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Perception Is Reality: The Looking-Glass Self

Behavior and self esteem are dictated by a person's predictions of how they’ll be perceived by others.

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.

Core Assumptions

According to Society in Focus, the process of discovering the looking-glass self occurs in three steps:

  1. An individual in a social situation imagines how they appear to others.
  2. That individual imagines others’ judgment of that appearance.
  3. 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.

The Role of Social Media

The rise of social media makes the process of the looking-glass self infinitely more complex. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and the like make it possible to connect with others in ways never before imagined. However, this exposure has led to an ever-increasing number of “mirrors,” thus proposing new questions about the development of self.

Social media has brought with it the concept of the “cyber” self, Mary Aiken explains. The cyber self is the version of him or herself a person chooses to present on a digital platform. As in real life, the cyber self may interact with other individuals, receive social feedback, and align to social conformities. However, the differences between the cyber self and actual self are profound.

A person may possess many versions of the cyber self, for example. He or she may present a professional self on LinkedIn, a casual self on Twitter, or an artistic self on Pinterest. The cyber self also continues to exist in social spaces even when people are not interacting with those environments in real time. In this way, social media users are never fully removed from exposure to judgment and criticism. And unlike the actual self, the cyber self is far more malleable when it comes to being shaped, updated, and perfected.

These unique qualities of the cyber self raise a host of psychological issues and concerns, Aiken explains. Individuals may experience a greater sense of urgency to return to or remain in digital spaces. They may be increasingly involved in the curation of their online identities, possibly at the cost of developing their real-world selves. The host of digital platforms involved also brings into question whether one’s identity may become splintered, or whether developmental problems will result. All these consequences are more severe when digital users are young or in their teens.

However, changes to the social self via digital platforms are not always steeped in such negative implications. A study published in the Journal of Social Media and Society, for example, describes a host of positive outcomes that arise from the digital looking-glass self. When YouTube video producers were interviewed about their content-creation practices and its influence on their sense of self, they offered a range of positive responses. Results included:

  • A sense of gained confidence
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Overcoming of major social hurdles
  • Increased sense of self-worth
  • A strengthened professional image
  • Feelings of altruism and “helping others” through their content
  • Interacting in a positive social space

Whether digital platforms are ultimately a help or a hindrance to self-identity remains to be seen. The human mind is still very much a frontier of modern science. For individuals who wish to ask the psychological questions essential for modern times, however, the right career begins with the right degree.

Additional sources: Human Nature and the Social Order

A Modern Career in Psychology

At Lesley University, the online Bachelor of Science in Psychology degree program prepares students to succeed in this ever-evolving field. Lesley’s well-rounded curriculum trains students in a variety of subject areas, including cognition, abnormal behavior, development, and more. Required laboratory and internship work means students gain valuable hands-on experience that provides a competitive edge after graduation. Because Lesley’s program is offered fully online, students have ultimate flexibility when earning their degrees.

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