MCAT Content / Formation Of Identity / Influence Of Social Factors On Identity Formation

Influence of Social Factors on Identity Formation

Topic: Formation Of Identity

Interactions with individuals as well as socialization into broader cultural groups can affect the development of identity.

One of the pioneering contributors to sociological perspectives was Charles Cooley (1864–1929). He asserted that people’s self-understanding is constructed, in part, by their perception of how others view them—a process termed “the looking glass self” (Cooley 1902).

The looking-glass self states people see themselves based on how they believe others perceive them during social interactions.

There are three main components of the looking-glass self:

  • First, we imagine how we must appear to others.
  • Second, we imagine the judgment of that appearance.
  • Finally, we develop our self through the judgments of others.

In hypothesizing the framework for the looking glass self, Cooley said, “the mind is mental” because “the human mind is social. ” In other words, the mind’s mental ability is a direct result of human social interaction.

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) studied the self, a person’s distinct identity that is developed through social interaction. In order to engage in this process of “self,” an individual has to be able to view him or herself through the eyes of others. That’s not an ability that we are born with (Mead 1934). Through socialization we learn to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and look at the world through their perspective. This assists us in becoming self-aware, as we look at ourselves from the perspective of the “other.”

How do we go from being newborns to being humans with “selves?” Mead believed that there is a specific path of development that all people go through. During the preparatory stage, children are only capable of imitation: they have no ability to imagine how others see things. They copy the actions of people with whom they regularly interact, such as their mothers and fathers. This is followed by the play stage, during which children begin to take on the role that one other person might have, or role taking. Thus, children might try on a parent’s point of view by acting out “grownup” behavior, like playing “dress up” and acting out the “mom” role, or talking on a toy telephone the way they see their father do.

During the game stage, children learn to consider several roles at the same time and how those roles interact with each other. They learn to understand interactions involving different people with a variety of purposes. For example, a child at this stage is likely to be aware of the different responsibilities of people in a restaurant who together make for a smooth dining experience (someone seats you, another takes your order, someone else cooks the food, while yet another clears away dirty dishes).

Finally, children develop, understand, and learn the idea of the generalized other, the common behavioral expectations of general society. By this stage of development, an individual is able to imagine how he or she is viewed by one or many others—and thus, from a sociological perspective, to have a “self” (Mead 1934; Mead 1964).

Social comparison theory is centered on the belief that there is a drive within individuals to gain accurate self-evaluations. Individuals evaluate their own opinions and define the self by comparing themselves to others. One important concept in this theory is the reference group. A reference group refers to a group to which an individual or another group is compared. Sociologists call any group that individuals use as a standard for evaluating themselves and their own behavior a reference group.

Reference groups are used in order to evaluate and determine the nature of a given individual or other group’s characteristics and sociological attributes. It is the group to which the individual relates or aspires to relate himself or herself psychologically. Reference groups become the individual’s frame of reference and source for ordering his or her experiences, perceptions, cognition, and ideas of self. It is important for determining a person’s self-identity, attitudes, and social ties. These groups become the basis of reference in making comparisons or contrasts and in evaluating one’s appearance and performance.

Robert K. Merton hypothesized that individuals compare themselves with reference groups of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires. Reference groups act as a frame of reference to which people always refer to evaluate their achievements, their role performance, aspirations and ambitions. A reference group can either be from a membership group or non-membership group.


Practice Questions


Khan Academy

MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Online Flashcards Sociology Question 3

Online Flashcards Sociology Question 9

Official Guide P/S Section Passage 1 Question 6

Section Bank P/S Section Question 49

Section Bank P/S Section Question 98

Sample Test P/S Section Question 29

Practice Exam 1 P/S Section Question 46

Practice Exam 4 P/S Section Passage 5 Question 23


Key Points

• The looking-glass self is a social psychological concept stating that a person’s self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others.

• There are three components of the looking-glass self: We imagine how we appear to others, we imagine the judgment of that appearance, and we develop our self ( identity ) through the judgments of others.

• George Herbert Mead described self as “taking the role of the other,” the premise for which the self is actualized. Through interaction with others, we begin to develop an identity about who we are, as well as empathy for others.

• George Herbert Mead was an American philosopher, sociologist, and psychologist and one of several distinguished pragmatists.

• The two most important roots of Mead’s work are the philosophy

• George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) studied the self, a person’s distinct identity that is developed through social interaction. In order to engage in this process of “self,” an individual has to be able to view him or herself through the eyes of others.

• Mead believed that there is a specific path of development that all people go through. During the preparatory stage, children are only capable of imitation: they have no ability to imagine how others see things. They copy the actions of people with whom they regularly interact, such as their mothers and fathers. This is followed by the play stage, during which children begin to take on the role that one other person might have, or role-taking.

• Social comparison theory argues that individuals use comparisons with others to gain accurate self-evaluations and learn how to define the self. A reference group is a concept referring to a group to which an individual or another group is compared.

• Reference groups provide the benchmarks and contrast needed for comparison and evaluation of group and personal characteristics.

• Robert K. Merton hypothesized that individuals compare themselves with reference groups of people who occupy the social role to which the individual aspires.


Key Terms

George Herbert Mead: (1863–1931) An American philosopher, sociologist, and psychologist, primarily affiliated with the University of Chicago, where he was one of several distinguished pragmatists

looking-glass self: The looking-glass self is a social psychological concept, created by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902, stating that a person’s self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others

Charles Cooley: Charles Cooley (August 17, 1864-May 8, 1929) was an American sociologist and the son of Thomas M. Cooley. He studied and went on to teach economics and sociology at the University of Michigan, and he was a founding member and the eighth president of the American Sociological Association

imitation: an advanced behavior whereby an individual observes and replicates another’s behavior. Imitation is also a form of social learning that leads to the “development of traditions, and ultimately our culture

role-taking: role-taking occurs where an individual looks at their own role performance from the perspective of another person; it involves understanding the cognitive and affective aspects of another person’s point of view

self-identity: a multi-dimensional construct that refers to an individual’s perception of “self” in relation to any number of characteristics, such as academics and non-academics, gender roles and sexuality, racial identity, and many others

social role: it is a set of connected behaviors, rights, and obligations as conceptualized by actors in a social situation

reference group: it is a concept referring to a group to which an individual or another group is compared



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