behaves toward

Looking glass self

[look-ing-glas, -glahs]
Created by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902 (McIntyre 2006), the looking-glass self is a sociological concept that a person's self grows out of society's interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. Cooley clarified it in writing that society is an interweaving and interworking of mental selves. The term "looking glass self" was first used by Cooley in his work, Human Nature and the Social Order in 1902.

It has three major components and is unique to humans (Shaffer 2005). According to Lisa McIntyre’s The Practical Skeptic: Core Concepts in Sociology, in the looking-glass self a person views himself or herself through others' perceptions in society and in turn gains identity. Identity, or self, is the result of the concept in which we learn to see ourselves as others do (Yeung & Martin 2003). The looking-glass self begins at an early age and continues throughout the entirety of a person’s life as one will never stop modifying their self unless all social interactions are ceased. Some sociologists believe that the concept wanes over time because only a few studies have been conducted with a large number of subjects in natural settings.

Symbolic interaction and the looking-glass self

In hypothesizing the framework for the looking glass self, Cooley said, "the mind is mental" because "the human mind is social." Beginning as children, humans begin to define themselves within the context of their first social group, their family, and later within society at large. This is demonstrated in the manner a child learns that the symbol of his/her crying will elicit a response from his/her parents, not only when they are in need of necessities such as food, but also as a symbol to receive their attention. Schubert references in Cooley's On Self and Social Organization, "a growing solidarity between mother and child parallels the child's increasing competence in using significant symbols. This simultaneous development is itself a necessary prerequisite for the child's ability to adopt the perspectives of other participants in social relationships and, thus, for the child's capacity to develop a social self." Such as crying in the example above, symbolic interaction is the basis of the looking glass self, because the use of symbols is dependent on humans' ability to first agree upon the meaning of the symbol, and second the ability to interpret the symbol. In regard to the looking glass self, this is demonstrated in the method in which humans assign characteristics to words, images, behaviors, and symbols. The words "good" or "bad" only hold relevance after one learns the connotation and societal meaning of the words.

George Herbert Mead described self as "taking the role of the other," the premise for which the self is actualized. Through interaction with others, we begin to develop an identity about who we are, as well as empathy for others. This is the notion of, 'Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.' In respect to this Cooley said, "The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another's mind." (Cooley 1964)

Three main components of the looking-glass self

There are three main components of the looking-glass self (Yeung, et al. 2003).

  1. We imagine how we must appear to others.
  2. We imagine the judgment of that appearance.
  3. We develop our self through the judgments of others.

Studies of the looking-glass self

The term "looking-glass self" was coined by Cooley after extensive sociological testing in 1902, although more recent studies have been published. In 1976 Arthur L Beaman, Edward Diener, and Soren Svanum (1979) performed an experiment on the Looking-Glass Self’s effect on children. Another study in the Journal of Family Psychology in 1998, measured the validity of the looking glass self and symbolic interaction in the context of familial relationships.

Self reflection study

On Halloween night, 363 children trick-or-treated at 18 different homes in Seattle Washington. Each of these 18 homes was selected to take part in the experiment and was in turn arranged in similar ways. In a room near the entry way there was a low table and on it was a large bowl full of bite sized candy. A festive backdrop was also placed in sight of the candy bowl with a small hole for viewing; behind the backdrop was an observer who would record the results of the experiment. The experiment was conducted in the same way at each of the 18 different homes, with each home conducting two different conditions of the experiment, self-awareness manipulation and individuation manipulation. All of the homes conducted both conditions; half of the homes conducting self-awareness manipulation while the other half conducted individuation manipulation. In each of the conditions a woman would answer the door commenting on the children’s costumes and inviting them in. She would then instruct the children to take only one piece of candy from the bowl and excuse herself to another room.

