Cooley’s “The looking glass self” Theory and Examples

Charles Horton Cooley, in his work, Human nature and the Order, introduced the concept of “the looking glass self” in 1902. It can be explained as the reflection of what we think we appear in front of others or how we are viewed and conceived by others. Cooley used the term to explain the process of socialization. He viewed that the concept of self or one’s sense of identity comes not only from our direct contemplation of oneself, or the personal qualities but also from the examination of the way one is perceived by others in the society. In other words, social interaction plays a major role in the process of self-identification.

The social interaction acts as a mirror that helps individuals to measure their worth, values, and behavior. This happens through three major steps. First, one must imagine how he/she appears to others, be it family, friends, or any random person being encountered. Second, one imagines how he/she must be evaluated based on the way one is observed by others. For instance, a person might be evaluated as being humorous, or clever, or maybe wise. The third step is the development of the self-based on one’s impressions of these evaluations or judgments of others. For instance, suppose, in an interview, the interviewee thinks of himself as an intellectual and smart candidate who can easily get the job. During the interview, the interviewee observes how the interviewers interact with him. If they listen to him without being distracted or being disinterested, the interviewee’s belief in his ability will be upheld. On the other hand, if the interviewers do not show interest, the interviewee will start questioning his beliefs about himself.

Again, people do not take each and every feedback they come across. They might emphasize someone’s opinion more than others whom they consider more important or trustworthy. Cooley further claimed that it is not the opinions of the people that influence the development of one’s sense of identity, but it is the way in which one imagines the opinions of others’ to be that actually influences the development of the self-image. These perceptions of others’ opinions can be either correct or incorrect. However, the people constantly try to maintain equilibrium between his internal conceptions about himself and the external perceptions of others.

The concept of looking glass self and its importance can also be seen through the growing social media. They act as the mirror to people where they seek for judgments and feedbacks from other people. Based on likes, comments or followers the sense of a self develops. People with fewer followers often think of themselves as unattractive or not so popular while those with a large fan following think of them as popular and talented. Being available easily and accessible to a lot of people at the same time, social media handles can make the users exposable to a lot more criticisms or judgments. The concept of looking glass self is often criticized for overlooking the roles of in-groups and out-groups while defining the self.


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