Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 6: Mirrored Nature

Emory S. Bogardus

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SOCIAL nature is partly reflected nature, for every social group is a set of mirrors. Wherever one may turn, he sees himself, or elements of himself, reflected in the minds of other persons. This leads to socially reflected attitudes. Friends, strangers, and enemies constitute different types of social mirrors. Of course the reflection is rarely true; it varies with the points of view of the different human reflectors. A friend is likely to reflect magnified images of one's virtues, and minified images of one's weaknesses. A rival or foe reflects one's traits in exactly the opposite fashion, while a stranger may reflect blurred or distorted images of all one's traits. Every person moves continually among social mirrors ; each reflecting his actions according to its own nature and its relationship of friend, stranger, or enemy to the person concerned.[1]

The attitudes of every person are continually conditioned by the opinions of other persons and especially by the reflections of himself that he thinks he sees in the minds of others. One may be misled, for friends give back a too favorable reflection and make one too satisfied with himself. Enemies or strangers on the other hand often give a person with a sympathetic temperament the false impression that he is a failure and plunge him into despondency. It is necessary therefore that one be on his guard continually against being deluded by the images of himself in the minds of others. At every turn of life, the choices and actions of a person are influenced by the more or less distorted images of himself reflected by his fellows.


The strenuous struggles for medals, honor, positions, are partly due to efforts to improve the social reflections which one receives. To win promotion means among other things to receive the favorable glances of loved ones and friends, and also, unfortunately, the jealous appraisals of competitors. A military officer reports that a grave weakness of the army and navy is the mania for being promoted: Because it raises him

( 66) in the estimation of others the officer seeks promotion above all else; it becomes a main topic of secret conversation and even open discussion. For the same reason the psychological fallacy of militarism develops, namely, preparedness makes for war, i.e., the army officer unconsciously wishes for war because of the opportunities for promotion it brings.

At first many a recruit has cared nothing for his regiment. After a few weeks training he has learned to value the opinions of himself which are held by his comrades. Within a few months he becomes not only willing but anxious to hazard life for his regiment. At first he ignored the reflections of himself that he saw in the eyes of his fellow "rookies," but in a relatively short time he came to value them above everything. A vital explanation of this change in attitudes is in the fact that the soldier has changed groups ; the regiment when he first entered it was composed of strangers. As these strangers changed to acquaintances, many of them to friends, their reflections of him became his supreme concern.

"Watch the change as the column, marching at route step, swings into some small French town where children and an old woman or two observe the passing army," said the officer of a colored regiment in the World War. "Every man swings into step, shoulders are thrown back, and extra distances between ranks close automatically. Some one is watching them." Among these soldiers there was one "who stowed somewhere about him for these occasions a battered silk hat. We let him wear it in small towns ! The inhabitants stared at him and laughed. He was happy and made the whole company happy." In this instance, the colored soldier imagined the social reflections of his actions to be more admiring than they actually were and developed thereby an exaggerated reflected attitude of himself.

College athletes explain that the reflections of themselves in the eyes of the spectator-crowd upon the bleachers is an impelling factor in their achievements. In the hope of election to an honor society pupils are stimulated, not because of the concrete benefits to be derived, but on account of the standing which the coveted honor gives, that is to say, because of the dazzling reflections of one's self which the social mirrors present. This explains the strong objections some educators feel toward prizes, medals, and awards. These become the goal rather than self or social improvement. "Winning" is emphasized and "playing well" is overlooked.

A young man who does not approve of missions attends a church service in order to please a young woman who is interested in missionary enterprises. An offering for missions is to be taken, but the habitual attitude

( 67) of the young man is not to give. Then he thinks of the reflection of his stingy attitude in the mind of the young lady, and straightway he makes one of the largest subscriptions of the evening: he takes great pleasure in the reflection of his liberality which he thinks he beholds in the pleased countenance of the young woman at his side. Two misjudgments had occurred, for the young woman was pleased not so much at her friend's liberality as with the idea that he had come to believe in missionary enterprises and that she had had a part in bringing about a fundamental change in his religious life. Courtship phenomena are largely stimulated by imagined social reflections. A temporary shift of attitude is often assumed to be a basic change of character, and many a young woman flatters herself that she has "reformed" a suitor, whereas he has but sought a favorable social reflection from one who has stirred in him romantic love.

An active church worker says :

It was my social mirror self which manifested itself to me last Sabbath, when I made my yearly pledge to the church. If I had made it by myself and sent it to the church treasurer, I would have lowered it, in view of my present circumstances, but I was called upon by two prominent members of the church and wishing to see a generous self reflected back to me from their eyes, I increased my annual pledge.

