Daryl J. Bem, Ph.D. is a social psychologist who formulated the self -- perception theory as it relates to attitude change in attitude development. He has exhibited many research interests in his career but is also notable for theories regarding the development of attitudes, sexual orientation, and research attempting to demonstrate the legitimacy of such parapsychological phenomena as ESP. This paper discusses his early life, educational background, his major academic influences during his training, the political and cultural climate that occurred during his upbringing, and his major academic contributions and published works.
Dr. Bem's Education, Personal Life, and Employment History
Dr. Bem was born on June 10, 1938 in Denver, Colorado (Bem, 2001). Dr. Bem has two siblings: brother and a sister. Dr. Bem's father, Darwin Bem, owned a small manufacturing company named the Colorado Badge and Trophy Company in the city of Denver, Colorado and his mother was a traditional stay-at-home mother. The Bems were a middle-class family and it appears that there were no major unusual events occurring in his upbringing based on the time of his childhood (Bem, 2001). There is a story that when Ben was six years old he was given a magic set as a gift from his aunt and uncle. He had an interest in magic and while in high school he apparently observed the vaudeville magician, Joseph Dunninger, on a television program. Part of Dunninger's magic act was to "read minds" (Bem, 2001). Apparently Dr. Bem's interest in magic and this particular experience led to a lifelong sub-career as a magician and mentalist. Moreover, it also led to a later interest of Bem to produce empirical investigations attempting to confirm the legitimacy of parapsychological phenomena such as ESP.
Education and Zeitgeist
Dr. Bem attended East Denver high school and graduated in 1956 (Bem, 2001). He then attended Reed College in Oregon where he majored in physics and graduated in 1960 with a bachelor's degree in physics (Bem, 2001).
Following his graduation from Reed College Dr. Bem was accepted into the graduate program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in physics; however, he only remained in that program for one year. It was during the 1960s that the Civil Rights movement began to gain momentum and this movement influenced the young Bem. Fascinated by the changing attitudes of the 1960s he decided to switch his field of study to social psychology. He was accepted into the prestigious social psychology program at the University of Michigan and received his Ph.D. In social psychology in 1964 (Bem. 2001).
Dr. Bem, like many young academics, was heavily influenced by the Zeitgeist of the 1960s. During this time the entire country found itself caught in social and cultural revolutions as well as major changes in political climate due to the Vietnam War, changes in music, movements by university students to affect political and social change, etc. Much of his research and his major research interests reflect the values of these changing times. Moreover, Dr. Bem was heavily influenced by the distinguished staff of social psychologists at the University of Michigan in the 1960s that included individuals like Walter E. Kogan and Robert Zajonc. These individuals were extremely interested in studying such things as attitude formation, decision-making, and social influences on decision-making and left a lasting impression on Dr. Bem and his academic focus (Bem, 2001).
Upon completing his Ph.D. Bem became an assistant professor at Carnegie -- Mellon University from 1964 to 1971. He then went to Stanford University and worked as an assistant professor from 1971 to 1978 and from there he moved on and became a professor of psychology at Cornell University from 1978 to 2007 when he retired, but continued his research until 2011. Dr. Bem was also a visiting professor of psychology at Harvard University in 1987 to 1980 (Bem, 2001).
While he was a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University Dr. Bem met psychology student Sandra Ruth Lipsitz, who would later become a well -- known researcher herself and whom he would later marry and have two children with. The interesting thing about this marriage is that Dr. Bem has always admitted to being gay and his wife, a professor of developmental psychology, engaged in a long- term lesbian relationship upon their separation. The Bems have described their marriage and frontal style as being open, liberal, and uninhibited, again indicating the influence of the 1960s on Dr. Bem and his family (Bem, 2001).
Bem's Major Research and Theories
Dr. Bem has produced a number of significant peer-reviewed research articles on theories regarding sexual orientation, attitude formation, parapsychological phenomena, social judgment, self-perception, the psychological roots of discrimination, and prejudice. This section will look at his three major areas of research: (1) the development of sexual orientation, (2) self -- perception theory, and (3) research into ESP and other parapsychological phenomena.
As mentioned above Dr. Bem has openly admitted to being gay for many years and it is only natural for such an individual growing up in the 50s and 60s to have developed some of their own personal constructs regarding how one acquires their sexual orientation. In his classic explanation of sexual orientation Bem (1996) deduced that individuals become sexually or romantically attracted to individuals who they perceive as being different (exotic) in childhood and adolescence. Bem (1996) hypothesized that there was a series of events that occurred in a temporal order that led to sexual attraction/sexual orientation and individuals:
1. The first series of events occurs prenatally and consists of hormones that the fetus is exposed to in utero. These particular hormones are not necessarily involved in sexual orientation but are more involved in temperamental factors that the person will express after birth.
2. These particular temperaments predispose individuals towards certain behaviors. Some children will engage in activities that are more male -- typical, whereas others will engage in activities that are more female -- typical. As a result of these temperaments directing behavior children will seek out playmates that enjoy the same types of behaviors. Bem (1996; 1998) notes that those children that prefer the typical activities and same-sex playmates are gender -- conforming in those who favor a typical activities and opposite -- sex friends are gender -- nonconforming.
3. The above choices/events result in gender -- conforming children to view their opposite -- sex counterparts as exotic and unfamiliar. These children are viewed as different. Gender -- nonconforming children view their same -- sex counterparts as exotic and unfamiliar.
4. As a result of the previous steps the feelings of unfamiliarity lead to heightened physiological arousal. Bem believe that this arousal was generalized and not specific or volitional. Males may typically feel apathetic towards females, whereas females that are typical may feel timid towards males.
5. In time the physiological arousal that one feels towards the non-peer group becomes transformed into an erotic attraction. The person's sexual orientation develops based on these self -- perceptions.
Thus, Bem's theory explains the development of sexual orientation/sexual attraction in both heterosexual and homosexual individuals. Part of the criticism of Bem's "Exotic becomes Erotic" theory is that childhood experiences are given too much weight compared to inherent factors such as genetics and this could lead to blame for sexual orientation being placed on bad parenting or other environmental factors (Peplau et al.1998). Bem (1998) countered that biological theories of sexual orientation did not out for a developmental aspect into the construct of sexual attraction and supported his theory with empirical evidence (Bem, 2001). Several of Bem's ideas regarding the development of sexual orientation have endured and spite of a more current biological approach to human sexuality.
Self -- Perception Theory
One of the most prevailing theories in social psychology is the theory of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, 1957). The notion of cognitive dissonance assumes that individuals attempt to maintain an internal state of homeostasis and will try to reduce any mental stress or discomfort (dissonance) that occurs when one holds two or more beliefs that are contradictory or performs a behavior that is in direct contrast to a belief. The theory has been used to explain many odd findings in the research. For example in a classic study Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) had individuals perform a boring task. One group of individuals was paid a large sum ($20 in 1959 went a lot further than it does today) to perform the task and the other was only paid one dollar. Common sense would dictate that the people that were paid the $20 would state that they enjoyed the task more; however, the opposite was found: people who were paid only one dollar claimed they enjoyed the task more. The theory of cognitive dissonance explains that individuals who were paid more money could simply say they did the boring task for the money, whereas those who were paid only one dollar developed internal dissonance and had to explain why they performed the task (thus, they believe that they must have liked the task…