The Theory of Altercasting


Roles are an essential part of life. Each person has multiple roles to fulfill whether it be a sex, an occupation, a familial role, a religious role; roles are a major part of every day life. The theory of altercasting analyzes these roles and how they affect people and those around them.

The Theory

Altercasting is a theory of persuasion that is defined as “projecting an identity, to be assumed by others with whom is in interaction, which is congruent with one’s own goals” (Weinstein and Deutschberger, 1963). The role theory subgroup has two subgroups of its own; tact and manded, and then six processes; structural distance, evaluative distance, emotional distance, support versus support seeking, interdependence versus autonomy, and degree of freedom allowed alter, all of which are combined in different ways to create successful altercasting.


The theory of altercasting was created by Eugene Weinstein and Paul Deutschberger in 1963. In 1964, Eugene A. Weinstein, William DeVaughn, Mary Glenn Wiley tested altercasting in their study by putting people in social roles. The three created a situation that might occur, and tested to see how the participants would act, and if altercasting would arise in the social situation. The researchers took twenty male and twenty female students, grouped same sex pairs together, and instructed one of the two to act out. The three then observed how the other in the pairing was forced to manipulate their role to accommodate the one acting out. Some experiments were conducted soon after the theory was published, the most well known being Milgram’s “lost letter technique”. 


Altercasting is split into two subgroups: manded altercasting and tact altercasting. Manded altercasting is an aggressive approach when an altercasters new or existing role is made more prominent and revealed directly to the viewers. In other words, manded altercasting is when “people are told who they are or are supposed to be by making an existing role more noticeable.” An example of this could be attaching a category to the role therefore attaching responsibilities associated; “as a media and communications major, you should understand media theories.” With this statement, the role is told directly to the viewer and the role is made explicit. Tact altercasting is a more passive approach when a role is presented in ways that could trigger others to take on a specific role that compliments the altercasters goals. In other words, tact altercasting is when “we put ourselves as senders in a role that ‘evokes’ a natural counter-role for the other” (University of Twente, 2004). An example of this could be when a student is struggling in class, a professor may be forced or pressured into a more active role of helping the student succeed.


Beneath theory of altercasting is divided into six processes: structural distance, evaluative distance, emotional distance, support versus support seeking, interdependence versus autonomy, and degree of freedom allowed alter. These six processes were defined by Weinstein and Deutschberger in their publishing Some Dimensions of Altercasting, and can be combined in any matter of ways to create successful altercasting. With this, all six processes are put onto a seven-point scale based on the range of effectiveness and justification of research it can produce. While discussing each of the processes, the terms “Ego” and “Alter” are used to refer to the individual induced into manipulation and the idea and/or role one wants to enforce. The first process, structural distance, “the physical position of relative authority Ego is directing alter to play out in the current encounter. A rating of seven on this dimension indicates maximum authority ceded by ego to alter with a rating of four as structural parity.” The second process, evaluative distance, is “the relative evaluative status of Ego and Alter as presented selves, independent of the structural distance involved. One can be in a subordinate position and still, through skillful playing, cast Alter into a ‘one down’ identity, making it clear that Alter is not as superior, holy or infallible as his position might imply. A rating of seven indicates maximum worth ceded by ego to alter; a rating of four, evaluative parity.” The third process, emotional distance, is “the ‘primariness’ or ‘secondariness’ of Alter’s relationship with Ego as projected by Ego. To what extent is Alter cast into a role in which he is presumed to be involved with Ego’s feelings, needs, and everyday concerns? A rating of one indicates maximum involvement or intimacy.” The fourth process, support versus support seeking, is “Ego’s indications to Alter that Alter is in an identity requiring Ego’s help or assistance (a rating of one) or, at the other extreme, being required to give aid and comfort to Ego (a rating of seven).” This process is similar to the subgroup of tact altercasting in which one forces another into a congruent role. The fifth process, interdependence versus autonomy, is “the extent to which Ego projects Alter as being tied to him by bonds of common fate, perspective, or concurrence of interests. A rating of one indicates complete identity, a rating of seven complete separateness.” The sixth and final process, degree of freedom allowed Alter, is “the range of behavior Ego allows Alter within the encounter. Strictly speaking, this dimension does not characterize Alter’s role but the altercasting process itself. A rating of seven on this dimension indicates maximum range given alter by ego, while a rating of one would be in- dicative of extreme coercion” (Weinstein, Wiley, and DeVaughn, 1966). With these processes and the associated rating-scale, the ratings are used to sort through individualistic responses to altercasting, as each person will have a different, unique response.


Individual Effects

Altercasting is a subgroup to role theory; with the part that roles play in altercasting, some roles are naturally absorbed into a person’s identity, while others can be influenced or pressured. Manipulation is a major factor in altercasting, and while it can both positive or negative effects, manipulation will always be present with altercasting. Roles within altercasting can put a variety of pressures, especially social pressure, that ensure that roles are taken on and carried out.

Group Effects

Along with the individual impacts, altercasting also impacts society. The basis of the theory rely on how roles function within our society. We as humans are social beings, and are constantly in one role or another; this means that the probability for altercasting to occur is very high. Humans are very focused on control; with this, the Ego can gain control, while the Alter can loss control, both of which can have adverse effects (Layder, 2004). 


With altercasting, there is a certain duality, as it can have either positive or negative effects on who encounters it. Since the theory is based on pushing people into roles and the associated behaviors, one could say that we can force positive or negative roles onto people. 

