Reflected Appraisal and Social Comparison

The opinions of others are so vital to us that it affects how we see ourselves. One of the ways this happens is through reflected appraisal.

Imagine walking into a bar filled with strangers and sitting next to someone. You say hello and strike up a conversation. You begin to talk about your favorite topic – yourself. After a few minutes, you pause and ask the person sitting next to you what they think of you. How likely are they to say something like ‘you’re nice’ or ‘I like you’?

Probably not very likely. They don’t know you well enough to judge if you’re a nice person or not. Instead, they probably look around the bar and give you an answer that reflects their opinion of people in general. If they like most people, they’ll probably tell you they want you. They might say they don’t like you if they don’t like most people.

This is reflected appraisal – the idea that we value the judgments others make about us because those same judgments are also being made about them. Social psychologists have been interested in the appraisal process for quite a while. Reflected appraisal, or social mirroring, is the self-validation that one perceives when others see or interact with them in a certain way. The term was coined by Harry Stack Sullivan and further described by Charles H. Cooley in 1902.

In this post, I will expand upon these concepts and explain what reflected appraisal in social psychology is and how it affects us.

What Is Reflected Appraisal?

A reflected appraisal is a process in which we develop our self-concept by observing how others treat us. We also learn about ourselves from the feedback we get from others. For example, a young person might be told by his parents that he is good at sports. As a result, the young person develops an athletic self-concept.

Reflected appraisal causes us to develop our self-concept based on other people’s opinions and evaluations. The reflected appraisal process can be positive or negative, depending on the nature of our feedback from other people. People are most likely to accept a reflected appraisal from someone they have a close relationship with. The closer our relationship with someone is, the more likely we will get what they say about us as accurate and true.

This concept was developed through reflection and appraisal, which refers to a social comparison between an individual and another group of people. Similar to this concept, a reflected appraisal can be defined as the process of reflecting on our self-worth and social belonging by comparing ourselves to other people. 

Any aspect of yourself can be affected by reflected appraisal. For example, if you tend to be socially awkward, you might perceive that other people think you’re weird or different. It is likely to become part of your self-concept if this happens enough throughout your life: you might believe that you are strange or unlikeable.

Charles Horton Cooley first introduced the idea of reflected appraisal in 1902 to explain how our self-image develops. He also coined the term “looking-glass self.” Cooley argued that people imagine how others see them and form their own identities based on those beliefs.

For example, you may see yourself as a hard worker who goes above and beyond for your boss or manager at work. However, if you find out later that your boss doesn’t think you’re particularly hard-working or generous with your time, this can affect your self-image. You may start to question whether you do go above and beyond at work or if you’re fooling yourself into thinking that you’re a better worker than you.

How Does Reflected Appraisal Affect Us?

Reflected appraisals profoundly influence our self-concept, often without our knowledge or consent. For example, when others laugh at our jokes, we take it as a sign that we are funny. Their laughter reflects on us and influences how we see ourselves; we feel flattered, reinforcing the idea that we are humorous. When others fail to laugh at our jokes, we may take it as an indication that we are not funny and may even feel embarrassed.

In addition to influencing our self-perceptions, reflected appraisals also shape our behavior. If we believe others do not think highly of us, we may change our behavior to change their opinions. This can be especially important if these people control our lives or well-being — for example, parents, teachers, doctors, and employers.

It can be a positive or negative experience. A positive appraisal can boost self-esteem and confidence, while a negative appraisal can have the opposite effect.

For example, imagine a child who everyone in her family consistently tells that she is beautiful. She will likely come to see herself as attractive based on the reflected appraisals of her family members. If instead, she was teased and told that she was ugly, she would probably begin to see herself as ugly based on the reflected appraisals of her family members.

Final Thoughts

Though the effects of your reflected appraisals are much more powerful, the impact of positive and negative appraisals from others in your relationships, whether platonic or romantic, can sometimes be equally as powerful.

It involves a few elements that must all coincide for this to happen, such as; how you believe the other person feels about you (positively or negatively), the intentions behind those feelings, and how much you value their opinion. We can maximize the effectiveness of our relationships and form stronger bonds with others is to be mindful of our behavior regarding reflected appraisals.


  • Leary, M. R., & Tangney, J. P. (2012). Reflected appraisal through a 21st-century looking glass. In Handbook of Self and Identity (pp. 124–140). essay, Guilford Press.
  • Felson, R. B. (1985). Reflected Appraisal and the Development of Self. Social Psychology Quarterly, 48(1), 71–78.

Hi, I am Happy. I'm a professional writer and psychology enthusiast. I love to read and write about human behaviors, the mind, mental health-related topics, and more.