The looking-glass self is a concept developed by American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley which states that individuals form their view of themselves based on how they believe they appear to others.
Essentially, it suggests that to understand ourselves, we must first attempt to understand how other people see us and use this knowledge to shape our own personal identities.
The concept consists of three components:
- The imaginings of how one appears to another person
- The imagination of how one is judged by that person
- The feelings generated from these imaginations
A simple example would be if someone were to imagine their classmate giving them an approving look for correctly answering a question in class.
It would lead them to develop a better opinion about themselves as it confirms that somebody else finds them smart and competent.
The looking-glass self helps humans understand themselves by considering what others think of them and drawing conclusions from those thoughts.
Ultimately, this concept provides insight into how people construct their social identities and why it is so important for them to maintain positive relationships with those around them.
Definition of Looking-Glass Self
The looking-glass self posits that people’s identities are based on how they perceive themselves through the eyes of others.
According to Thompson and colleagues (2019), the term looking-glass self is used to:
“…describe the process in which individuals use others as mirrors and base their conceptions of themselves on what is reflected back to them during social interaction” (p. 91).
This concept involves three components: 1) the imaginings of how one appears to another person, 2) the imagination of how that person judges one, and 3) the feelings generated from these imaginations (Baumeister & Bushman, 2017).
These three elements combine to shape an individual’s sense of self, particularly within social relationships, as it is important to form and maintain positive connections between individuals and understand oneself better.
Rousseau (2002) states that:
“…the concept of the looking-glass self demonstrates that self-relation, or how one views oneself, is not a solitary phenomenon but rather includes others” (p. 86).
If people want to understand who they truly are, they must first look at the reflections that others provide and then use those reflections to understand their own identity.
Simply, the looking-glass self encapsulates the idea that people create their own identity by perceiving how they appear to others.
10 Examples of Looking-Glass Self
- Appearing more confident in an interview due to the approving looks from the panel of interviewers: In this example, an individual may think they performed poorly during the job interview, but upon receiving approving looks from their interviewers, they may gain a better opinion of their own performance.
- Feeling embarrassed when delivering a speech after noticing someone’s disapproving looks and comments: This situation could make the individual self-conscious about their ability to speak in public and prompt them to perceive themselves as inadequate in such situations.
- Being conscious of one’s fashion choices when meeting new people for the first time: If someone notices somebody else giving them an approving look or complimenting their outfit, it could make them feel better about their sense of style.
- Trying to avoid eye contact with strangers out of fear that they will be judged negatively: Here, the individual’s feelings towards themselves are tied directly to how they believe they appear to others and how they think they will be perceived by those around them.
- Taking pride in independently completing tasks after eliciting admiration from friends and family members: Receiving praise regarding achievements can make someone feel proud of themselves, thus increasing their self-esteem.
- Becoming shy or withdrawn when faced with a group of unfamiliar people due to anxiety over how one appears in front of strangers: Here, this person is worried that they won’t appear socially competent, leading them to feel inadequate compared to everyone around them.
- Perceiving negative comments from acquaintances as personal attacks even if none were intended or implied by the other person involved: This situation can lead an individual into believing what was said regardless if this was indeed meant or not, leading them into developing negative feelings towards themselves as a result.
- Acting differently within different social circles depending on who is being watched or judged at any given moment: In this case, the individual adapts their behavior according to whom they are with and what kind of image they want to convey while avoiding potential judgment from those present.
- Feeling inadequate if somebody interacts with another instead of oneself because it implies that one isn’t interesting enough for the other person’s attention: Here, an individual perceives that there is something wrong with them; otherwise, why would someone else choose another person above them?
- Gaining confidence in online conversations (e.g., messaging apps) is easier since physical signs of shyness or anxiety aren’t visible: This case allows individuals to focus on crafting thoughtful responses without worrying about appearing awkward or reserved, leading to better overall communication.
Origins of Looking-Glass Self
The looking-glass self theory was first proposed by American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley in 1902 in his book Human Nature and the Social Order (Cooley, 2017).
Cooley (2017) proposed that individuals create their own identities based on how they perceive themselves through the eyes of others.
