You are here

The Looking-Glass Self: Our Sense of Self is Influenced by Others’ Views of Us

10 July, 2015 - 11:04

The concept of the looking-glass self states that part of how we see ourselves comes from our perception of how others see us (Cooley, 1902). We might feel that we have a great sense of humor, for example, because others have told us, and often laugh (apparently sincerely) at our jokes. Many studies have supported a basic prediction derived from the notion of the looking-glass self, namely that our self-concepts are often quite similar to the views that others have of us (Beer, Watson, & McDade-Montez, 2013). This may be particularly so with people from our own families and culture. Perkins, Wiley, and Deaux (2014), for example, found that, in the United States, how members of ethnic minority groups believed other members of the same culture perceived them significantly correlated with their self-esteem scores. In contrast, their perceived appraisal of European Americans toward them was only weakly related to their self-esteem.

This evidence is merely correlational, though, so we cannot be sure which way the influence is working. Maybe we develop our self-concept quite independently of others, and they then base their views of us on how we see ourselves. The work of Mark Baldwin and colleagues has been particularly important in demonstrating that how we think we are being perceived by others really can affect how we see ourselves.

For example, Baldwin and Holmes (1987) conducted two experiments to test the hypothesis that our self-concepts derive partly from the way we imagine that we would be perceived by significant others. In the first study, 40 women were instructed to visualize the faces of either two acquaintances or two older members of their own family. Later they were asked to rate their perceived enjoyableness of a piece of fiction with sexual content, and they typically responded in keeping with the responses they perceived the people they had visualized would have had. This effect was more pronounced when they sat in front of a mirror (remember the earlier discussion of self-awareness theory). In the second study, 60 men were exposed to a situation involving failure, and their self-evaluations to this setback were then measured. As with the women’s study, the men’s self-evaluations matched those they perceived that the people they were asked to visualize would have made, particularly when they were more self-aware. At least some of the time, then, we end up evaluating ourselves as we imagine others would. Of course, it can work both ways, too. Over time, the people around us may come to accept the self-concept that we present to others (Yeung & Martin, 2003).

Sometimes, the influence of other people’s appraisals of ourselves on our self-concept may be so strong that we end up internalizing them. For example, we are often labeled in particular ways by others, perhaps informally in terms of our ethnic background, or more formally in terms of a physical or psychological diagnosis. The labeling bias occurs when we are labeled, and others’ views and expectations of us are affected by that labeling (Fox & Stinnett, 1996). For example, if a teacher knows that a child has been diagnosed with a particular psychological disorder, that teacher may have different expectations and explanations of the child’s behavior than he or she would if not aware of that label. Where things get really interesting for our present discussion is when those expectations start to become self-fulfilling prophecies, and our self-concept and even our behavior start to align with them. For example, when children are labeled in special education contexts, these labels can then impact their self-esteem (Taylor, Hume, & Welsh, 2010).

If we are repeatedly labeled and evaluated by others, then self-labeling may occur, which happens when we adopt others’ labels explicitly into our self-concept. The effects of this self-labeling on our self-esteem appear to depend very much on the nature of the labels. Labels used in relation to diagnosis of psychological disorders can be detrimental to people whom then internalize them. For example, Moses (2009) found that adolescents who self-labeled according to diagnoses they had received were found to have higher levels of self-stigma in their self-concepts compared with those who described their challenges in non-pathological terms. In these types of situation, those who self-label may come to experience internalized prejudice, which occurs when individuals turn prejudice directed toward them by others onto themselves. Internalized prejudice has been found to predict more negative self-concept and poorer psychological adjustment in members of various groups, including sexual minorities (Carter, 2012) and racial minorities (Szymanski & Obiri, 2011).

In other cases, labels used by wider society to describe people negatively can be positively reclaimed by those being labeled. Galinsky and colleagues (2013) explored this use of self-labeling by members of oppressed groups to reclaim derogatory terms, including “queer” and “bitch,” used by dominant groups. After self-labeling, minority group members evaluated these terms less negatively, reported feeling more powerful, and were also perceived by observers as more powerful. Overall, these results indicate that individuals who incorporate a formerly negative label into their self-concept in order to reclaim it can sometimes undermine the stigma attached to the label.