Daryl Bem is a contemporary social psychologist who developed the self-perception theory of attitude development and change. He has also researched the development of sexual orientation, and parapsychology.

Personal Life

Daryl J. Bem was born in June of 1938. As an undergraduate, he studied physics at Reed College, completing his degree in 1960. He continued his education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he quickly switched his focus from physics to social psychology, because of his interest in the civil rights movement and the climate of desegregation at the time. He began exploring the changing attitudes of people and public opinion.

Bem began teaching at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1964. In 1965, he married Sandra Lipsitz, who is now a professor of psychology at Cornell University. In 2001, she wrote a book outlining their nontraditional, egalitarian marriage and the family structure she and Daryl Bem designed for themselves and their children titled, An Unconventional Family.

Professional Life

Bem studied social psychology at the University of Michigan and received his PhD in 1964. He began teaching immediately thereafter and has taught at Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon, Harvard, and Cornell. He taught at Cornell between 1978 and 2007 and he now holds the title of Professor Emeritus.

Bem served as consulting editor for a number of psychology-related publications including Journal of Personality, Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, and Psychological Review. He is the author of several books and has been called to testify in front of the United States Senate about the psychological impact of police interrogation. He has also been called as a witness in many different proceedings that revolve around sexual discrimination.

Contribution to Psychology

Bem developed the theory of self-perception, which is a competitor to the theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance argues that people become uncomfortable when they hold multiple conflicting opinions or behave in ways that conflict with their beliefs. Self-perception theory, by contrast, argues that people develop their attitudes based upon their own behavior. For example, a woman who is paid to walk another person's dog might then develop more affection for dogs in general, ultimately identifying herself as a dog-lover. 

Bem has examined the development of sexual orientation through his Exotic-Becomes-Erotic theory. Bem believes that children’s sexuality and psychological arousal is influenced by their environment and temperament and is a result of their bias to conform or not conform to the activities and behaviors of their own gender. Gender conformity in youth refers to a child’s preference for same-sex peers and sex-typical activities. Ultimately, when children reach adulthood, they will be sexually attracted to the gender that they perceive as most different from themselves. Bem used analysis of gay men and women to support this theory, discovering that most homosexual people report participating in nonconforming gender behaviors during their youth.

Bem is also known for his study of parapsychology, psychic phenomena, and extra-sensory perception (ESP). He has defended the ganzfeld experiment, a test used to determine if a person has ESP. During a ganzfield procedure, a person designated as a message-receiver is seated in a comfortable chair in a soundproof room with eyes covered, under a red floodlight, wearing white noise headphones. Then, a message-sender in another soundproof room silently observes and concentrates on a target, such as an image or object, and tries to mentally send this information to the receiver. The receiver describes what he or she can see, while the experimenter records the receiver's statements. At the end of the experiment, the receiver views a set of items and has to select the item most similar to the one “received.” The overall accuracy rate of receivers is around 25%, and Bem has argued that this is higher than would be expected if results were random.

Criticism and Controversy

Bem's most recent work on parapsychology has created a wave of controversy. He has delved into extra-sensory perception (ESP) over the past decade and has conducted many experiments involving precognition. Having practiced magic as a hobby since a boy, Bem believes that science is a way of discovering things and nothing should be discounted. He continues to disrupt the scientific and academic communities with his publications and articles pertaining to psychic phenomena (psi), but insists his work is empirically based and scientific.