Looking-Glass Self Definition
The looking-glass self is the process by which people evaluate themselves based on how others see them. According to this theory, people first imagine how they appear to others. Second, they imagine how others judge them based on that appearance. Third, people have an emotional reaction to that imagined judgment, such as pride or embarrassment. This self-evaluation influences the person’s sense of self-worth or self-esteem. In short, the looking-glass self theory suggests that we come to know ourselves by reflecting on how others see us.
Looking-Glass Self History and Modern Usage
The looking-glass self was first proposed by Charles Horton Cooley. According to Cooley, self-perceptions are based on reflected appraisals of how others see us (i.e., our impression of others’ impressions of us), which are in turn based on how others actually see us.
The looking-glass self theory is controversial for two reasons. First, this view supposes that people have a good idea of how significant others see them. Psychological research reveals that people’s beliefs about how others see them are not very accurate. Indeed, our reflected appraisals of how we think others see us are much more closely related to how we see ourselves than to how others see us. Some researchers have argued that this evidence implies that the looking-glass self theory is actually backward—it could be that people simply assume others see them the same way they see themselves.
The second reason why the looking-glass self theory is controversial is that other theories of self-perception provide alternative explanations for how people form their self-views. For example, self-perception theory claims that self-views are based on direct observations of one’s own behavior, rather than on how we imagine others see us. Nevertheless, our impressions of what others think of us are extremely important to us. People go to great lengths to obtain feedback about how others see them, such as posting their photographs on a Web site where others will rate their attractiveness. Some researchers have even proposed that the main purpose of self-esteem is to serve as an internal “sociometer”—a gauge of our relative popularity or worth among our peers.
Some evidence indicates that people’s reflected appraisals of how others see them influence their self-views and their behavior, particularly in close relationships. Research on romantic relationships suggests that our reflected appraisals of how our partners see us may be particularly important in this context. This is especially true for people who have doubts about how their partner feels about them. People with negative impressions of how their partner sees them tend to cause strain and dissatisfaction in their relationships.
- O’Connor, B. P., & Dyce, J. (1993). Appraisals of musical ability in bar bands: Identifying the weak link in the looking-glass self chain. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 14, 69-86.
- Shrauger, J. S., & Schoeneman, T. J. (1979). Symbolic interactionist view of the self-concept: Through the looking-glass darkly. Psychological Bulletin, 86, 549-573.
Charles Horton Cooley was part of the first generation of American sociologists and taught in the sociology department at the University of Michigan from 1892, although his degree was in economics. His approach differed from those of his contemporaries, as his was a humanistic approach that emphasized the significance of the mind in developing a sense of self. As such, he opened up discussion about the impact of subjectivity and creativity on the production of society, in contrast to the rather objective approach to the constitution of society taken by many of his contemporaries. Indeed, Cooley saw himself as less of a sociologist than as a scholar fusing history, philosophy and social psychology, and he drew on the work of philosopher William James. The concept of the looking glass self describes how an individual develops his or her identity in response to how he or she understands others' perceptions of him or her. Cooley's work influenced that of George Herbert Mead and contributed to the development of symbolic interactionism. In addition, his work has indirectly influenced feminist work on gender identity and subjectivity.
Keywords Looking Glass Self; Primary Groups; Self Concept; Self Esteem; Social Self; Expressive Ties; Instrumental Ties; Symbolic Interactionism
Charles Horton Cooley was part of the first generation American sociologists and taught in the sociology department at the University of Michigan from 1892, although his degree was in economics. His approach differed from those of his contemporaries, as his was a humanistic approach that emphasized the significance of the mind in developing a sense of self. As such, he opened up discussion about the impact of subjectivity and creativity on the production of society, in contrast to the rather objective approach to the constitution of society taken by many of his contemporaries. Indeed, Cooley saw himself as less of a sociologist than as a scholar fusing history, philosophy and social psychology, and he drew on the work of philosopher William James.
