I’ve written about identity in several blog posts in the past, but I recently came across a very interesting theory that I had not heard before. The Looking Glass Self theory was coined by sociologist Charles Cooley and refers to the idea that our identity is shaped by social interactions with other people. What we believe about other people’s perception of us shapes who we really are, and how we observe others’ perception of ourselves comes about through social interactions. This happens in three steps: we come to a conclusion about how we appear to others, then we determine what judgments others are making about us based on appearance, and finally we imagine what others feel about us based on those judgments. Our behavior then changes to reflect what we think others feel about us.
So how does this psychological phenomenon actually manifest itself in real life? Let’s say your a student and your teacher is really encouraging and always tells you that you are doing a good job. It doesn’t matter if you are actually doing a good job. It doesn’t matter if your teacher thinks you are doing a good job. What matters is that you think your teacher thinks you are doing a good job, and as a result you will view yourself as smart or successful. Another example could be when you tell a joke to your friends and they laugh. You might not have thought the joke was that funny, maybe you were just trying to break the silence. Your friends might not have thought the joke was funny, maybe they were just being polite. However, if you perceive that your friends laughter was genuine then you will identify yourself as being funny regardless of whether or not anyone thought it was funny.
So what’s the point of this theory? What can we learn? I think the first takeaway is that, whether we realize it or not, we all care about what other people think about us to the point that we project ourselves as a reflection of we think they view us. I’ve often thought that I do a good job of not letting other people’s opinions of me change who I really am, but I hadn’t considered that this could be happening subconsciously anyway. This reinforces the importance of surrounding yourself with positive influences wherever you can, because everyone you interact with is impacting your identity in some way, even if it’s just a tiny bit.
I think another implication of this theory is its support for the “nurture” argument in the nature vs nurture battle regarding which impacts our identity more. My personal opinion is that identity is 80-85% shaped by nurture, or in other words our environment and interactions with those around us. We may be born with certain innate qualities, but according to this theory you are a completely different person if you grow up and live in one community or culture as opposed to another. Our brains are very fluid and designed to constantly change and adapt based on what we perceive and experience, so it only makes sense that our perceptions would change based on changes in the views of other people and the environment around us.
Finally, the last takeaway I have from this theory is looking at it from the outside perspective. We are able to shape who others think they are based on acting towards them in a manner that changes how they view what we think of them. For example, if I want someone to think that they are smart, I can tell them they are smart and consistently act like their achievements are impressive or their study habits are great, etc. It may seem obvious that what we tell other people can influence what they think of themselves, but what’s more important and probably more influential is the non-verbal ways in which we communicate with people. Let’s say I start avoiding someone I normally see or start acting differently in front of someone. These are the types of behaviors that start to impact what we think of ourselves, and are harder to ignore than just words that someone says to you.
As referenced in the title of this blog post, the Looking Glass Self theory can best be summarized by a single quote: “I am not who I think I am. I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.”
Thanks to everyone who read the post. Please like the post and leave feedback in the comments below!
Sources/Additional Reading: http://www.popularsocialscience.com/2013/05/27/the-looking-glass-self-how-our-self-image-is-shaped-by-society/