Positive Effects

An example of the positive effects of altercasting is an article published in the American Journal of Nursing in 1971. The article depicts nurses having to deal with difficult patients in psychiatric hospitals. The article informs nurses that sometimes, with difficult patients, they need to employ unusual methods of persuasion, such as altercasting. Altercasting is normally an extremely effective tool because it can easily go undetected. Instead of requesting something directly or demanding something of the patient, the nurse is recommended to understand the patient on a deeper level in order to understand what role to take on. They can then discreetly coerce the patient into doing whatever needs to be done. Though manipulation is usually frowned upon, this can be seen as a  positive case as the nurses are only helping their patients.

Negative Effects

Altercasting is usually closely associated with manipulation; as the basis of the theory is to subtly persuade someone into a role, this can come across as trapping people and forcing them into roles without their knowledge. Another key aspect of altercasting is meeting the goals of the Ego. With this, and humans being social creatures, “social interaction being goal-directed suggests central questions about the relationship between actors’ goals and their means for pursuing them” (Blumstein, 1975).This can have a very negative connotation for those pushing roles onto others. 

Cases & Experiments 

Lost Letter Technique Investigation

One of the more well known altercasting experiments was the “lost letter technique”. The experiment was conducted in 1969 by Milgram testing whether altercasting was more effective than direct requests. Over two thousand “lost” letters were “placed on car windshields throughout a metropolitan area along with a business card containing a handwritten altercasting or direct request message to mail the letter. The frequency of letters returned was used as a primary measure of compliance” (Turner 2010). The experiment concluded and unfortunately the results didn’t yield any conclusive results on the effectiveness of altercasting, but did give an indication that manded altercasting was less effective than tact altercasting, as the aggression of manded altercasting had a negative impact on the subjects. 

 Identity Bargaining Experiment

In another example, Philip Blumstein conducted an experiment where he set up “role-playing encounters, where male subjects interacted with female confederates trained to make identity demands on the subjects through explicit bargaining statements, self-presentation, and subtle altercasting.” In one situation the subject was to begin a relationship with a stranger, and in the other, he was supposed to further an already existing relationship.  Half of the subjects were instructed to have submissive behavior, and the other half were instructed to have aggressive behavior. An example of the submissive behavior, or tact altercasting, could be “I have been dating this one guy, but we broke up because he was always pushing me around and would never let me have my own say about what we would do when we went out. You wouldn’t treat me that way, would you?” This is a good example of tact altercasting because the girl is subtly pushing the boy in the right direction to fulfill her own goals. Along with that, an example of the aggressive behavior, or manded altercasting, could be “I like boys who don’t come on like they owned me, but let me take some initiative.” This is a good example of manded altercasting because the girl is making the role known to the boy. Subjects took part in two ten-minute sessions, each with a different girl; the subjects were “expected to project greater relative worth of the girl when their non- central identity was threatened by the girls altercast. As predicted, greater autonomy was expressed when the valued identity was under attack” (Blumstein, 1975).

Applications & Uses


As altercasting is a theory based on persuasion, it is used greatly in media and communications, mainly in marketing and advertising. An advertisement is built to subtly push the viewer into doing whatever the creator of the ad wants them to do; this is a direct example of altercasting, as the basis of the theory is to push someone into a role to fulfill personal goals. In this case, the advertiser (the Ego) is  pushing the viewer of the advertisement (the Alter) into a role (a purchaser of a product or service) to fulfill the personal goals of the Ego (making sales).


In conclusion, altercasting is a lesser known media theory, but is very popular within the field. It’s used in many situations, but as the theory is supposed to be subtle, not very people know about it. Once the theory is understood though, it’s easy to see it everywhere. As a fairly simple theory, it’s easy for people to use it in everyday life, whether it’s on purpose or on accident, as people often want to pursue their own goals, it’s common to push someone into a particular role in order for someone to get what they want. Though this can sound quite devious, altercasting has proven here that it is a well-rounded theory used for unlimited amounts of reasons.


Baldwin, Elizabeth. The Phenomenon Behind the Bite: Altercasting as It Applies to Apple Technology. p. 102.

Blumstein, Philip W. “Identity Bargaining and Self-Conception.” Social Forces, vol. 53, no. 3, 1975, pp. 476–85. JSTOR, JSTOR, doi:10.2307/2576590.

“Communication Studies Theories: Overview by Category | University of Twente.” Universiteit Twente, Accessed 9 Oct. 2019.

Kreidler, Marc. Pratkanis on Altercasting and CSICon–an Interview with Susan Gerbic | Skeptical Inquirer. 14 Mar. 2017,

Layder, Derek. Emotion in Social Life: The Lost Heart of Society. SAGE, 2004.

Theory Group 4 — Dependency and Altercasting | Newhouse. Accessed 9 Oct. 2019.

Turner, Monique Mitchell, et al. “The Effects of Altercasting and Counterattitudinal Behavior on Compliance: A Lost Letter Technique Investigation.” Communication Reports, vol. 23, no. 1, Apr. 2010, pp. 1–13. (Crossref), doi:10.1080/08934211003598759.

Weinstein, Eugene A., and Paul Deutschberger. “Some Dimensions of Altercasting.” Sociometry, vol. 26, no. 4, 1963, pp. 454–66. JSTOR, JSTOR, doi:10.2307/2786148.

Weinstein, Eugene A., et al. “Role and Interpersonal Style As Components of Social Interaction.” Social Forces, vol. 45, no. 2, 1966, pp. 210–16. JSTOR, JSTOR, doi:10.2307/2574391.

“Wie Ben Ik? Gedrag Veranderen Met Sociale Rollen.” D&B, 23 Jan. 2017,

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