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  • Paloma Gaskin

Know Thyself: Self-Perception Theory


Have you ever wondered why you are the way you are? Do you really even know who you are? Most days at least. Perhaps only when with friends or loved ones. In those stressful moments of crisis, where you come into your own. What I mean is, are you the roles you play, the main character on a heroic quest, or who you think you have to be the majority of the time (maybe in the workplace)? Psychology recognises the different parts or aspects of us as our personal pantheon or rotating archetypes. There’s a reason why the most well-known oracle at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi is: ’Know Thyself.’ I thought I was fairly self-aware, but it’s been impressed upon me that I could easily ‘pull the wool’ over my own eyes. It’s possible because we each have a vulnerable spot we may not see at all: an Achilles heel.


I recently learnt about “self-perception theory“, which was developed by social psychologist, Daryl Bem In 1967. It’s seemingly counterintuitive, because it proposes that behaviour influences attitude or traits, rather than the more common perspective that this is the other way round. For instance, adopting a power posture like the superhero stance for about three minutes before an important meeting or presentation, can make you exude confidence. A whole host of behaviours have been tested and shown to create different emotions in us. To make a mindful decision to observe ourselves, the way we observe others, is not something we are accustomed to. Though, on reflection, it does offer several beneficial experiences. One is to pinpoint unconscious behaviours that are self-destructive, like an addictive spree. It can work well for speaking our affirmations aloud, rather than thinking them silently. An example would be to say, “I’m giving up chocolate” and reflect on the reason for doing it…


Stay with me, as I’m guessing this might sound a weird way to view actions and outcomes. It seems opposed to our natural way of understanding. Except learned behaviours can become the good habits we wish to cultivate. Also, it’s needless to self-sabotage with grand plans. Setting small achievable goals, and starting with only five minutes a day to achieve a consistent result could work wonders. This is how I began meditating years ago, until I slowly progressed to an hour. I used to feel a tight band around my forehead, or that I my mind was like a plane trying to lift off until ‘carefree flying’ came more easily after regular daily practice. Researchers have effectively used “self-perception theory” in reverse, to counteract self-defeating attitudes, and we can do this for ourselves. Popular, pithy sayings such as, “fake it, till you make it” and “smile, like you’re happy” are evidence of this application in society. We just may not have known the science behind them. I’m sure there’s many more examples!


To be fair, it shows identity to be rather malleable, and there’s every reason to use this to our advantage. On the flip side, it can certainly be used to manipulate others, in the case of cult leaders. I’m not interested in that, but it‘s interesting to consider the external influences in our lives. It reinforces the necessity of investing our time in worthwhile activities and people who uplift not only us, but others too. When we engage with friends, there’s nothing more heart-warming than the bond we share facilitating shared experiences. If it’s true that we can be different with different people in different situations, then wouldn’t we want to be kept grounded by the loved ones who see us as one cohesive personality. It makes us present. It builds an inner foundation, from which we can go forth into the world, knowing who we are.

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