Cooley's most significant contributions to the field of sociology were the concept of "the looking glass self" and what he termed "primary groups" and "secondary groups." The looking glass self was introduced in his book Human Nature and the Social Order (1902) and primary group was introduced in Social Organization (1909). The concept of the looking glass self describes how an individual develops his or her identity in response to how he or she understands others' perceptions of him or her. The concepts of primary and secondary groups describe how interactions between the individual and social groups can influence the individual's socialization (Marshall, 1998). Cooley's work influenced that of George Herbert Mead and contributed to the development of symbolic interactionism. In addition, his work has indirectly influenced feminist work on gender identity and subjectivity.
Charles Horton Cooley
One might argue that Cooley's work was shaped by some of his early life experiences. He was the son of a very successful law professor and Michigan State Supreme Court justice. However, he did not have a highly interactive, intimate relationship with his father. As a result, he developed personality traits that are associated with passive individuals and experienced a number of illnesses that are believed to have been psychosomatic. In order to compensate for his perceived shortcomings, he created a "self" that was successful (i.e. a self that had the traits of men like his father). This imagined self allowed him to cope with living in the shadow of his father and up to his father's standards. Although his work was most widely embraced by sociologists, Cooley always had topics such as "the self" at the top of his list. He wrote extensively on the relationship between the self and society in books such as Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), Social Organization (1909), and Social Process (1918).
The Self in Sociology
At the beginning of the twentieth century the discipline of sociology worked with Cartesian concepts of mind and body that viewed them as separate, disconnected entities. However, a number of theorists, such as William James, began rethinking this distinction. William James' work stretched across disciplines (physiology, psychology and philosophy) and influenced thinkers in Europe and the U.S., contributing to both pragmatism and phenomenology. His work on the self, and the idea that it contained within it the capacity to reflect on itself, was especially influential on Cooley.
James divided the self into two parts: the "phenomenal self"-or the self that is experienced as the self-and "self thought," or the self that experiences and knows the self. He further divided the phenomenal self into the "material me," the "social me," and the "spiritual me." The material me comprises the body and its physical surroundings; the social me is created by how one believes others view oneself; and the spiritual me is one's awareness of one's thoughts and emotions. Self thought, on the other hand, is what orders these different phenomenal selves into an enduring sense of identity (Wozniak, 1999).
Charles Cooley built on this framework in order to integrate mind and body as an interconnected, organic whole. Moreover, foreshadowing sociologists who came to be associated with the development of symbolic interactionism at the University of Chicago, Cooley argued that the individual and society could only be understood in relationship to each other, and that each was mutually constitutive of the other. Rather than view the individual as a solitary and discrete entity, Cooley believed that a person's self is developed by his or her social interactions and therefore people are always, through interaction, connected to other people. For Cooley, these interactions create a process through which people come to view themselves as objects and are able to take on the roles of others. He used the example of a looking glass to illustrate his theory (Coser, 1977).
The Looking Glass Self
In 1902, Cooley published Human Nature and the Social Order in which he proposed a theory of the development of the self as a creative agent (Waters, 1994). According to Cooley, a person's sense of self is created by the ideas he or she believes others have about him or her. This self-development depends on interaction with others who reflect back to them images of themselves. In short, we learn who we are from others and our imagination of how we appear to them. We are literally looking at others and imaging the image they have of us. As Cooley wrote:
As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be; so in imagination we perceive in another's mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it. (Cooley, 1902, p. 183)
Mirrors provide us with visual access to the external appearance of our bodies, but the appearance of our bodies is mediated through what we imagine others think of us (Howson, 2004). Thus, the metaphor of the looking glass, or mirror, provides a way to think about the importance of visual information and the appearance of the body and for the development of what Cooley calls the self-idea, which emerges in three key stages:
- First, we image how we appear to others (e.g., as intelligent, pretty, professional);
- Second, the self-idea develops in relation to how we imagine others perceive or judge us (e.g. did we attend the right schools, do we wear attractive clothing, or do we belong to the right professional groups?);
- Third, the self-idea emerges through the "self-feeling" or attitude we develop toward ourselves, based on how we believe others perceive us (e.g. pride or embarrassment about our intelligence, physical appearance, or professional status).
In essence, Cooley argues that the development of self is "an interactive process through which connections are made between the personal subjective self of the viewer and the external world of other people" (Hepworth,...