O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!


From “To a Louse,” by Robert Burns.


Chapter 2: Looking Glass Selves and Attunement


In English, Burn’s Scotch lines read: “Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”  The poem concerns an incident in which the poet saw a woman in church sporting a new hat. Unknown to her, there was a louse visible on the plumes, subjecting her to ridicule.


Are we all like the lady with the louse in her hat, incapable of seeing our selves from outside? Are we all lost in our own movie? Of course everyone has had such moments. I could tell many stories about making a fool of myself in public. So could most of us. Men tell stories about making a speech with their flies open, and women about the time their bikini top slipped down. The poem touches a universal note.


But before going ballistic about how oblivious we are, consider the opposite problem: instantly understanding and conforming to the other’s view of self without even giving it a thought. For example, selecting the right clothing every morning. We all know, or imagine that we know, about how others will see us, and whether they will accept what they see. No make- up, or exactly how much, the cut of our hair, how much cleavage, tight pants? Getting dressed, for most of us, automatically involves how others see us, or our best approximation thereto. Most of us have the giftie, at least much of the time. The gift involves not only imagining, but also observing carefully the signs that indicate whether others approve or not.


Of course, some have more gift then others. Some, who may have too much, we call conformists, or at least, wishy-washy. Those who have too little, we call egotistical   or narcissistic. But most of us, most of the time, can imagine the point of view of others about our self, and weigh it against our own.


The extent to which we see ourselves in the minds of others is a contentious issue in current social science, albeit underground. The dominant view sees humans as isolated individuals. The self and the body are coterminous; each of us has a view of self, which like the body, stays the same in many kinds of different situations. 


Given this assumption, our own separate viewpoint is much more important than the views of others. This point of view is especially central for most psychologists and many sociologists. It is a taken-for-granted assumption that goes untested, even undiscussed.


On the other hand there is another tradition in social psychology that makes the opposite assumption, that self-image depends on how others see us. Charles Cooley’s (1922) idea of the looking glass self (LGS) is an accepted part of modern sociology. He noted the reflexive self-consciousness of our experience, how we continually monitor our self from the point of view of others.  He argued that we mostly see ourselves as others see us, contra Burn’s poem. The self, he proposed, comes out of the mirror of other’s views of self, the social looking glass.


The looking glass self metaphor invokes the kind of social sharing of consciousness central to this book. The idea of self-image arising out of shared consciousness was presaged by literary masters, such as Henry James and Virginia Woolf:


[James and Woolf’s] ‘… basic assumption [was] that the individual’s identity is gained only through participation in a complex field of other individuals’ consciousnesses….” Oats (1974, p. 33)


In the same light, the social psychologist Erving Goffman proposed a view of self exactly opposite to the psychological one:


The self…is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, to mature and die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented… (1959 252-3).


From Goffman’s point of view, the self and the self-image are created anew in the theatre of life. Each individual acts out a role before each audience; the self-image is created in the relationship between self and audience, as in the novels of James and Woolf.


Is the self-image in the body or in the minds of others? It might seem obvious to the impartial reader that both views hold a part of the truth. Our self-image undergoes some change depending on the situation, but there is also something like a stable core. Mathematicians like to get some preliminary understanding of a complex equation by imagining how it performs under extreme circumstances, as for example, at zero and infinity. The sociological model, above, imagines a self-image with zero stability. The psychological model, a self-image that is infinitely stable, no matter the situation.


To complicate matters further, people have varying abilities to empathize with others, as already hinted at above. Some of us get lost in our own unique view of self; others however, seem to get lost in the way others view them. A famous actor once told me that he had no self-image at all, that he was just the part he was playing, or the situation he was in. Perhaps he was exaggerating, but most of us know a person with his tendency.


Without dismissing the psychological model, this book will be concerned more with the looking glass self, and with its implications for relationships. I believe that the stable part of the self-image is no less important than the part that changes with each new situation. So if both models are only partial truth, why do I put so much emphasis on the one, the LGS, the way that we view ourselves through the eyes of others? The main reason is to attempt to counteract the individualistic outlook that is dominant in our culture. This outlook sees only isolated individuals, with stable self-images. Always sticking to this point of view, as most people do, makes it almost impossible to understand how relationships work, and how important that are to us, especially in the long run.


Mind Reading?


There is also a second reason that is much more general than the issue of self-image. It concerns the issue of mind reading. This is a much broader question than that of self-image, and even more important for understanding relationships. To what extent can one know the mind of another person, and how important is this kind of knowing in relationships? The question of the relation of the self-image to other’s image of self is just a small part of the larger question of shared consciousness.


