: The best way to change is often to change our behavior first.” Psychology Today. Blog: Redirect. January 17, 2012.
5 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.
6 Clear, James. “Successful People Start Before They Feel Ready.”
7 Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Back Bay Books, 2015.
Title Image: Holmér, Christian. “Mirror cat #2.” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0. Text added.
Owl: Lemes, Wagner Machado Carlos. “Mirror Mirror on the wall, who is the prettiest owl of them all?” https://www.flickr.com/. Creative Commons 2.0.