In this instance another principle is indicated, namely, that personal solicitation in behalf of any cause is most effective because it appeals strongly to the craving for a favorable social reflection.

A business man boasts of a shrewd transaction to an approving friend. Talking with another friend of stricter principles, he refrains from mentioning the questionable action. In the first instance, he could expect that the reflection of himself would be flattering; in the latter case it would have been unfavorable ; in both cases he was guided by concern for his social mirror personality. Thus, two-facedness may emanate from the desire to receive a pleasing reflection of one's self from more than one source, even from those holding contradictory moral standards.

A politician gives freely to philanthropic enterprises in order to elicit pleasing reflections of himself from his townspeople. Scheming to create favorable reflections of one's self in order to gratify one's ego is bad, but less so than the deliberate establishment of a stock of such reflections for use in securing individual power, position, and advantage over others. Yet both procedures are common, and for their exploitation elaborate psychological techniques have been worked out.

At a meeting which was held for money raising purposes, the chair-

( 68) -man called for subscriptions of five hundred dollars. At that moment a man of means happened to raise his hand to his head. The chairman saw the hand, elatedly called out the name of the man, and the audience cheered. The wealthy individual had planned to contribute one hundred dollars, but rather than shatter the splendid reflection of himself he received from his neighbors and friends he cheerfully paid the larger subscription. Thus, the hope of cutting a fine figure stimulates one to be more generous and social in his attitudes than he would naturally be.

In Rome one does as the Romans do, thereby garnering more approving glances and smiles than would otherwise be the case ; at least, he thus safeguards himself against unfavorable reflections. A wide-awake immigrant in the United States quickly adopts American ways—impelled in part by concern for social reflections of his personality. A public school teacher states:

As a child of five I became acquainted in the kindergarten with a colored boy. Our friendship grew rapidly. I admired the black face, and the small, tight curls. One day my father laughed heartily at me when he saw me with my colored playmate. I felt hurt and thereafter avoided the colored boy through the unpleasant reflection in my father's eyes of my association with the Negro child.

In this way the origin of race prejudice on the part of any person is often found in the unfavorable social reflections of himself that he experiences when he associates with persons of a different race.


The self respect of an individual often depends on maintaining the respect of other people.[2] If he loses the esteem of his friends, he is likely to lose his own self respect. "I would enjoy riding a bicycle," says a middle-aged woman, "but the reflection of myself in the eyes of my friends would be unfavorable and hence I abstain." Personal conduct with reference to the conventions of life is touched up at certain points and held back at other places by one's mirrored nature.

Many a child's self respect goes up or down according to the social reflections of himself. If these are favorable his superiority complex is stimulated; if they are unfavorable, his sense of inferiority and the

(69) mechanism of withdrawal may create the imaginative introspective type of personality. A striking case in point is given by E. W. Burgess.[3]

One day when Mary was eleven years old, she and her two sisters attended a birthday party. When it came time to choose partners for the supper party every girl was provided for except Mary. The hostess said to the odd little boy (the rest were already paired off), "Now, Jimmy, there's Mary, take her." Jimmy sullenly replied, "That homely old pug-nosed thing? I guess not." Mary's dreams were shattered—her little ship had gone on the rocks. She was hurt, terribly wounded. Needless to say, that was the last party she ever attended. Her two sisters laughed at the incident, and made fun of her at home. This aggravated her still more.

Mary made few friends; she felt herself odd, out of the group. She developed a taste for reading, and built about herself a world of her own, in which she and the "nice" characters in the books lived in an atmosphere of rosy pleasantness. She would have little to do with her family—they received none of her confidences—and she made no friends. This sensitive little girl withdrew into a world of her own making and there found the happiness which she longed for.

"It takes all my income," said a certain congressman, "to keep up with my fool neighbors."[4] We spend a great deal of money, not for things that we actually need, but to keep up "appearances" and hence to guarantee favorable "reflections" of ourselves. Fashion racing [5] cannot be explained without reference to the influence of social reflections and the highly competitive relations that exist between them.

A housewife who could not afford to use ice secured an ice-card and put it in the window, but always after the ice wagon had passed her house. She wanted her neighbors to think that she bought ice. In this way the world of pretense and sham has been built up—chargeable largely to the craving to cut a fine figure in the minds of neighbors.