This issue is sometimes called the problem of intersubjectivity. It has been proposed that each person’s subjective world, their consciousness, is partially shared with others. That is, that we are all capable of shared or joint awareness. In this book I will use the term attunement[1]. One of the key characteristics of a functional relationship is that the two persons involved are often attuned, they participate in each other’s point of view. 


How does attunement come about?  The psychologist Bruner (1983) has explaining how an infant learns to have “joint attention” with its caretaker. The mother, he says, is only trying to teach a new word.  She places an object (such as a doll) in her own and the baby’s line of gaze, shakes it to make sure of the baby’s attention, saying “See the pretty DOLLY.” In this situation, the baby is likely to learn not only the meaning of a word, but also, since both parties are looking at the same object, how to have, jointly with the mother, a single focus of thought and attention, that is, to be attuned with the caretaker.


For future reference, note that Bruner indicates that the mother is not intending to teach the lesson of shared awareness. Neither she nor the dad would be likely to notice that effect, and would probably not understand it even if it were explained to them. The idea of attunement goes against the grain in Western societies because it contradicts a sacred tenet, the self-contained independence of the individual. The mom, who thinks of herself as an individual, would also think that she his helping to make her child into another independent and separate individual. The idea of attunement requires a relational view of the two individuals, a view that is alien to Western thought.


Attunement is crucial in the social psychology of G.H. Mead (1936). He called it “taking the role of the other.” Mead’s description of taking the role of the other initially gives the impression that he is referring to role behavior. Indeed, he sometimes uses the phrase in that way: in order to coordinate one’s actions with another, say in dancing a tango, one needs to learn not only one’s own role, but also the role enactment of one’s partner.


But in reading further, it becomes clear that Mead is referring not only to behavior, but also, more frequently, to the perspective and thoughts of others as well. The concept of  “taking the role of the generalized other” clearly means that one takes on the perspective of an imagined person or group of persons, even a fictitious group. Similarly, his definition of a social institution involves each participant knowing not only her own perspective, attitudes, and actions, but also those of the other participants. He gives the example of the institution of private property. To steal a purse effectively, a thief must know the perspectives of the owner, the police, the judge, etc. Mead’s theory of role-taking clearly involves the concept of attunement, the sharing of subjective states by two or more individuals.


Cooley’s idea of social life was also built around attunement. But he carried the implications of the idea one crucial step further than Mead. Cooley argued that intersubjectivity is so much a part of us that we take it completely for granted, to the point of invisibility:


As is the case with other feelings, we do not think much of it [that is, of social self-feeling] so long as it is moderately and regularly gratified. Many people of balanced mind and congenial activity scarcely know that they care what others think of them, and will deny, perhaps with indignation, that such care is an important factor in what they are and do. But this is illusion. If failure or disgrace arrives, if one suddenly finds that the faces of men [sic] show coldness or contempt instead of the kindliness and deference that he is used to, he will perceive from the shock, the fear, the sense of being outcast and helpless, that he was living in the minds of others without knowing it, just as we daily walk the solid ground without thinking how it bears us up (Cooley 1922, 208)


Just as Bruner’s mom was teaching her baby shared awareness without realizing it, so Cooley’s people live “in the minds of others without knowing it.” Mindreading is a skill all human beings develop, but they don’t realize that they have it. Attunement is so built into our biology and culture that it is virtually invisible. It follows that we should expect that not only laypersons but even most social scientists will avoid giving it explicit consideration.


Although human communication is built upon intersubjective accord, it is learned so early in infancy it goes unmarked in most discourse. Occasionally it will be referred to, but only casually and in passing. For example, one might say to a friend, “We both know that….”. The idea occurs more elaborately in the popular song (from the 30’s?) whose lyric was something like:


I know that you know that I know that you know…. [that we’re in love?] (I recall this song from my childhood, but so far have been unable to locate it.)


Language and context


How do I know that you know, etc? One demonstration of ordinary, everyday mind reading occurs in the use of ordinary language. In artificial languages, like algebra, every symbol has a singular, unambiguous meaning. But in human languages, virtually all symbols have more than one meaning, or are quite unclear as to what they refer to.


Pronouns provide one examples. A few, I, me and mine, are clear in their reference. But what about you, she, it and all the others? To what do they refer? They are like blank checks; their reference is determined completely by context. To understand what person or object these pronounces reference, the listener must investigate the context for the actual reference. That is, the interactant must contextualize the meaning of every pronoun.