The concept of the looking-glass self is not entirely new and can be seen to stem from philosopher Immanuel Kant’s idea of ‘self-knowledge’ and psychologist William James’ notion of ‘the social self’ (Mclean & Syed, 2016)
Yet it was Cooley (2017) who developed this concept further by proposing three components that make up an individual’s sense of self.
They include 1) imagination of how one appears to another person, 2) imagination of how that person judges one, and 3) feelings generated from these imaginations.
Cooley (2017) also argued that while each individual can form their own opinion about themselves, opinions formed through perceiving oneself through the eyes of others are likely to have greater influence in identity formation and maintenance.
Thus, it gives greater importance than ever before to maintain healthy relationships with those around us since our perceptions towards ourselves are so heavily influenced by them.
Impact of Looking-Glass Self Theory on Individuals
The looking-glass self theory greatly impacts individuals, both psychologically and socially – from how people develop their sense of identity to how they interact with others.
To explore how this is the case, let us look at the three components of one’s sense of self as proposed by Charles Horton Cooley:
1. Imagination of How One Appears to Another Person
One’s opinion about themselves is greatly influenced by how one thinks one appears to others (Cooley, 2017).
For example, if someone perceives that their peers perceive them as too outspoken or intimidating, they may then take measures to present themselves differently so that others can have a more favorable view of them.
2. Imagination of How One Is Judged By That Person
This component focuses on the individual’s perception regarding how they think another person judges them (Cooley, 2017).
If a person believes that they are not meeting someone else’s expectations, they could be inclined to feel disappointment in themselves, which could manifest itself into further feelings such as insecurity and doubt.
3. Feelings Generated From These Imaginings
The imagination of how one appears to another and how that person judges one can lead to various emotions, such as fear, pride, embarrassment, or shame, depending on the situation at hand (Cooley, 2017).
For example, if an individual receives praise from someone else for completing a task successfully, it could make them feel proud and appreciative of their capabilities.
On the other hand, if an individual feels as though their peers disapprove of something about them (be it behavior or outlook), it might make them embarrassed or ashamed, harming their self-esteem.
Criticism of Looking-Glass Self Theory
Critics of the looking-glass self theory point out that it places too much emphasis on the opinions of others when forming one’s identity and sense of self (Allen & Henderson, 2017).
Furthermore, this theory could lead to feelings of inadequacy for those struggling to meet certain expectations set upon them by their peers or family members; or even a lack of understanding for those who do not feel the need to conform.
As such, it is argued that an individual’s identity should be formed from within first rather than being a mere reflection of what others think about them.
Critics also argue that this theory fails to consider certain issues, such as prejudice and discrimination, which greatly influence individuals’ perceptions of themselves through another person’s eyes (Mcnair, 2004).
For example, if someone belongs to a minority group, they may feel ignored or invisible due to stigma around their group, influencing the way they perceive themselves. Or, similarly, they may feel like they’re pressured to conform to the model minority stereotype.
The looking-glass self theory, developed by Charles Horton Cooley, highlights the impact of other people’s perceptions on an individual’s self-concept and identity formation.
By understanding the three components of this theory—imagining how one appears to another person, how that person judges one, and the feelings generated from these imaginations—one can better comprehend the social dynamics that influence their sense of self.
While the theory has critics who argue that it overemphasizes external opinions, it remains an important concept in understanding how individuals form and maintain their identities.
Acknowledging the looking-glass self can help individuals navigate social relationships, adapt to different situations, and foster a deeper understanding of their self-perception.
Allen, K. R., & Henderson, A. C. (2017). Family theories: Foundations and applications. New York: Wiley Blackwell.
Baumeister, R. F., & Bushman, B. J. (2017). Social psychology and human nature. Los Angeles: Cengage Learning.
Cooley, C. H. (2017). Human nature and the social order. London: Routledge. (Original work published 1902)
Mclean, K. C., & Syed, M. (2016). The Oxford handbook of identity development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mcnair, R. (2004). Student self-esteem and the looking-glass self: Perceptions of emotional support, role models, and academic success on a community college campus. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/38903988.pdf
Rousseau, N. (2002). Self, symbols, and society: Classic reading in social psychology. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.
Thompson, W. E., Hickey, J. V., & Thompson, M. L. (2019). Society in focus: An introduction to sociology. New York: Rowman & Littlefield.