For a similar reason a child in school often will study not to learn but in order to recite well. The sudden interest of the growing adolescent in the cleanliness of his neck and ears is a sure sign that he is solicitous about his image in the eyes of some girl. His mood changes from dejection to hilarity as the reflection of himself in her eyes changes from unworthy to worthy; thus social reflection controls of this type are often more effective than parental controls in the discipline of youth. A young man relates :

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At the age of ten I found myself considered the black sheep of the family. Because of this reputation, other boys envied me. Even my elders sometimes made complimentary remarks about my startling conduct. On more than one occasion I overheard my parents describe my pranks to their friends, and then I would hear them all laugh loudly, and I would swell with pride. Many references were made to my actions in a more or less approving way. From these experiences I gained favorable impressions as, "Oh! isn't he a clever rascal !" Consequently, I began deliberately to act the part of a black sheep ; and some of the things which I did would not read well here. I was saved from going to the dogs because our family (a minister's family) moved to another town where my friends—especially one girl friend—did not consider that the black sheep should be envied. The reflection of my daredevil actions no longer had a halo around it, and I changed my attitude.

The rôle that the social reflections which a child receives directly and indirectly from his elders in determining his moral standards is little suspected by these elders, especially from the standpoint of the reflections generated by indirect suggestion. A student reports :

When I was to give an illustration of my social mirror self, I chose the best example of which I could think. When I was trying to decide whether or not to use this particular illustration, it occurred to me that the only reason I was unwilling to use it was because of the unfavorable reflection of myself which it would produce in the mind of my instructor.

Hence in the very process of choosing an illustration, the social mirror self has interfered. In a similar way, anticipated social reflections exert the determining influence in the hundred and one decisions of everyday life. In purchasing a pair of shoes, for example, who has not found himself choosing a tight pair of shoes in preference to a comfortable pair, for the sake of the "looks" and what is the "looks" except a composite of anticipated social reflections of one's self ?

The development of character clearly depends upon the nature of one's social mirrors, or associates. Children and adolescents who are active-minded and of sensitive temperament are slaves to the reflections of their acts which they see in the human mirrors among which they move. The psychological process is primarily this : The favorable reflection of either a good act or a bad act is a stimulus to repeat this act, and this repetition leads directly to habit formation—the psychological essence of character.

A person continually experiences a conflict of socially reflected selves; out of such conflicts are produced the phenomena of conscience. Since he cares more for the reflections of his acts which he receives from friends than from strangers or enemies, and from his closest friends than from casual ones, he shows as a rule the best phases of his nature to his friends,

( 71) particularly his dearest friends, and his worst nature to his enemies, and is likely to be careless about the impressions which he makes upon strangers.

As a rule a person is affected most by the reflections of himself which come from those who are like-minded. It was this point which Hume doubtless had in mind when he said: "The praises of others never give us as much pleasure unless they concur with our own opinion. . . . A mere soldier little values the character of eloquence . . . Or a merchant, of learning." The explanation of this statement is found in the fact that the soldiers have superiors who belittle eloquence, and the merchant looks up to "captains of industry," who condemn the academic. The first finds himself reprimanded for much speaking, and the latter discovers that he is held in derision for much theorizing.

Flattery illustrates the socially reflective process in one of its most aggressive forms. Posing is a leading unfortunate method of courting the god of social approval. Bashfulness and reticence are often indicative of a false degree of sensitiveness to the disapproval of others, and discloses an abnormal and almost pathological set of attitudes. Vanity is a product of a continual and habitual over-estimation of the favorable character of the social reflections of one's activities. The "vain cannot take his merits for granted," but pines away if he does not hear himself praised with some degree of regularity.[6] It is a false estimate of the social reflections which they receive that causes some persons to "rear useless monuments to themselves." Our daily choices, unimportant and great, are affected by social reflections or anticipated reflections. Life aims, whether missionary or mercenary, fall into the same category. In one case the hope is that of pleasing God, and the other that of securing approval of the socially powerful.

Penology has often used the principle of the socially reflected self. The use of the scarlet letter was intended to give the guilty party a continuously unfavorable reflection of himself wherever he went. The stocks and pillory were in part to serve similar purposes. A warden in offering to give a prisoner ordinary clothing in place of the regular stripes because of good conduct is seeking to use the appeal to social approval.

Mirrored attitudes vary with the sexes. "Girls live so much in their imagination of how they appeal to others ;" [7] and boys only to a small degree except when under the influence of the mating impulses. The fact

( 72) that women are more susceptible to social images than are men is due partly to woman's more sympathetic nature, to the experiences of mother-hood, and to the fact that she has had a more limited sphere of activities and hence has had to fall back upon small social groups for stimulation.

From the foregoing discissions it will be seen that socially reflected attitudes have several basic factors. First, there is the postulated social group, that is, two or more persons in communication. Second, there is either an imagined or real or anticipated reflection of one's action as gathered from the reactions or anticipated reactions of one or several persons.[8] Third, this reflection is evaluated in terms of the individual's store of habitual reactions toward life, or of his character. Fourth, the evaluation leads to a sense of pride, shame, or indifference. The all-powerful influence of social reflections is due to the basic social nature of all persons, to the fact that they are so largely group made, and to the social environments in which they are born and matured.


