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The Looking-Glass Self Theory with Examples

Laura Langford, Vidhi Desai
  • Author
    Laura Langford

    Laura Langford is a nationally Certified Health Education Specialist. She has a Bachelor's degree in Health Education and Health Promotion from Arizona State University, where she also works as an Academic Associate.

  • Instructor
    Vidhi Desai

    Vidhi holds a Masters in Education, B.A. in Spanish Literature from Rutgers University. Vidhi has experience working in academic affairs and staff management.

Learn about the looking-glass self theory of Charles Cooley. See examples of the looking-glass self and investigate how others affect self-esteem and perception. Updated: 04/14/2022

Looking-Glass Self and Self-Image

Charles Cooley was an American sociologist born in 1864 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Cooley made many contributions to the field of sociology and even served as the president of the American Sociological Association in 1918. Cooley is most known for his development of the looking-glass self theory, which he explains in detail in his book Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind.

The looking-glass self definition states that a person's thoughts and feelings about themselves are formed based on the responses of others and their perception of how they appear to others. For example, a person may believe that they are very attractive because another person complimented their shirt or hair. Alternatively, a person may believe that they are unattractive because another person made a negative comment about their choice in shoes. The looking-glass self has a major impact on the development of one's self-image.

Self-image refers to a person's view or perception of themselves. Self-image includes the characteristics that one would use to describe themselves, such as being beautiful, ugly, smart, or selfish. These characteristics contribute to a person's perceived strengths or weaknesses. A person's self-image is developed early in childhood through relationships with parents, peers, teachers, and other family members. A person can have a positive self-image, which means that they focus on their positive characteristics, or a negative self-image, which means that they focus on their negative characteristics.


American sociologist Charles Cooley developed the theory of the looking-glass self.

Image of sociologist Charles Cooley


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.

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Looking-Glass Self Theory

Cooley's looking-glass self theory states that a person develops their self-image based on the responses of others as well as their perception of how others see and judge them. A person's perception of how others see them can result from both verbal and nonverbal responses from others. Verbal responses include comments made by others, whereas nonverbal responses may include body language, such as smiling.

In addition, the looking-glass self may be impacted differently depending on the nature of the interaction as well as the people involved in the interaction. A person may consider comments from certain people as being more important than comments from others. Generally, a person takes the comments and reactions of those whom they trust more seriously.

According to Cooley's theory, the way in which a person internalizes the reactions of others towards them has more of an influence on one's self-image than reality does. A person's perception of how others see them can cause them to believe that others make certain judgments about them. These judgements may be real or imagined; however, both can impact a person's self-image. Over time, the perceived comments and judgements made by others can lead a person to believe certain things about themselves. The looking-glass self theory thus teaches multiples aspects of self-image and includes the following three major components:

  1. A person imagines how others see them.
  2. A person imagines the judgments others make about them.
  3. A person develops their self-image according to the responses of others.

Overall, the looking-glass self theory suggests that it is important to develop a healthy self-image. A healthy self-image allows a person to love themselves and is vital to their mental, emotional, and physical well-being. The development of one's self-image is an ongoing process; therefore, there is always an opportunity to change and improve one's self-image.

Examples of Looking-Glass Self

As mentioned, the looking-glass self plays a vital role in the development of one's self-image. A person's self-image is directly impacted by the three components of Cooley's theory. The following looking-glass self examples will explain how each component contributes to a person's feelings and thoughts about themselves.

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.

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Video Transcript

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How does the looking-glass self affect self esteem?

The looking-glass self can affect self-esteem in either a negative or postive way, depending on a person's perception of how others view them. Over time, a person's self-esteem may increase if they continuously believe others perceive them in a positive manner; however, a person's self-esteem may decrease if they believe they are perceived negatively by others.

What is meant by the looking-glass self?

The looking-glass self theory states that a person's thoughts and feelings about themselves are formed based on the responses of others. These responses can be real or perceived; however, both can impact a person's image of themselves. The looking-glass self theory also states that a person's thoughts and feelings are influenced by how they think others perceive them.

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