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The Digital Looking-Glass Self

Seeing ourselves as how we think others see us may be a dangerous thing to do.

Key points

  • Obsessing about how others view us on social media may not only preoccupy our time but also lead to self-distortions.
  • Disclosures via social media and the inherent nature of some viewers may stimulate commentary and reactions that may not be expected.
  • Cyber communication may have many benefits, but it can also be psychologically harmful to vulnerable individuals.

Well over a century ago, in his seminal work, sociologist Charles Horton Cooley coined the term “looking-glass self.” He theorized that other people act as a mirror of sorts to reflect our social identity. Cooley noted that we make judgments about our ideas of others’ perception of us, and this, in turn, leads to positive or negative feelings. Therefore, he characterized the looking-glass self not as a reflection of how others saw us but of how we imagined others saw us. Psychologists have described the looking glass as a process of reflective self-appraisal. That is, one’s self-concept is highly influenced by how we perceive what other people think about us.

Is perception reality?

Notably, Cooley’s observations were from the early 20th century within a social milieu that was in-person through much of the century. That is, reflective appraisals, or our looking-glass selves, were based largely on face-to-face interactions with known others within familial, social, or professional circles. Although in-person interactions have not been replaced by virtual communication, the dominance of social media networking sites and other electronic means of interaction arguably influences our sense of self.

In the latter part of the 20th century and now two-plus decades into the 21st century, we interact with others in a very different manner in a digital world. Much of reflective self-appraisal and our ultimate interpretation of our imagined sense of others’ opinions of us rests on the type of information we provide to others to form impressions. The question that remains now, perhaps even more so now than it did in Cooley’s time, is whether perception is reality or whether it is a distorted reality fueled by a “digital” looking glass.

Alex Green/Pexels
Source: Alex Green/Pexels

The digital looking glass

This digital looking glass is a very different animal than the Cooley social mirror that was anchored in interactions with others in real-world, in-person settings. Social media offers instantaneous feedback (“likes/dislikes”) and commentary, often by strangers. It shows the number of friends, or how many blog followers or followers on other venues, one has. Social networking sites such as Facebook (now called Meta) have the positive benefit of electronically remaining connected with others through updates about our lives, such as posting pictures of oneself, vacations, and so forth. However, there are psychological downsides.

Cyberpsychology is a newly emerging area that examines the influence of technology on behavior. Though still in its nascency, a body of literature has focused on the impact of online social networking and whether there are harmful effects on mental health. Depression, anxiety, and changes in self-esteem, as well as the obsession with digital communications, have been studied.

Social media posts have the potential to inflate or deflate self-esteem, aggravate anxiety for an introverted person, and augment erroneous perceptions based on limited interpersonal cues. Others’ perceptions of us may be skewed by judgments based on “sound bites” or incomplete information. Some people are skilled at impression management and convey an inflated picture of competence, such as living an exciting life, whereas others may be too disclosing of their weaknesses, perhaps as a means to reach out and connect when feeling lonely. Or some people simply may not realize the negative reaction others may have to their reported information. Social media may enhance the disclosure of personal information and may be driven by a need to gain acceptance or attention.

Risk of distorted reflections

Social media can aggravate or serve to disconnect us from who we are as well as make us vulnerable to distorted reflections. Distorted reflections can impact those with high self-esteem and low self-esteem. High self-esteem may lead to or aggravate the risk of psychological blind spots through reinforcing narcissism: e.g., that the reflection of “like,” “thumbs up,” or flattering posts on social media by anonymous others is the same as the respect earned in real-world interactions with others.

Those given to over-optimism and self-aggrandizement may be particularly vulnerable to ignoring constructive criticism. Low self-esteem may color what we believe others think of us through a constant bombardment of reactions to us and negative comparisons of ourselves to others or a tendency to accept more friend requests from unknown online individuals. Those who are temperamentally given to pessimism may misinterpret or negatively personalize social commentary.

Some studies have found that increased use of social media is correlated with decreases in self-esteem, theorized as being driven by social comparisons with those they do not know offline: for example, body image distortions fueled by unrealistic thinness, that others have more friends, or are financially successful while they are struggling. Such comparisons can foster feelings of inadequacy, jealousy, and reductions in self-esteem.

Cyberpsychology continues to debate the impact—negative or positive—of online social networking and digital communications on our sense of self and mental health. Certainly, the pathways are complex; negative outcomes due to social networking may be a function of preexisting vulnerabilities to anxiety or depression.

Nonetheless, it is not a stretch to conclude that the sheer volume of material that one can post, the ease of access to see what others think of our communications, and the fact that we can do so multiple times in an hour only serve to ramp up a preoccupation with what others think of us. An obsessive self-evaluation and social comparison are the consequence of an ever-present digital looking glass.

Seeing ourselves as how we think others see us may be a dangerous thing to do as it is vulnerable to our misattribution and misinterpretation of others’ views of us. Perhaps this risk is greater now in the digital age. If we assume that perception is reality, but the reality is now more malleable through social media manipulation, the reflective credibility of the looking glass is challenged and risks a distorted view of one’s self. We should keep this in mind.

References

Chen, W. & Lee, K. (2013). Sharing, liking, commenting, and distressed? The pathway between Facebook interaction and psychological distress. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 16(10), 728-734. DOI:10.1089/cyber.2012.0272

Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human nature and the social order: The Interplay of man’s behaviors, character, and personal traits in his society. Adansonia Press, 2018; adapted from 1922 revised edition.

Howard, M. C. & Jayne, B. S. (2015). An analysis of more than 1,400 articles, 900 scales, and 17 years of research: the state of scales in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 18(3), 181-187. DOI:10.1089/cyber.2014.0418

Pantic, I. (2014). Online social networking and mental health. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 17(10), 652-657. DOI: 10.1089/cyber.2014.0070

Vogel, E. A., Rose, J. P., Roberts, L. R., & Eckles, K. (2014). Social comparison, social media, and self-esteem. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 3(4), 206–222. doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000047

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