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Looking-Glass Self: Theory, Definition & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Nov 10, 2021


looking glass self.

Key Takeaways:

  • The looking-glass self, first coined by Charles Cooley, describes how one’s self or social identity is dependent on one’s appearance to others. This initial theory was based on Cooley’s observations of childhood social development.
  • The reactions of others to ourselves provides us with feedback about ourselves of the most direct sort.
  • Cooley - along with the other members of the "symbolic interactionist" school, such as George Herbert Mead, argued that a child could not develop a sense of self in the absence of others to reflect that self back.
  • According to Mead, interactions with others serve to form self-identity in three steps:
  1. People imagine how they appear to other people;
  2. People imagine how others are thus judging them based on appearance and how they present themselves;
  3. People imagine how others feel about them based on the judgments they make.
  • Cooley emphasized the individual’s autonomous role in deciding which judgements they pay attention to in identity formation, as well as in controlling and evaluating the responses of others.

Charles Cooley's Looking-Glass Self

The term looking-glass self, first introduced by Charles Cooley (1902), refers to the dependence of one’s social self or social identity on one’s appearance to others.

The ideas and feelings that people have about themselves — their self-concept or self image — are developed in response to their perception and internalization of how others perceive and evaluate them (Chandler and Munday, 2011).

This is underpinned by the idea that the context of someone’s socialization allows them to define themselves.

As has been long posited by sociologists, people may have a self-image that is formed by their interactions with others, or even no essential self at all.

The early 1900s brought the development of the looking-glass self. Cooley argued that the dynamic of self-creation is similar to a looking-glass (a mirror) in that: “As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass and are interested in them because they are ours...so in imagination wee perceive in another’s mind some thought of our appearance, manner, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it” (1902; McIntyre, 1998).

According to Cooley (1902), the human mind is social and mental. This means that the mental processes occurring in the human mind are the direct result of social interaction.

Charles Cooley (1902) proposed three steps to how interactions with others form self-identity:

  1. People imagine how they appear to other people;
  2. People imagine how others are thus judging them based on appearance and how they present themselves;
  3. People imagine how others feel about them based on the judgments they make.

Cooley’s empirical evidence derives from his observations of children. Drawing from his observations of his own daughter as she developed her ability to use the looking-glass self, Cooley noted that children are especially incentivized to learn how to use the looking-glass self well, as it helps them in a competition for care from members of their primary group.

The self grows as it interacts with more and more people. To Cooley, one can only become truly human through social experience (McIntyre, 1998; Cooley, 1902).

On the face, it may appear that the individual is passive — constantly shaped by others impressions and judgments. However, Cooley does not see the self as a one-way internalization of interactions; instead, people play an active role in shaping how others think about them (Squirrell, 2020).

Cooley focuses in particular on people’s participation in forming their self-image, emphasizing:

The active role the individual plays in interpreting the perceived judgments and perceptions of others

One’s perceptions of others’ judgments can be highly inaccurate. For example, on a dance floor, many people who see themselves as “good” dancers may in fact be perceived as “bad” dancers, but will nonetheless react as if they are good dancers. While individuals’ self-image are shaped by others, this only happens through the mediation of their own minds.

People must depend on their imagination, either thinking how others may react or observing others’ responses and connecting these two inferences about the workings of another’s inner mind (Squirrell, 2020).
The individual’s selective application of looking-glass self

There are certain circumstances where individuals care more about others’ perceptions of them than others.

For example, someone traveling through a foreign city where they know no one may be less conscious about how they appear to others than someone in an interview for their dream job (Squirrell, 2020).
People use the looking-glass self to control and evaluate the responses of others

Because people are aware that others are perceiving, reacting to, and judging them, they attempt to shape the impressions that they give others.

For example, someone may brag about how much alcohol they consumed over the course of a weekend to their friends, but make a concerted effort to hide this information from their employer (Squirrell, 2020).

In particular, Cooley examined pride and shame (1902). For Cooley, both emotions arise from self-monitoring, considering them to be basic social emotions (Scheff, 2005).


Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Another prominent and influential account of the self in sociology comes from Erving Goffman’s “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1959).

Although Goffman never explicitly mentions the looking-glass self, Goffman, like Cooley, focused on embarrassment as a social emotion (Scheff, 2005).

Here, Goffman uses the imagery of theatre to draw comparison to the nuances of social interaction. The resulting theory of social interaction is called the dramaturgical model of social life. Goffman likens people taking part in social interactions to actors on a stage, taking part in various social roles.

When in “front stage,” the actors are able to see an audience and that audience’s expectations as to the roles they should play influences the actor’s behavior.

This audience can vary based upon the setting (the location and context where the interaction takes place) (1959). Meanwhile, while “backstage,” individuals can release this role or identity.

In essence, people acting “front stage” are undergoing a constant process of “impression management.”

Individuals give meaning to themselves, to others, and their situation through “performance,” appearance portrays performers’ social statuses, and manner refers to how the individual themselves plays the role (and whether or not it contradicts their appearance) (Goffman, 1959).


Mead’s Conceptualization of Looking-Glass Self

George Herberrt Mead's conception of socialization elaborated on Cooley’s foundation. Mead argued that the self involves two phases: the “Me” and the “I.”

The Me is based on how someone sees others as seeing themself, while the I is one’s personal reaction to a situation. Someone forms their social self through an ongoing interaction between the Me and the I (McIntyre, 1998).

Like Cooley, Mead argues that the I and Me must be developed through socialization during children, particularly through play and games.