Self-awareness manipulation
Self-awareness manipulation was the first of 2 conditions performed in Beaman, Diener, and Svanum’s experiment. The self-awareness manipulation condition was performed with a mirror placed at a ninety degree angle directly behind the entry-way table fifty percent of the time. The mirror was placed in such a way that the children could always see their reflection in the mirror when taking candy from the bowl; the other half of the time there was no mirror in place and the children were left anonymous. There was some concern that the children would see only their Halloween costumes and not their own self reflection.
Individuation manipulation
There was some concern that the children involved in the study would only see their Halloween costumes and not their own self reflections, so a second condition was performed in Beaman, Diener, and Svanum’s experiment. This second condition was called individuation manipulation. The individuation manipulation condition was performed in the same way as the self-awareness manipulation. After greeting the children the woman at the door would ask each of the children their name and where he or she lived. These questions were asked in such a way that the children would think nothing of it because many other homes asked the children their names on Halloween night; however, no effort was made to identify the children involved. Just as in the first condition, a mirror was used half of the time and was removed for the other half of the experiment.
The children involved in the experiment were split into several different categories based on the results of the experiment. The criteria consisted of age, group size, and gender. Out of the 363 children involved in the study, 70 children transgressed when instructed not to. Children who arrived in groups were more likely to transgress than those children who arrived alone; 20.4% to 10.3% respectively. Children arriving with adults were not included in the study.
The genders of those who participated in the study were recorded by the unobtrusive viewer from behind the festive backdrop. Out of the 363 children, only 326 children’s genders could be determined because they were wearing Halloween costumes. Of those children whose genders could be determined there were 190 boys and 136 girls. While Cooley suggests that girls have a far higher impressionable social sensibility it was not the case in this study, as boys transgressed more often than girls. More boys transgressed with the mirror present, than without; 15.6% to 35.8%. This was the same for girls; 8.4% to 13.2%.
While the exact age of each child could not be determined due to the children’s anonymity, approximate ages were given to each child by the unobtrusive observer. The average age of the children was eight years old. The results of the study were split up into different categories based on the approximate age given to each child. The age groups were as follows: ages 1-4, 5-8, 9-12 and 13 or older. The rate of transgression rose with the age of the child; the 1-4 year olds had a rate of transgression of only 6.5% while the 5-8 year olds transgressed 9.7% of the time. The two older age groups transgressed far more often than the younger groups; children aged 9-12 transgressed 23.6% of the time while the children aged 13 and older had a rate of transgression of 41.9%.

Family study of the looking glass self

The research article was included in the Journal of Family Psychology in 1998. The researchers, Cook and Douglas, measured the validity of the looking glass self and symbolic interaction in the context of familial relationships. The study analyzed the accuracy of a college student's and an adolescent's perceptions of how they are perceived by their parents. The 51 participants of this study included four family members (mother, father, college student and adolescent) who returned surveys. The families were primarily white and middle class. The college student and adolescent were paid ten dollars each, if each family member completed the survey.

Three areas were investigated: assertiveness, firmness and cooperation. In reference to the three areas respondents were asked the following: how they behave toward the target, how the target behaves toward them, and how they think they are viewed by the target. The study identified the looking glass self as a "metaperception" because it involves "perception of perceptions." One of the hypotheses tested in the study was: If "metaperceptions" cause self-perceptions they will necessarily be coordinated. The hypothesis was tested at the individual and relationship levels of analysis.

Findings of the familial study

The study determined that the hypothesis is strongly supported at the individual level for cooperation for both college students and adolescents, but is only partially supported for assertiveness for college students. Also for college students, at the relationship level with their mothers the study supported assertiveness. There was an irregular finding regarding firmness in the mother-adolescent relationship that indicated that the firmer adolescents were perceived by their mothers, the less firm they rated themselves in the relationship. While there was not strong support of the hypothesis on the relationship level, on the individual level the findings suggest that how college students and adolescents think about themselves is directly correlated to how they think they are perceived by their parents.

Looking glass self in contemporary society

Using computer technology, people can create an avatar, a customized symbol which represents the computer user. For example, in the virtual world Second life the computer-user can create an humanlike avatar that reflects the user in regard to race, age, physical makeup, status and the like. By selecting certain physical characteristics or symbols, the avatar reflects how the creator seeks to be perceived in the virtual world and how the symbols used in the creation of the avatar influence others' actions toward the computer-user.

See also



  • Beaman, Arthur L., Diener, Edward, and Klentz, Bonnel. "Self-Awareness and Transgression in Children: Two Field Studies." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 37 (1979): 1835-1846.
  • Cooley, Charles H. Human Nature and the Social Order, New York : Scribner's, 1902. Confer pp. 183-184 for first use of the term "looking glass self".
  • Cooley, Charles H. On Self and Social Organization. Ed. Schubert Hans-Joachim. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. ISBN 0226115097. (pp. 20-22)
  • Cook, William L., and Douglas, Emily M. "The Looking Glass Self in Family Context: A Social Relations Analysis." Journal of Family Psychology 12, no. 3 (1998): 299-309.
  • Coser, Lewis A., Masters of Sociological Thought : Ideas in Historical and Social Context, New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. ISBN 0155551280. He has a chapter on Cooley and the Looking Glass Self.
  • Hensley, Wayne. "A Theory of Valenced Other: The Intersection of the Looking-Glass-Self and Social Penetration." Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal 24, no. 3 (1993): 293.
  • McIntyre, Lisa. The Practical Skeptic: Core Concepts in Sociology. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw Hill, 2006. ISBN 0072885246.
  • Shaffer, Leigh. "From Mirror Self-Recognition to the Looking-Glass Self: Exploring the Justification Hypothesis." Journal of Clinical Psychology 61 (January 2005): 47-65.
  • Starks, Rodney. Sociology. 10th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007. ISBN 0495093440. (pp. 73-75)
  • Yeung, King-To, and Martin, John Levi. "The Looking Glass Self: An Empirical Test and Elaboration." Social Forces 81, no. 3 (2003): 843-879.

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