Finding the meaning of a pronoun in context involves the interactant in a search that may be both external and internal. For example, the sentence "It’s over there" may first require the listener to note the direction of the speak­er's gaze, then look in the same direction, and finally search the environment located in that direction for the reference of the pronoun "there": an external search. If the object cannot be found, the listener may look again at the speaker, noting that she is only staring in that direction. This turn of events may require the listener to make an internal search, remembering earlier seg­ments of the conversation, in attempting to locate "it “ and “there."


Remembering the particular manner in which the phrase "over there" was uttered, and an earlier conversation about overseas travel, the listener may conclude that the speaker was referring to a book they had left behind during their visit to Denmark,  that had been mentioned in the conversation preceding the present one. In order to locate the meaning of the pronoun, the listener was required to search not only the immediate physical and verbal context but also his memory of earlier con­versations, the extended context.


In this hypothetical conversation the meaning of “it” and “there” had to be con­structed by the listener, ad hoc, for this particular moment. Since the example deals with a pronoun, a flagrantly ambiguous word, we are apt to think that the intricate search process described above is the exception, that it is neces­sary only when ambiguous words are used. Recent work in linguistics and computer science, however, suggests that most human expressions are ambiguous and, by implication, require complex search in order to be understood. One sees this most clearly in seeking to translate an unfamiliar language. Using a dictionary is frustrating because all the most frequently used words, especially adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, and verbs, have more than single meanings. Even commonly used nouns may have several meanings. There is a basic ambiguity in language, even if we accept the simplifying myth that the meaning of a word is exactly defined by a dictionary.


Ambiguity of expression is generated not only by multiple linguistic mean­ings. Another even richer source of ambiguity is the manner of expression. The nonverbal components of utterance, the sounds (paralanguage) and the gestures (kinesics or body lan­guage), profoundly modify and enhance the linguistic meaning of expres­sions. In our hypothetical example, the speaker could have signaled that the phrase "over there" was to have a special meaning by using a special intona­tion, "heavy emphasis," a conventional paralinguistic device putting an ex­pression "in quotation marks" (which can also be mimed by stroking the air twice, using two fingers of both hands).


There is a further source of ambiguity. Although we usually think that words and gestures have conventional and therefore fixed meanings, this is not quite the case. Conventional definitions of words serve only as an approximation of meaning in actual usage. Human expression often has an innovative character: conventional meanings may be modified or transformed. New words, gestures, and meanings may be invented on the spur of the mo­ment. There is a creative element in human expression, as manifested in art and poetry, and in mundane settings,  as spontaneously improvised metaphor, wit, and irony.


What has been said to this point can be summarized as follows: ordinary lan­guage, as it occurs in spontaneous conversation, is always ambiguous because most words and gestures each have more than one conventional meaning and because, in varying degrees, meanings are unconventional, improvised at the moment of encounter. For this reason human language functions to conceal meaning at least as much as to reveal.


How does the interactant find his or her way through the labyrinth, the maze of ambiguous expressions? This is the fundamental problem of interpretation, which has been expressed in many guises in intellectual history; the puzzle of hermeneutics, the correct interpretation of an ambiguous text, or the very simi­lar issue that lies at the heart of semiotics, the relationship between the sign and that which it signifies. The construction of theories in science involves a vari­ant of the problem of interpretation as it is construed here: the problem of demonstrating the reference of signs that are necessarily ambiguous.


Perhaps the most extraordinary quality of context dependence is that in some cases what is NOT said figures prominently in the meaning of a message. A hypothetical instance will illustrate the point. A young woman entering a butcher shop says to the butcher: “ A pound of sirloin, please.” Depending on the particular context, this sentence could carry a powerful message because of what is not said. Suppose for example, the woman had been the butcher’s lover, but had disappeared without warning a year earlier. This example suggests that although messages may have a usual meaning, any message can mean almost anything in an unusual context.


Interpretation of ordinary verbal and non-verbal signs requires not only some knowledge of the language involved, and the conventional non-verbal signs used by those who speak that language. Just as important, it requires that the listener “take the role” of the speaker, read her mind, in order to make sure that the message was correctly understood.


Although there are many misunderstandings because of ambiguity, most messages are understood, or perhaps it would be better to say, understood well enough. When a friend shows up at the appointed time for dinner, you know that he understood your invitation. He didn’t think that you were lying or joking. Although accidents occur on highways, the rate is only a tiny percentage of what it would be if drivers didn’t understand each others’ intentions. Banks and loan companies, indeed, entire societies, depend on understanding intentions much more often than misunderstanding them. Societies are possible only to the extent to which their members are capable of reading each others’ minds.


