We Are What We Do

Note: Each year, the website Edge.org poses a question for scientists to address. The 2012 question is,  “What is Your Favorite Deep, Elegant, or Beautiful Explanation?” My answer is below; for the others, check out the Edge web site.

We Are What We Do

My favorite is the idea that people become what they do. This explanation of how people acquire attitudes and traits dates back to the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, but was formalized by the social psychologist Daryl Bem in his self-perception theory. People draw inferences about who they are, Bem suggested, by observing their own behavior.

Self-perception theory turns common wisdom on its head. People act the way they do because of their personality traits and attitudes, right? They return a lost wallet because they are honest, recycle their trash because they care about the environment, and pay $5 for a caramel brulée latte because they like expensive coffee drinks. While it is true that behavior emanates from people’s inner dispositions, Bem’s insight was to suggest that the reverse also holds. If we return a lost wallet, there is an upward tick on our honesty meter. After we drag the recycling bin to the curb, we infer that we really care about the environment. And after purchasing the latte, we assume that we are coffee connoisseurs.

Hundreds of experiments have confirmed the theory and shown when this self-inference process is most likely to operate (e.g., when people believe they freely chose to behave the way they did, and when they weren’t sure at the outset how they felt).

Self-perception theory is elegant in its simplicity. But it is also quite deep, with important implications for the nature of the human mind. Two other powerful ideas follow from it. The first is that we are strangers to ourselves. After all, if we knew our own minds, why would we need to guess what our preferences are from our behavior? If our minds were an open book, we would know exactly how honest we are and how much we like lattes. Instead, we often need to look to our behavior to figure out who we are. Self-perception theory thus anticipated the revolution in psychology in the study of human consciousness, a revolution that revealed the limits of introspection.

But it turns out that we don’t just use our behavior to reveal our dispositions—we infer dispositions that weren’t there before. Often, our behavior is shaped by subtle pressures around us, but we fail to recognize those pressures. As a result, we mistakenly believe that our behavior emanated from some inner disposition. Perhaps we aren’t particularly trustworthy and instead returned the wallet in order to impress the people around us. But, failing to realize that, we infer that we are squeaky clean honest. Maybe we recycle because the city has made it easy to do so (by giving us a bin and picking it up every Tuesday) and our spouse and neighbors would disapprove if we didn’t. Instead of recognizing those reasons, though, we assume that we should be nominated for the Green Neighbor of the Month Award. Countless studies have shown that people are quite susceptible to social influence, but rarely recognize the full extent of it, thereby misattributing their compliance to their true wishes and desires—the well-known fundamental attribution error.

Like all good psychological explanations, self-perception theory has practical uses. It is implicit in several versions of psychotherapy, in which clients are encouraged to change their behavior first, with the assumption that changes in their inner dispositions will follow. It has been used to prevent teenage pregnancies, by getting teens to do community service. The volunteer work triggers a change in their self-image, making them feel more a part of their community and less inclined to engage in risky behaviors. In short, we should all heed Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”


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