The Looking-Glass Effect

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By: Dr. James McFarland, People Scientist and Jake McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer

The term “Looking-Glass Self” was introduced by Charles H. Cooley in 1902 to describe how our self-identity is impacted by the people around us.1 According to the theory, how we see ourselves is deeply intertwined with our perception of how we think other people view us and our behaviors. Using a “looking glass” as a metaphor refers to the idea that when we look into a mirror and observe our physical appearance and behaviors, we simultaneously become aware that other people can see the same things that we are observing. This in turn leads us to evaluate our appearance, behaviors, and indeed who we are as a person in terms of what or how we think others might be thinking about us.

As a highly social species, humans cannot afford to be seen as foolish or out of place by those we respect and value. Research in psychology routinely shows that our self-esteem (how much value and worth we attribute to ourselves) is directly tied to how much we feel like we belong to a group of our desired peers.2 In fact, some researchers suggest that self-esteem is basically a status-tracking mechanism that allows us to monitor our relational value via our interactions with others.3 Given that we often feel like our every move is being evaluated by the people around us (aka the Spotlight effect),4 the process of perceiving ourselves through the eyes of others can take on a powerful and reality-altering role. 

This “looking-glass” effect can often override our rationality and objectivity. A great example of this would be the rarity of the humble yet effective “granny shot” in the sport of basketball. Research published in the Royal Society Open Science suggests that underarm throws (such as a granny shot) may significantly increase the odds of hitting one’s target, especially if one is highly skilled and practiced in the movements.5 Outside of the lab, this same narrative is backed up by the real-life experiences of NBA stars Rick Barry and Wilt Chamberlain. Both of whom used the underhand throw to significantly improve the percentage of successful free throw attempts taken in their professional careers.6 This includes Chamberlain’s 28 (of 32) successful free throws made during his historic 100-point game in 1962.7

Despite the solid evidence that the granny shot is more accurate and can effectively boost a player’s success at the free throw line, high-level players across the country and the world steadfastly refuse to use the technique. Why? In the words of Wilt Chamberlain in his autobiography describing the experience, “I felt silly.”8 The process of evaluating how we appear to those around us (i.e., the looking-glass effect) can effectively reshape our perception and measure of success by threatening our sense of belonging and identity. 

Now, the looking-glass effect is not just a sports phenomenon, in fact, it may be difficult to find an area of social life that is not subject to its invasive gaze. Consumers for example regularly experience concern or anxiety about what their purchasing habits might say about them.9 Rather than objectively evaluating the real-world impact of their decisions, consumers are typically more worried about the effect their purchases will have on their self-identity. Given that self-identity, self-esteem, and belonging are closely intertwined, this can be simply understood as a fear of looking silly to one’s valued peers and risking losing their favor and one’s membership in their group. Using the framework of the Looking-Glass Self theory, we can better understand where these concerns come from, when they are triggered, and how to better frame our messages to resonate with our desired consumer base.

Broadly speaking, the looking-glass effect has three main elements: first, imagining how we must look to other people, second, imagining their judgment of our appearance, and third, experiencing a self-feeling such as pride (in the case of imagined approval) or embarrassment (in the case of imagined disapproval).10 Essentially, our feelings about ourselves do not result from what others actually think of us, but rather from what we imagine others must think of us. These imagined responses from others are what shape and guide our self-image, and they are what compel us to choose specific brands, products, and services over others even if those competing brands, products, or services are equally comparable (or perhaps even more advantageous) to our rational needs or long-term goals.

Research finds that consumers will report higher preference and satisfaction for brands that are congruent with their self-image over other equally competitive brands, especially when brand choice is used to express consumers’ self-identity and personal lifestyle.11 12 Similar results are even found for mobile phone brands where consumers reported a greater affinity to brands simply because they resonated with the consumer’s own ideal self-image.13

These preferences are not random. Consumers are drawn to brands, products, and services that they believe will result in favorable evaluations from their valued peers. Identifying who these peers are and why they are valued is the first step in creating a congruent relationship between your target demographic’s ideal self-image and your brand’s messaging.

To better understand consumer psychology and to find out more about effectively focusing your messaging, give us a call at 833-579-1905 or email us at [email protected].

[1] Cooley, C. H. Human Nature and the Social Order (Schocken Books, New York 1964).

[2] Cameron, J.J., Granger, S. (2020). Self-Esteem and Belongingness. In: Zeigler-Hill, V., Shackelford, T.K. (eds) Encyclopedia of Personality and Individual Differences. Springer, Cham.

[3] Holden, Christopher & Vrabel, Jennifer & Zeigler-Hill, Virgil. (2016). Self-Esteem as a Status-Tracking Mechanism. 10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_1443-1.

[4] Gilovich, T., Medvec, V. H., & Savitsky, K. (2000). The spotlight effect in social judgment: An egocentric bias in estimates of the salience of one’s own actions and appearance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 211–222.

[5] Venkadesan, M., & Mahadevan, L. (2017). Optimal strategies for throwing accurately. Royal Society open science, 4(4), 170136.




[9] Dunning, David. (2007). Self-Image Motives and Consumer Behavior: How Sacrosanct Self-Beliefs Sway Preferences in the Marketplace. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17. 237-249.

[10] Franks, D.D., & Gecas, V. (1992). Autonomy and Conformity in Cooley’s Self-Theory: The Looking-Glass Self and Beyond. Symbolic Interaction, 15, 49-68.

[11] Jamal, A. and Goode, M.M.H. (2001), “Consumers and brands: a study of the impact of self‐image congruence on brand preference and satisfaction”, Marketing Intelligence & Planning, Vol. 19 No. 7, pp. 482-492.

[12] Munteanu, Claudiu-Cătălin & Andreea, Pagalea. (2014). Brands as a mean of consumer self-expression and desired personal lifestyle. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences. 109. 103–107.

[13] Shujaat, Sobia & Haroon, Shaheera & Tahir, Iram & Khurshid, Asif. (2018). The impact of ideal self-image on brand preference