Groups also have their socially reflective attitudes ; the reactions of groups to many extra-group stimuli, are due to the reflections or possible reflections from the members of other groups. In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that, "a decent respect to the opinion of mankind" required that our forefathers should make a statement of the causes which impelled them to revolt. At the beginning of the World War each large nation hastened to give its reasons for declaring war and tried to justify itself in the eyes of the world. In 1914, all the leading nations explained their part in the war on defensive grounds.

In 1922, the motion picture industry employed Will Hays to create a new procedure whereby the industry might get a more favorable reflection of itself from the public. Political parties, through their leaders, are repeatedly playing for favorable impressions. Colleges and universities are sensitive to the "reflections" of possible generous patrons.

The appearance of socially reflected attitudes explains partially the influence of the gang upon the boy, of the fraternity upon the student, of the afternoon bridge party upon the débutante, of the labor union upon the industrial recruit, of the board of directors upon the foreman or the clerk, of any occupational group upon its members. To an amazing degree social reflected attitudes determine behavior, both of the individual and the group.

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1. The behavior of an individual is continually being reflected to him from the mental reactions of persons whom he contacts.

2. Behavior is often reflected too favorably or too unfavorably.

3. Human choices are greatly influenced by anticipated social reflections.

4. When a person changes groups, the types of social reflections are apt to be different, and the person's standards will be shifted.

5 Personal solicitation is superior to the impersonal types, for the social reflections that one receives are more powerful.

6. To schemingly create favorable reflections of one's self corrupts character.

7. Anticipated favorable reflections stimulate one to more generous responses than would otherwise be the case.

8. Pretense and sham are often inspired by the desire for favorable social reflections.

9. Members of primary groups are more powerful reflectors than members of intermediate and general groups.

10. Mirrored reflections largely determine moral standards, particularly of children.

11.The development of character depends upon the nature of the social mirrors that surround the individual.

12. Favorable reflections lead to repetition of a given response and hence to habituation.

13. Favorable or unfavorable reflections cause pride or shame respectively.

14. Groups seek the favorable reflections of other groups, especially of those groups whose judgments are rated high.


1. Explain : "Every group is a set of mirrors."

2. Distinguish between the reflection of one's self in the eyes of a friend, and of an enemy.

3. Why is a personal appeal for a subscription to a worthy cause more effective than an appeal by letter?

4. How is race prejudice due to socially reflected attitudes?

5. How far is fashion racing related to socially reflected attitudes?

6. How far does the growth of character depend on socially reflected attitudes?

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7. Why are social reflections unscientific guides?

8. Illustrate : Groups possess socially reflective attitudes.


1. Give an illustration of socially reflected behavior.

2. What causes a little boy to become ashamed of wearing curls?

3. Why does the average boy dislike dishwashing?

4. What is the chief cause of bashfulness?

5. Who are more sensitive to social reflections, men or women?

6. In what different ways do social reflections affect a pupil's recitations in his classes?

7. Is gregariousness or social reflection the greater factor in arousing the desire of a college girl "to make a sorority?"

8. Are the wealthy or the poor more sensitive to social reflections of their behavior?

9. Would you have achieved much if no one had ever expected anything of you?


Bohannon, E. W., "The Only Child," Pedagogical Seminary, V : 475-96.

Burnham, W. H., "The Group as a Stimulus to Mental Activity," Science, XXXI : 761-67.

Cooley, C. H., Human Nature and the Social Order (Scribners, 1922), Chs. V, VI.

Leopold, L., Prestige (London, 1913).

Ross, E. A., Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), pp. 114-120.

Veblen, T., The Theory of the Leisure Class (Macmillan, 1912), Chs. II-IV.

Williams, J. M., Principles of Social Psychology (Knopf, 1922), Ch. II.


  1. The earliest extended analysis of socially reflective attitudes was made by C. H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (Scribners, 1902), pp. 152, 164 ff.
  2. E. A. Ross holds that self-consciousness is our consciousness of others; of others, however, as noticing and appraising one'sself. Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), p. 114.
  3. "The Study of the Delinquent as a Person," Amer. Jour. of Sociology, XXVIII: 668.
  4. T. N. Carver, Principles of National Economy (Ginn, 1921), p. 70.
  5. See the chapter on "Fashion Imitation" for explanation of this process.
  6. E. A. Ross points out that vanity is preoccupation with one's reflected self on the part of the light-draft minds (Principles of Sociology, p. 116).
  7. Ross, ibid., p. 119.
  8. C. H. Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, p. 152.

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