What is Behavioral Confirmation – Social Perception and Social Reality

Behavioral Confirmation

Behavioral confirmation is a social psychological term that describes how people’s expectations about others can lead to the confirmation of those expectations through social interaction. This process implicates both the perceiver, who holds certain expectations, and the target, whose behavior may be influenced as a result.

In the literature, the phenomenon of belief creating social reality is known by several names, including self-fulfilling prophecy, expectancy confirmation, and behavioral confirmation. The last term was coined by social psychologist Mark Snyder in 1984 in order to underline that it is the target’s actual behavior that confirms the perceiver’s beliefs.

During an interaction, perceivers, consciously or not, behave in ways that elicit behaviors from the target that confirm their preconceived notions. This process involves subtle cues and communications that suggest to the target how they are expected to act.

As an example, a perceiver who assumes a target is extroverted may initiate conversation and express positive non-verbal cues, subtly encouraging the target to respond in a sociable and outgoing manner. Behavioral confirmation can occur even with erroneous beliefs.

This dynamic can vary from barely noticeable to explicitly influential, deeply affecting the trajectory of social interactions. The implications of behavioral confirmation extend to various domains including education, law, and workplace environments, where expectations can profoundly influence outcomes.

Motivational Basis

Snyder postulated a process with four phases in which behavioral confirmation happens:

The perceiver first adopts beliefs regarding the target. Second, the perceiver acts as if these ideas were true and treats the target appropriately. Third, the target adjusts his or her behavior to the perceiver’s overtures. Lastly, the perceiver takes the target’s conduct as reinforcement of his or her prior ideas.

The perceiver and the target share the purpose of becoming acquainted with one another, but they do it in distinct capacities. Behavioral confirmation happens when a perceiver acts in support of the knowledge function and a target’s behaviors provide an adjustive purpose.

Perceivers employ knowledge motivations to obtain a steady and foreseeable perception of those with whom they interact, resulting in behavioral confirmation. Perceivers utilize knowledge-oriented strategies, whereby they perceive their interactions with others as opportunities to learn about their personality and validate their initial impressions, prompting them to ask questions that confirm their beliefs.

The perceiver poses inquiries to the target individual with the intention of forming consistent and predictable impressions of their partner, and perceivers tend to confidently assume that possessing even limited information about the other person enables them to predict that person’s future in alignment with the impressions they have gathered.

Adjustive functions motivate the target to strive to get along with their partners and have a smooth and pleasant interaction with the perceiver. The adjustive function encourages targets to reciprocate perceivers’ overtures, hence behaviorally reinforcing perceivers’ incorrect views. Without the adjustive function, this can result in behavioral disconfirmation.

Evidence and Examples

Initial studies in the mid-20th century set a precedent by suggesting that individuals’ expectations could indeed shape outcomes, especially in social contexts. One such foundational experiment was conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson in 1968, where teacher expectations influenced student performance, known as the Pygmalion effect.

Later research suggests that humans, who are the targets of numerous perceivers in everyday life, may habitually behave in ways that are compatible not with their own attitudes, beliefs, or feelings, but with the perceptions and stereotypes that others hold of them and their characteristics. This appears to indicate that the influence of others’ ideas on one’s behavior is particularly powerful.

In a 1995 demonstration of behavioral confirmation in social interaction, Snyder and colleagues used a telephone-like intercom system to introduce previously unknown male and female companions. Male participants were referred to as perceivers, and female individuals as targets. Prior to their interactions, the experimenter provided the male participants a Polaroid photograph and led them to assume it depicted their female spouses.

The male participants were unaware that the photographs did not depict their partners. The investigator showed the perceivers photographs of either physically attractive or physically repulsive women in order to elicit stereotypes about attractive and unattractive persons.

The perceiver-target dyads had a 10-minute unstructured discourse that was initiated by the perceivers. Individuals, known as raters, listened to only the targets’ contributions to the talks and scored their impressions of them.

The results revealed that targets whose partners thought they were physically appealing tended to be more gregarious, warm, and outgoing than targets whose partners thought they were physically unattractive. Consequently, targets’ behaviors validated the perceivers’ views, transforming them into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Behavioral Confirmation Examples

This dynamic can be seen in many one-on-one social interactions. If a person enters a conversation believing that the other party is hostile, their defensive behavior might provoke hostility from the other party, confirming the initial expectation.

Physical attractiveness is another example of this influence. When one interacts with another individual of high or poor physical attractiveness, one influences that other’s social abilities. When a target (unbeknownst to themselves) is labeled as physically appealing, the target, through interaction with the perceiver, learns to behave more friendly than those tagged undesirable.

In a 1997 study by Chen and Bargh, participants who were subliminally primed with an African-American stereotype reported more animosity from the target they interacted with than those in the control condition. According to this study, behavioral confirmation made targets more hostile when their perceiver was negatively primed.


The main criticism to the concept of behavioral confirmation is that the laboratory circumstances employed in the research do not always easily translate into real-world social interaction. Furthermore, it is suggested that expectancies, like self-fulfilling expectations, are equally prone to cause behavioral disconfirmation.

The social psychologist Lee Jussim makes a solid case that in all previous behavioral confirmation studies, participants were wrongly deceived about the target’s features; nevertheless, in real life, people’s expectations are generally right. To address such criticism, behavioral confirmation has evolved to include a non-conscious component. Despite its obvious flaws, the phenomena has been extensively researched over the last few decades, emphasizing its significance in psychology.

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