For example, a child taking on a variety of roles during a play session will begin to appreciate the perspectives of other people as well as build up a sense of themselves as something that other people look at and make judgments about (McIntyre, 1998).


Symbolic Interactionism and The Looking-Glass Self.

The concept of the looking-glass self is associated with a school of sociology known as symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism is a micro-level theory that focuses on the meanings attached to individual human interactions as well as symbols.

Symbolic interaction theory analyzes society by addressing the subjective meanings that people impose on objects, events, and behaviors. Subjective meanings are given primacy because it is believed that people behave based on what they believe and not just on what is objectively true.

In the context of symbolic interactionism, humans define themselves in the context of their social interactions from the time that they are born. For example, children may learn that crying will bring a response from caregivers.

As Cooley explains in One Self and Social Organization, “a growing solidarity between mother and child parallels the child’s increasing capacity in using significant symbols.

This simultaneous development is itself a prerequisite to the child’s ability to adopt the perspectives of other participants in social relationships and so, for the child’s capacity to develop a social self” (Cooley, 1998).

While Cooley is widely-considered to be part of the symbolic interactionist school, whether Goffman is — on virtue of his open scorn of symbolic interactionism and his emphasis on situational and structural constraints over the motives of actors as a basis for behavior — is debated (Scheff, 2005).

However, some scholars, such as Scheff (2005), argue that Goffman does follow the symbolic interactionist tradition, particularly when he shifts from structuralism (the conceit of the stage, the actors, and the audience) to the motivations of the actors.

For instance, in Goffmman’s chapter on impression management, he attempts to describe actors’ attempts to stave off and manage embarrassment and related emotions (Goffman, 1959).


Examples

Video Games

A number of researchers have examined the looking-glass self in the context of virtual environments. Martey and Consalvo (2011), for example, studied the avatar appearances and subsequent behavior of 211 individuals in a roleplaying video game where players could create virtually any type of avatar as a means of expressing self-identity.

The players “performed” their membership in certain groups — such as gender, race, and sexuality — through fashion and dress, and the researchers sought to test how choices of avatar appearance related to the prevailing social norms of the groups they participated in.

To do so, Martey and Consalvo conducted surveys of participants and built on Goffman’s (1959) theories of how individuals use appearance and behavior to shape others’ impressions of them.

Ultimately, the researchers found that, despite the virtually unlimited freedom in the appearances and range of behaviors that players could take on, participants cultivated socially acceptable appearances that would be interpreted in particular ways by others in their interactions (Martey and Consalvo, 2011).

Stereotypes and Labelling

Rahim (2010) examined Cooley’s (1922) theory of looking-glass self in the context of people living in inner-city “ghettos.”

People living in so-called “ghettos' ' are ascribed a negative stereotype that often leads people to thinking poorly of themselves and their opportunities, leading in turn to individuals engaging in harmful and dangerous opportunities in the community.

Rahim argues that under this theory, individuals who are stereotyped will come to integrate society's label of them as their identity, and will subsequently reproduce that identity’s behaviors (2010).

As a result, Rahim argues, individuals living in ghettos are more likely to participate in behaviors such as homicide, robbery and more likely to be barred from job opportunities and education.

Critical Evaluation

Research has consistently supported Cooley’s idea that people act based upon the perceptions they have of how others perceive them, rather than their actual responses.

Felson (1981, 1985) studied a series of football players and primary-school students and found that the relationship between the perceived responses of others and the actual responses of others was reciprocal.

However, the former was more important to individual action than the latter. This is also supported by a number of classical studies (Miyamoto and Dornbush, 1956; Backman and Secord, 1962; Rosenberg, 1979).

This emphasis on distinguishing between the actual responses of others and people’s perceptions of these responses has also gained much attention.

Felson (1981) found that projection was an important part of actively constructing reflected appraisals. People who believe that they are competent are more likely to believe that others see them as competent.

Rosenberg (1979) proposes four other factors as having effects on reflected appraisals: someone’s awareness of reflected appraisals, their agreement with them, the personal relevance these appraisals have, and their interpersonal significance.

For example, people might suppress negative feelings about others to avoid conflict, particularly when one party has significantly more power than the other (Franks and Gecas, 1992).

These self-appraisals can also be limited by communication barriers and styles, and that there are certain circumstances — such as when self-evaluation is ambiguous — where the perceived responses of others are more aligned with their actual responses (Franks and Gecas, 1992).

To summarize, the relationship and alignment between the perceived and actual responses of others is heavily dependent on context, and people generally select whose responses do and do not matter to them.

According to Cooley, people learn to use the “looking-glass” — and thus learn who the self is — through primary groups such as the family. Primary groups are “characterized by intimate face-to-face association and cooperation (McIntyre, 1998).

They are primary in several senses but chiefly in that they are fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of individuals. The result of intimate association, psychologically, is a certain fusion of individualities in a common whole, so that one’s very self, for many purposes at least, is the common life and purpose of the group” (Cooley, 1998).

That is to say that Cooley believed that primary groups were strong agents of socialization and that in primary groups, people learn to read what others are thinking and to discover what happens when they adjust their behavior according to what they are thinking (McIntyre, 1998).

However, there remain two main controversies in how sociologists investigate self-image that the looking-glass self addresses (Squirrell, 2020):

  1. To what extent is the self-image shaped by society and circumstances, and to what extent is the self a reflection of one’s essential qualities?
  2. What frameworks can be used to understand how the environment shapes the self?

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Nov 10). Looking-Glass Self: Theory, Definition & Examples. Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/charles-cooleys-looking-glass-self.html

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