The looking-glass effect, or the looking-glass self, may be defined as people’s conceptualization of their own views of self, based on how they perceive that others view them. The concept has provided a captivating theoretical springboard for social scientists from a broad variety of disciplines. Sociologists and psychologists have historically focused on this effect more than researchers in other fields, however, because of the effect’s inherent focus on both society and the individual as critical shaping forces in the development of human identity.
The term looking-glass effect was coined by Charles Horton Cooley, a social psychologist, in his 1902 treatise entitled Human Nature and the Social Order. Cooley’s assertion that people derive their attitudes about themselves based on how others perceive them drew on earlier works by William James and inspired the work of George Herbert Mead, founder of the school of thought known as symbolic interactionism.
Central to the existence of the looking-glass self is the presence of a social audience; to learn about themselves, people require others to provide self-relevant information. Gordon Gallup’s work with chimpanzees highlighted the necessity of a history of social interaction to the existence of self-knowledge (Gallup 1977). In a series of investigations, Gallup and his colleagues demonstrated that chimpanzees that were reared in isolation from other chimpanzees responded to their reflections in a mirror in a very different fashion from their socially informed, non-isolated counterparts. Whereas nonisolates recognized themselves in a mirror and evidenced recognition of a researcher-induced change in their physical appearance, isolates never demonstrated knowledge that they were viewing a reflection of themselves in the mirror. Without a prior history of information about themselves gleaned from interactions with other chimpanzees, isolates were seemingly devoid of a concept of self.
Though Cooley’s original notion of the looking-glass self implied that people imagine how others must view them and, as a result, develop self-attitudes based on these imagined evaluations by others, it did not detail whether or not these imagined evaluations were accurate. It assumed, rather, that people should be able effectively to learn about themselves from social feedback from others. Later work revealed, however, that people’s self-evaluations may not be rooted in others’ actual evaluations but in people’s beliefs about how others evaluate them (Shrauger and Schoeneman 1979). So, in effect, people could misperceive others’ attitudes about themselves and, correspondingly, report self-attitudes that did not align with others’ real evaluations.
Findings that the looking-glass effect may not provide people with accurate self-evaluations challenged the informative utility of the effect but paved the way for future investigations concerning it. Much of this work has revealed that people’s own feelings of self-worth, or self-esteem, play a role in how they think that others view them. People who have more positive self-evaluations tend to believe that others view them positively as well. Likewise, people who view themselves negatively are more likely to believe that others view them in the same negative light. As a result, a more nuanced definition of the looking-glass effect is people’s evaluations of themselves based on their own self-attitudes and their perceptions, which are influenced by these self-attitudes, of how others view them (Tice and Wallace 2003).
Cooley, Charles H. 1902. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner’s.
Gallup, Gordon G. 1977. Self-recognition in Primates: A Comparative Approach to the Bidirectional Properties of Consciousness. American Psychologist 32: 329–338.
Shrauger, J. Sidney, and Thomas J. Schoeneman. 1979. Symbolic Interactionist View of Self-Concept: Through the Looking Glass Darkly. Psychological Bulletin 86: 549–573.
Tice, Dianne M., and Harry M. Wallace. 2003. The Reflected Self: Creating Yourself As (You Think) Others See You. In Handbook of Self and Identity, eds. Mark Leary and June Tangney, 91–105. New York: Guilford.
Jorgianne Civey Robinson