A short intro into the “looking glass self”

“Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known.” – Chuck Palahniuk, Invisible Monsters

You might be wondering what a quote by your favorite high-school years author has to do with sociology. Or you might be rolling your eyes while thinking “you can turn everything into sociology, come on”. Whatever the case is, Chuck Palahinuk makes a really good point about human nature, how we interact with those around us and, ultimately, how we build our personalities.

The “looking glass self” is a social psychological concept, created by Charles Horton Cooley. Simply put, it states that our personalities are built upon our social interactions and the way in which we believe other people perceive us.

It starts when we’re young: as babies, we cry in order to ask for attention, food or to show our discontent. We do this because we learn that our parents react to crying, that this action is a symbol through which they understand that we require or want their care. Later on, we realise what other symbols are and what they mean. We build ourselves and begin to understand the world through the reactions that people have to our actions. Like if we would hit another child, we would receive a negative reaction from our parents, and over time realise that violence is “bad”. If we would do something “good”, we would be praised and rewarded. We end up understanding that what we do affects people and garners specific reactions, that people will shape their opinion of us based on our actions. So we begin to modify them, in order for others to perceive us in the way we want to.

And that is how the looking glass self is formed. If you talk to a friend, you will approach them having an understanding of who they are and how they will react to what you say. It’s obvious, then, that you will shape your speech accordingly. To seem desirable to a potential partner, we sometimes dress or converse in a way that we think they would appreciate. We shape who we are according to who we want to be in the eyes of others.

So the “us” in the eyes of others is what we call the looking glass self. And it’s three main components are:

  1. We imagine how we must appear to others.
  2. We imagine and react to what we feel their judgment of that appearance must be.
  3. We develop our self through the judgments of others.

So who we are and what we are is entirely dependent on what others think of us. It’s a sad world, isn’t it? But while we truly are the combined efforts of everyone we’ve ever known, how we choose to build ourselves after imagining what others see in us is dependent on us. Our personalities may be built on the judgement of others, but it’s our reactions to those judgements that make us, unlike what Palahniuk said, “original”. Well, unless you decide to go deeper into social psychology. Don’t, it gets depressing.

Irina Lupa

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