This skill is learned so early in childhood, and is used so constantly that it becomes invisible. Since Western societies place so much emphasis on individuals, it is easily overlooked, both by laypersons and by social science. An example of scholars taking mind reading in humans for granted occurs in a recent treatise (O’Connell 1998). The author reviews a fairly large body of experiments that show that small children, animals such as primates, and autistic persons are very poor at reading the minds of others. But neither O’Connell, nor any of the studies she reviews acknowledge a clear implication of the findings: children, primates and the autistic are poor at mind reading, but normal human adults are good at it. No studies are reported which test the accuracy of normal adult intersubjectivity. Even studies of mind reading seem to take for granted Cooley’s idea that human adults spend much of their life living in the minds of others.


A flagrant instance involves one of the central doctrines in postmodern theory, Derrida’s proposition that the meaning of all texts is fundamentally undecideable. At the most atomic level, this proposition is true, since all commonly used words, in all languages, have more than one meaning. Multiple meanings lead to inescapable ambiguity in the meaning of messages, whether spoken or written.


But the leap to the idea of universal undecideability is erroneous. The meaning of individual words is undecideable only if the context is shorn away. Consensual meanings are arrived at by referring to the context in which words occur, both the local context, and the extended context, as indicated above. To be sure, interpretation in context is a complex process, fraught with the risk of error. For this reason, there is considerable misunderstanding in communication, even when messages or texts are skillfully constructed.


But, by the same token, there is also considerable, if only approximate, consensual understanding. Else the social order would immediately collapse. The idea of undecideability seems to be based on a mechanical model of the communication of meaning, as if it were determined by rote responses to individual words. In particular, undecideabilty ignores the possibility that communication involves at its very core the process of taking the role of the other, of understanding the meaning of messages or texts not only from the receiver’s point of view, but also from the sender’s.


Another example is what is called the Problem of Other Minds in the discipline of philosophy. Like much of social theory, it is built entirely upon abstract reasoning rather than on systematic observation. Given this approach, it is not surprising that the contributors to this field have decided that no one can ever really know the mind of another person. This belief reflects the Western insistence on individualism, that each of us is essentially alone. But it would seem bizarre in Eastern cultures, with their insistence on the group over the individual. In these settings, each mind is thought to be a fragment of one supermind, the Great Cloud of Unknowing. The concept of intersubjectivity offers a middle ground, in that one can evaluate the accuracy of mindreading, without automatically assuming or rejecting the idea.


Attunement and Emotion


One feature of Cooley’s (1922) idea of the looking glass self that has received little attention is that it always implicates emotions. He proposed that self-monitoring through the eyes of others is only the first step in a chain of events:


 "A self‑idea of this sort seems to have three principal elements: the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his [sic] judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self‑feeling, such as pride or mortification (p. l84)."


When we imagine others are seeing us in a positive way, we experience genuine pride. By the same token, when we imagine others are seeing us negatively, we experience shame (“mortification”). This is an idea with great potential for navigating the shallows and deeps of human relationships, and the reefs that wreck them. It will provide the central framework for this book, the link between attunement, emotion, and relationships.


One final question remains: if all adult humans are so skillful in mind reading, how is that many people in close relationships understand so little about each other? The complete looking glass self idea provides a model of successful and unsuccessful relationships: mutual understanding leads to genuine pride, and vice versa. And misunderstanding, or lack of understanding, leads to shame, and visa versa. The more attunement, the more shared pride. And the less attunement, the more shame, especially if the shame is suppressed. The suppression of shame enormously complicates the task of understanding relationships. But before this idea can be explored, it will be necessary to reach an understanding about the meaning of shame. The next chapter explores a conception of shame and pride that will be a help in understanding the rise and fall of relationships.




Bruner, Jerome. 1983. Child’s Talk. New York: Norton.


Stern, Daniel. 1977. The First Relationship. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Cooley, Charles H. 1922. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner’s


Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor.


Mead, George H. 1936. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


O'Connell, Sanjida. 1998.  Mindreading: an investigation into how we learn to love and lie. New York: Doubleday.



Ch2lgs   Aug. 13, 2003     4011 words


[1] Attunement is Stern’s (1977) term for the intersubjectivity he saw developing between infant and caretaker in the first year of life.