Laypeople, like scientists, develop and use theories to help them understand and respond to their social world. Lay theories, then, are the theories people use in their everyday lives. Lay theories are often captured by proverbs such as “the early bird gets the worm” (Protestant work ethic), “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” (entity theory), and “it’s never too late to turn over a new leaf” (incremental theory). Such lay theories often reflect the core beliefs of people living in a given culture or environment. Since the 1990s there has been greater recognition that people’s perceptions are filtered through and guided by their lay theories and thus there is not one universal way for people to perceive and respond to the same social information.
Researchers—namely cognitive, social, personality, and developmental psychologists—have identified different kinds of lay theories and their far-reaching impact on judgments and behaviors toward the self, individual others, and groups. Lay perceivers can rather easily report their lay theories, agreeing or disagreeing with simple, straightforward sentences reflecting those ideas (e.g., “people who work hard succeed”). Yet people are generally unaware of the tremendous impact that their lay theories have on them and on others, such as guiding decisions on whom to ask out on a date, what career path to choose, whom to vote for for president, and whether to befriend or avoid members of certain groups. As one example, individuals who hold the lay theory that people cannot change their personality, morality, or intelligence (e.g., entity theory) tend to give up in the face of an academic or social failure; often judge a defendant as guilty based on minimal negative information about his or her character; and frequently endorse stereotypes of socially stigmatized groups.
Lay theories are readily used in everyday life in part because they are socially transmitted and shared but also because they are functional. Like scientific theories, lay theories provide understanding, prediction, and a sense of control over one’s social world. However, unlike scientific theories, lay theories need not be objective, testable, or true. Lay theories serve people’s needs to label their observations as reflecting a correct social reality. Lay theories such as the Protestant work ethic can fulfill important values (e.g., value of hard work). People may use lay theories as well to justify their attitudes and prevailing social norms. For example, the Protestant work ethic is an ingredient in racism toward African Americans at the hands of European Americans in the United States; African Americans are sometimes seen as not conforming to the work ethic (not working hard enough) and thus deserving disadvantage. Some lay theories may serve many cognitive, social, and psychological functions, and other lay theories may serve only one. What is more, some lay theories are more or less useful to certain members of a culture (e.g., relatively advantaged or disadvantaged group members) or more or less useful in certain contexts (e.g., at home or at work).
In summary, lay theories have far-reaching implications for understanding how people work. Lay theories can both drive and justify thought and behavior that impact the self and others.
SEE ALSO Attitudes; Attribution; Norms; Social Cognition; Social Judgment Theory; Stereotypes
Furnham, Adrian. 1988. Lay Theories: Everyday Understandings of Problems in the Social Sciences. New York: Pergamon.
Levy, Sheri R., Chi-yue Chiu, and Ying-yi Hong. 2006. Lay Theories and Intergroup Relations. Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 9 (1): 5–24.
Sheri R. Levy