The concept of the "looking glass self" is undoubtedly the most famous aspect of Cooley's work, and became known and accepted by most psychologists and sociologists. It expanded William James's idea of self to include the capacity of reflection on its own behavior. Other people's views build, change, and maintain self-image; thus, there is an interaction between how people see themselves and how others see them.
Cooley's term "looking glass self" means that people see themselves as others see them, as if reflected in a mirror. According to this concept, in order to develop and shape behavior, interactions with others must exist. People gain their identity and form their habits by looking at themselves through the perception of society and other people they interact with. This concept of self, created by others, is unique to human beings. It begins at an early age and continues throughout the entirety of a person's lifespan. A person will never stop modifying their "self" unless they become removed from society and cease social interactions.
According to Cooley, in his work Human Nature and the Social Order (1902), the "looking glass self" involves three steps:
- To begin, people picture their appearance of themselves, traits and personalities.
- They then use the reactions of others to interpret how others visualize them.
- Finally, they develop their own self-concept, based on their interpretations. Their self-concept can be enhanced or diminished by their conclusions.