Role Theory

Role Theory

Role Theory and People’s Behaviors

People’s behavior stems from the parts they play in life. In social psychology, role theory is the collection of expectations that accompany a particular social position.

Each individual typically plays multiple roles in his or her life; in different contexts or with different people, a particular person might be a student, a friend, or an employee.

Each of these roles carries its own expectations about appropriate behavior, speech, attire, and so on. What might be rewarded for a person in one role would be unacceptable for a person occupying a different role.

Roles range from specific, in that they only apply to a certain setting, to diffuse, in that they apply across a range of situations.

Role theory examines how these roles influence a wide array of psychological outcomes, including behavior, attitudes, cognitions, and social interaction.

Role Theory and Social Psychology

Within social psychology, role theory has generally focused on roles as causes of

  • (a) behaviors enacted by individuals or groups and
  • (b) inferences about individuals or groups.

One of the fundamental precepts of social psychology is that the social and physical environment exerts a profound influence on individuals’ thoughts and behavior. Role theory posits that the roles that people occupy provide contexts that shape behavior.

For example, the Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated that normal college students displayed strikingly different behaviors depending on whether they were assigned to be guards or prisoners in a simulated prison environment. Within a short time, prisoners began to show meek, submissive behaviors, whereas prison guards began to show dominant, abusive behaviors.

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In general, people are motivated to behave in ways that fit valued social roles. Rewards stem from alignment to valued social roles, and punishments stem from misalignment to such roles.

These trait judgments form partly because observers infer that individuals possess the personality traits that equip them to perform their roles. Observers typically assume that people have the personal qualities or motivation to behave a certain way, and thus observers underestimate how much roles elicit behaviors.


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