Self-Perception Theory and how to Hack it for Happiness

Is this a sign of poor mental health? Or did I just forget to wash the dishes?

You judge plenty of books by their covers, all the time. It’s an adaptive behaviour that couldn’t and shouldn’t be circumvented. Whenever a situation gets your attention, your mind rushes to access any information you have associated with the apparent cues of the situation, so you know how to feel and what to do about it.

· On a dark lonely street, you see a young man in a black hoodie with face tattoos and a slouch, watching you — probably a criminal, wants to rob me, cross the street to avoid him.

· The light turns green and the driver behind you immediately leans on the horn — they must be a rude and impatient asshole, grow up dickhead.

· A woman screams at her tantrum-throwing toddler in the supermarket and smacks him in the face — Obviously angry, probably tired, possibly a terrible mother who should never have had children.

Your attributions will vary based on your outlook, experience and upbringing, but one thing I promise is that you make them.

I was house-sitting in Perth and in the second year of my psychology degree when I woke up one morning and shuffled into the kitchen to make coffee. I was sick of feeling so down. I wasn’t coping and my mental and emotional health was dismal. God I was such a mess right now I couldn’t even clean up after myself and the sink was full of dirty dishes. Tears gathered in my eyes as dark clouds of hopelessness rolled on in to wreck my day. If I could only… If I wasn’t such a….

Wait.

Rewind.

Was any of this really true??

Because I had only read about Self-Perception Theory a few days earlier as part of my psychology curriculum, I was able to catch myself creating this story before it got legs. What the hell… my mental health was fine! I had seen the dishes in the sink and since letting the house get messy is one symptom of failing mental health for me, I had unconsciously come to the conclusion that I therefore had failing mental health, and my mind had run with it, winding up a miserable story that invoked tears and sadness that actually wasn’t even true. The story fed into my hopelessness which fed back into my story and so the downward spiral of shittiness descended. And I started to wonder how often I did this. Particularly when I was most vulnerable, before my morning cup of caffeine and positivity had had a chance to circulate my bloodstream.

Self-Perception theory states that “Individuals come to ‘know’ their own attitudes, emotions and other internal states partially by inferring them from observations of their own overt behaviour… Thus, to the extend that internal cues are weak, ambiguous or uninterpretable, the individual is functionally in the same position as an outside observer… who must necessarily rely upon those same external cues to infer the individual’s inner states.” (Bem, 1972).

Basically, in the absence of obvious reasons for it, you judge your internal state by your behaviour in the same way you judge others.

Got a bad grade on my exam — I must be stupid or I don’t care about this subject.

Haven’t been to the gym in months — I must hate exercise and I’m lazy and undisciplined.

Messy sink full of dishes — My mental health must be taking a slide.

It’s fairly easy to see how these attributions become self-perpetuating cycles.

I didn’t go to the gym last week → I must be lazy → I am lazy, so I act lazy → I don’t go to the gym this week → I must be lazy.

Much of what happens internally, we are blissfully unaware of. Psychology has shown us that even when we THINK we’re aware of the reasons we do, say or feel things, we’re probably not — at least not all of it. It is much easier to change our external environment and behaviour than it is our thoughts and feelings because they are visible, measurable and observable to us.

When I know my mental health is iffy or potentially a bit fragile, I take extra care to do the kinds of things I do when my mental health is great. I exercise outdoors, I clean my bedroom, I say nice things to people and offer help freely. I go to the local café for my morning coffee and smile at people, and I make a point of getting things done, even if they are small, manageable things.

Here are your two steps to hacking self-perception for happiness.

STEP ONE: Make a list of the kinds of things you do when you’re feeling GOOD and when you’re feeling BAD. Do as many things from the GOOD list as you can each day, even if only a few of them feel manageable. Things that are immediately visible are particularly helpful, such as cleaning the kitchen or making your bed. Activities like going for a walk outside, eating the healthy foods or dancing have a double benefit — exercise, nutritious food and fresh air will give you a boost on TOP of your self-perception. Do them even if you don’t feel like it. ESPECIALLY if you don’t feel like it.

STEP TWO: Don’t reward yourself for doing these things. The presence of an extrinsic reward can lead you to conclude that you undertook the activities for the sole purpose of receiving the reward, the attribution to ‘feeling good’ becomes redundant and the effect is lost. You have to keep your reasons ambiguous to make space for the happiness attribution. If you want to use rewards, make them goal-based rather than task-based. For example, reward yourself for clocking up 100km on the treadmill this week rather than for showing up to the gym.

And that’s it! Go forth and hack your attributions my friends — your mental and emotional wellness is worth working for.

“Kitchen Lifestyle Details” by dejankrsmanovic is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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