Updated: Mar 1, 2021
©Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D., 2019
All Rights Reserved
Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall…the Looking Glass Self
Who do you see staring back at you when you gaze at your reflection in the mirror? Are your assessments accurate? Are they truly your own, or are you like the Queen in Snow White, who relies upon the voice of another (her magic mirror)? To some degree we are all like Snow White’s stepmother, as our self identity is based in part, on the feedback we receive from others. In the age of social media, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, etc. have become our “talking mirrors.”
How do we encode information and about ourselves? How do we decide which information to filter out and which to keep? We receive information about ourselves through various sources (parents, friends, teachers, bosses, society, and self evaluations). According to Shrauger and Schoeneman (2000), naturalistic studies suggest that people’s self-perceptions tend to align with the way they perceive that they are viewed by others—in particular, others they esteem or value. For example, these researchers noted that when people were asked how they knew that they possessed particular characteristics, participants responded that they were “told so” by other people.
In 1902, Cooley developed the idea of the “Looking Glass Self.” He suggested that the self cannot be separated from one’s social life and involves some reference to others. Cooley (1902) suggested that the “social reference takes the form of a somewhat definite imagination of how one's self--that is any idea he appropriates--appears in a particular mind, and the kind of self-feeling one has is determined by the attitude toward this attributed to that other mind” (Cooley, 1983, p. 255). A social self of this sort might be called the reflected or looking glass self: “Each to each a looking-glass, reflects the other that doth pass" (Cooley, 1902, as cited by Prus, 1996, p. 50).
When we gaze upon our reflection in the mirror, we experience feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. For example, we may think that we “look old” or that a particular outfit makes us “look fat” However, these self-appraisals are in fact, based to some degree, on the feedback that we have received from others. Thus, in the imagination we peer into another's mind and assess their analysis our appearance, mannerisms, goals, skills, character, and general value. Our self-concepts begin forming early, as a result of the way in which others respond to us. In particular, we tend to adopt the judgments of those of whom we place importance, such as our parents, teachers, coaches, and close friends. In other words, our self-concept is influenced by the way that we believe others perceive us. If we want to know how honest or trustworthy or happy we really are, then we may seek out the opinions of others (Mead, 1934).
Rogers, Kuiper, and Kirker (2000), suggested that self-reference involves the schema of self. It involves the interaction between previous experiences with information about the self and new stimulus input. Self-schemata are cognitive generalizations about the self that are derived from past experiences. These mental generalizations serve to guide and organize information that individuals receive about themselves through social experiences. Self-schemata allow us to form a summary of ourselves, and to identify things that are reflective of us. These schema make things easier for us cognitively and make us resistant to counter schematic information.
According to Markus (1977), people who are aschematic (in other words, those who do not have a strong sense of self-schemata) are more likely to accept incoming information about themselves from others. Therefore, it is beneficial to have a strong self-schemata, as it serves to protect us against inconsistent appraisals of ourselves by others.
So how are self-schema formed? All of us, since childhood, have received feedback about our performance, skills, expected behavior, etc. From an early age, we become aware of how others react towards us, and this information is then filtered. We tend to accept the feedback we receive about ourselves from others whom we highly esteem, and reject feedback we receive from strangers or those who we do not particularly value. We are also more likely to accept information that is favorable and consistent with our perceptions of ourselves, and reject inconsistent and unfavorable feedback. However, even if the feedback we receive from others is critical and inconsistent with our own assessments, if enough people provide this consistent feedback, we will change our own assessments and internalize even negative assessments of ourselves.
Looking Glass Self, Possible Selves & Social Media
Taken together, the concepts of Looking Glass Self, Possible Selves, and Self Efficacy work together. Possible selves refer to future visions or possibilities that we see for ourselves: our hoped for possible self as well as our feared possible self. Both are formed through perceptions of self-efficacy, which in turn is impacted by our past experiences of successes and failures, and feedback from others. Furthermore, we view the behaviors modeled by others and make assessments concerning what is and what is not possible for us in our future. This includes the models we are exposed to through the media/social media.
Discussing the role of social media on our perception of self is somewhat like opening “Pandora’s box.” Through social media, we make ourselves visible to people outside of our immediate community, and depending on how active we are on social media, we can literally have a global audience. This is further complicated by the fact that people frequently do not interact with each other online in the same manner as they do in a face to face interaction. For example, we receive "likes" for posts, or "friend requests." These “likes,” number of “followers,” and comments on our posts serve as a source of information and feedback regarding the way others perceive us and approve of our behavior, appearance, skills, and our perceived popularity.
Because the number of followers or “likes” received serve as a badge of popularity or public approval of sorts, people often use the feedback that they receive to change their behaviors, activities they share, types of blogs, pictures, and subjects they post in attempts to meet the approval of viewers. There is, in fact, a large amount of impression management that is occurring in an online environment, as people pick and choose the information they feel will best improve their status and receptiveness in the chosen online community.
Adolescence is a critical time for identity formation and thus, the internet serves as a tool for the formation of identity through impression management (Salimkhan, Manago & Greenfield, 2010).
