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Looking-Glass Self: Theory, Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 Who Was Charles Cooley?
  • 0:28 What Is the…
  • 3:05 The Effects
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Vidhi Desai
Have you ever thought of why some people have a higher or lower self-esteem than others? Sociologist Charles Cooley thought that part of this was due to the concept of the looking-glass self. Find out more in this lesson.

Who Was Charles Cooley?

Charles Cooley
Charles Cooley

Charles Cooley was a sociologist who was born in 1864. He attended the University of Michigan, where he got his undergraduate degree in engineering. He returned later to study sociology. In 1918, he served as the president of the American Sociological Association. Cooley is most famous for his theory of the looking-glass self.

What Is the Looking-Glass Self?

The concept of the looking-glass self can be understood through three main concepts that all relate to how we create our self-image.

1. We imagine how others see us.

For example, Mary wears what she considers her lucky outfit so that nothing bad can happen to her. As she walks down the hallway, her classmates stare. She assumes it is because she looks great in her lucky outfit and smiles at them, getting smiles in return.

John, on the other hand, has had a rough morning. His shirt got sucked into the fan before he put it on. After shutting off the fan and retrieving the shirt, he realizes that it is ripped. He hasn't done laundry and that was his last option! He has an exam that day so he goes to class anyway, ripped shirt and all. Any time someone looks at him, he assumes they are staring at how ugly he is in his ripped shirt.

2. We imagine the judgments others make about us.

To continue our examples: Part of Mary's lucky outfit is her Gucci handbag. She thinks that others will think that she is rich if she carries it around. She thinks that this will make people like her more. She wants to throw a party on Friday, so if people think she's rich, they might want to come over to her house.

But John thinks that his tattered shirt will make people think he's poor. He doesn't want to look like he doesn't have money - he thinks that he won't get invited out to eat because people will assume he has no money.

3. We create our self-image according to the comments of others.

Now Mary is sitting in her math class and raises her hand to ask a question. The teacher calls on her and asks what she needs. Mary says that one of the concepts didn't make sense to her. The rest of the class supports her by saying, 'Yeah, good question. I don't get it either!' The teacher explains it again. As Mary is walking out, a classmate stops her to say, 'Hey, thanks for asking that - nobody got it. You were the only one brave enough to say something.'

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