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May 22, 2019

Charles Horton Cooley and the looking-glass self

February 6, 2017

Charles Horton Cooley and the looking-glass self

Old school: U-M in History

Topic: History

Charles Horton Cooley with his family. (Photo courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library)

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 1887, Charles Horton Cooley earned a master's degree in economics at U-M and started working at the Interstate Commerce Commission. Henry Carter Adams later hired Cooley to be an instructor in U-M's economics department. Cooley eventually moved his sight to studying the "organization of society at large." His ideas came to "undergird much of 20th century sociology." He created the idea of how primary groups — parents, siblings, play groups, elders — are the foremost force in developing a person's character. He is also known for the concept of the "looking-glass self." In this theory, people develop a sense of who they are and what to think of themselves by watching the reactions of the people in their "primary group" as well as those they meet throughout their lives. Cooley thought "we gain a sense of who we are by observing our own actions … but we also pay close attention to what others think of us — or to put it more exactly, what we think others think of us." Because this learning could change through a person's life, Cooley's theory was very different from those of Sigmund Freud, who argued the experiences of the child determined the fortunes of the adult.

— Adapted from "Michigan in the Making," by Francis X. Blouin Jr. and James Tobin. To read more, go to

Tags: Old School