When it comes to understanding ourselves, social interaction plays a more important role than many of us realize. According to sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, individuals develop their concept of self by observing how they are perceived by others, a concept Cooley coined as the “looking-glass self.” This process, particularly when applied to the digital age, raises questions about the nature of identity, socialization, and the changing landscape of self.
The Looking-Glass Self
The looking-glass self describes the process wherein individuals base their sense of self on how they believe others view them. Using social interaction as a type of “mirror,” people use the judgments they receive from others to measure their own worth, values, and behavior. According to Self, Symbols, & Society, Cooley’s theory is notable because it suggests that self-concept is built not in solitude, but rather within social settings. In this way, society and individuals are not separate, but rather two complementary aspects of the same phenomenon.
According to Society in Focus, the process of discovering the looking-glass self occurs in three steps:
- An individual in a social situation imagines how they appear to others.
- That individual imagines others’ judgment of that appearance.
- The individual develops feelings about and responds to those perceived judgments.
In practice, the process might look like this:
Someone meets a group of new work colleagues for the first time. This individual believes she can easily demonstrate professionalism and competence to others. During this interaction with her new co-workers, the individual pays attention to her colleagues’ body language, word choices, and reactions to the conversation. If these coworkers provide positive feedback, such as maintaining eye contact or offering a firm handshake, the individual’s belief in her own professionalism will be upheld. However, if the colleagues provide negative feedback, such as looking away or leaving the conversation quickly, the individual might question how professional they truly are.
The process of the looking-glass self is further complicated by the context of each interaction and the nature of the people involved. Not all feedback carries the same weight, for instance. People may take the responses from those whom they trust more seriously than those of strangers. Signals may be misinterpreted. People also usually take their own value systems into consideration when thinking through any changes to their behavior or views of self.
Ultimately, the process of the looking-glass self is one of alignment. People constantly seek to create consistency between their internal and external worlds and, therefore, continue to perceive, adjust, and strive for equilibrium throughout their lives.