Teenagers, ages 13-19 have the highest internet use since the late 1990's, and are also very vulnerable to upward social comparison and as a result, depression. Selective self-presentation through social media profiles allows people to depict what they want to about themselves to others and also increases the likelihood of somewhat false information or projection of material.
The ways in which social media platforms are used differs per gender and type of platform. For example, studies have shown that female teenage users tend to post "cute" pictures whereas male teenagers tend to post pictures that are self-promoting and linked to sexual content or alcohol. However, on teen dating sites, females are more likely to use self-descriptions that contain more sexual references than those of boys (Herring & Kapidzic, 2015). Research has shown that self-concepts of users changes considerably as the combination of media and media sharing platforms serves as a "digital looking glass lens" (Jones, 2015, p. 101). Research has shown that one of the problems with platforms such as Facebook or Instagram, is that many people are not actually self-presenting in an honest way. Users post pictures that are heavily edited, or that capture “highlight reels” of their lives, such as a night out with friends, an exotic vacation, parties, weddings, etc., making their lives seem adventurous, successful, and full of friends.
Furthermore, in an online environment people are removed from one another physically, and this physical separation can create a false sense of anonymity and psychological distance. People often feel emboldened to say things that they would not normally say, or mimic the behaviors of others online, resulting in sexual harassment and cyber-bullying. As the theory of “Looking Glass Self” proposes, we develop our own sense of self-concept in part, by the way we perceive others to see us. In other words, it is as if we are looking in the mirror and seeing ourselves through the eyes of others. Thus, the way we perceive ourselves is greatly impacted by the feedback we receive from others, and because social media exposes us to a global audience, it magnifies the impact of the feedback we receive as others view and comment on our social media accounts. This makes us extremely vulnerable to negative feedback we receive online.
Looking Glass Self, Social Media & Cyberbullying
As the Internet and social media become a way of life for most people, a potential consequence of increased online interaction is the impact it has on the formation of one’s identity and sense of self through the feedback received from others. Many people, including Joel Stein (2016), argue that the Internet has changed over the years. It is suggested that the Internet has a disinhibiting effect on people because of the perceived anonymity that it offers (as opposed to speaking in real time and face to face). One only has to view feedback on articles, Youtube, etc. to see how quickly the comments become very much like a bunch of cruel teenagers making profane and uneducated remarks about what has been posted. This psychological distance and perceived anonymity has promoted very aggressive language and comments targeting individuals and groups. Something that simply would not be considered socially acceptable in face to face interactions seems the norm in online posts. Some psychologists and sociologists are suggesting that younger generations who have grown up with this type of "dialog" may then generalize this way of interacting towards one another in face to face environments. Thus, supporting your statement that some of the hateful speech has indeed grown worse. For example, in an article for Time, Stein (2016) wrote:
In 2011, trolls descended on Facebook memorial pages of recently deceased users to mock their deaths. In 2012, after feminist Anita Sarkeesian started a Kickstarter campaign to fund a series of YouTube videos chronicling misogyny in video games, she received bomb threats at speaking engagements, rape threats and an unwanted starring role in a video game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian. In June of this year (2011), Jonathan Weisman, the deputy Washington editor of the New York Times, quit Twitter, on which he had nearly 35,000 followers, after a barrage of anti-Semitic messages. At the end of July, feminist writer Jessica Valenti said she was leaving social media after receiving a rape threat against her daughter, who is 5 years old. (para. 5).
In spite of the obvious aggressive cyber-bullying, the other side of the argument is that younger generations have become increasingly intolerant of ideas, discussions, or words that are different from their own. In part, because they can simply leave a website or blog, or block people from social media accounts whose ideas contradict their own. But also, as a result of political correctness being taken to an extreme. Authors and social psychologists such as Lukianoff and Haidt (2016), suggest that unlike the movement of "political correctness" that prevailed in the 90s, this new movement, "presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm" through trigger warnings and censoring of ideas, material, and words on college campuses (para. 5).
As we form our sense of self identity, we do so in part, by making self reflections regarding our strengths, abilities, skills, likes, and dislikes. However, a large part of our identity formation is the result of the information we receive from our external environment, including the way we perceive that others view us. If we have a fairly strong sense of identity formation, we are able to block out any negative assessments made by others, but we are more vulnerable to the feedback given to us by those we value such as parents, teachers, coaches, and friends. And, even if negative feedback is given to us by others, if it is consistent and given by a large enough number of people, we begin to take notice of it and it begins to impact our own sense of self. With the use of social media and the Internet, our sense of self identity and formation of self is even more vulnerable, as we subject ourselves to the feedback of potentially millions of viewers all over the world. As a result people participate in impression management, and often change their behaviors as they imitate behaviors modeled by “popular” people in social media, or change their own behaviors, posts, and attire in attempts to receive more “likes” and gain public approval. However, as we change our behaviors to meet the approval of others, more often than not, we move further and further away from our authentic selves in attempts to meet the conditional approval of others. This is very dangerous to one’s identity formation as it results in the pursuit of goals that are more extrinsic in nature and often times incongruent with one’s authentic values and goals.
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