Generalized Other (Psychology Definition + Example)

“If you’re on this page, it’s probably because you’re doing some research about something called a Generalized Other in psychology. Have no fear, because we will be covering everything you need to know about it!

diverse group of people

What Is Mead’s Generalized Other? 

George Herbert Mead was a philosopher and sociologist who helped create the idea of symbolic interactionism and “The Generalized Other.” The Generalized Other is an individual’s understanding of a society’s expectations. You may create a Generalized Other to understand how people who belong to certain groups may behave.

The Generalized Other may be applied to small or large societies. Your understanding of the “rules and expectations” within your family, for example, is one example of a Generalized Other. This may differ from the rules and expectations within your neighborhood, or people who are the same age as you. Societies are formed through similar interests, locations, characteristics, or other properties that tie them together. An individual may take on the perspective of any amount of Generalized Others depending on what society they want to occupy and what situations they find themselves in.

Generalized Other and Symbolic Interactionism

While looking for the definition of both terms, you may be able to find answers through a (seemingly) unlikely source – Reddit! 

u/jamesac1 explained symbolic interactionism (as it relates to the Generalized Other) really well!

“Now, to tie this into symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism looks at how we construct meaning and interpret symbols at a personal level (i.e. our own constructions, not society’s). Through our continuous interaction with others, we construct an idea of what society expects of us. Society and the expectations it has for us constitute the generalized other.”

Development of Generalized Other 

This concept is crucial to our development. Children are not born with this concept and the Generalized Other does not occupy much of a child’s mind. That’s why a child may find themselves breaking many rules at home, in the grocery store, at a church, etc. But as the child develops, the Generalized Other becomes a more important figure. 

Mead emphasizes the importance of play and games in childhood. Mead believed that these processes were crucial to forming a Generalized Other. At first, children simply imitate their parents or other adults. But they aren’t able to improvise or form responses based on the adult’s role. As they develop, they begin “role-taking.” With role-taking, the child has developed language and understanding to a point that they can “play” the adult and guess what their responses to situations might be.

For example, a child may take on the role of a knight in shining armor, hoping to save a damsel in distress. As they play, they take on the role of the knight and understand the expectations placed on him. These expectations may include his strength, willingness to fight for a noble cause, or love for the damsel. Why? Because that’s what society believes a knight should be. Without this context taken from society’s expectations for a knight, it would be hard for the child to create a dialogue that fits the knight’s persona. 

For this reason, “play” and “game” are crucial to development. Once a child reached a point where they could form and understand a Generalized Other, Mead believed, they had reached the final stage in their development process. 

Generalized Other and Sense of Self

The Generalized Other also helps children develop a sense of self. Let’s say the “Generalized Other” is a baseball team. The baseball team has a common goal, values, and expectations for each of the members. As a member of that baseball team, the individual begins to understand how they relate and how their values and goals compare to those of the baseball team. 

baseball team

Example of the Generalized Other

Let’s say that you are invited to your best friend’s birthday party. All of your buddies are going to be there. You probably don’t think twice about how you are going to behave at the party, although you might have some expectations, right? You know if it’s cool to bring beer or if you can expect things to get rowdy. 

Now let’s say you are invited to a party at a country club. The rules and expectations may be quite different from those at your buddy’s birthday party. If you’re unfamiliar with the rules and etiquette at a country club, you might have to ask some questions or draw from your knowledge of how to behave in this type of environment. 

golfers

Through interactions with others, an individual may create the “world” of the country club. This world influences how the individual behaves while interacting in that specific world. 

We undergo this process whenever we anticipate being in a space or interacting with a community. The “rules” among your group of friends may vary from the “rules” that your parents’ group of friends have. The expectations you might have while walking down the street in New York may be very different from the expectations you might have while taking a stroll through a small town in Mississippi. 

We typically form these expectations without thinking. This process has been explained and named by various psychologists throughout modern history. Arguably the most accepted is George Herbert Mead’s explanation of the Generalized Other. 

Generalized Other vs. Superego vs. Impartial Spectator

Concepts similar to the generalized other may be found in various theories throughout psychology. For example, Sigmund Freud’s “superego” internalizes the rules and expectations taught by society and aims to fit into these rules perfectly. 

Adam Smith, considered the father of capitalism, wrote about an “Impartial Spectator” that influences our judgement of our behavior. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he outlines when the impartial spectator may or may not empathize with one’s behavior, and when it will be judged. Smith’s idea of the Impartial Spectator was inspired by the writings of even older philosophers from Ancient Greece. 

Last but not least, the formation of the Generalized Other is often compared to the loss of a child’s egocentrism. Egocentrism was popularized by child psychologist Jean Piaget. It is a stage in which children believe that they are one in the same with everyone around them. As the child develops, they see that is not true. This affects a child’s language development and the formation of morals and values. Ultimately, egocentrism fades away as the child realizes that their worldview is not shared by others. 

No matter what this process is called or who wrote about it, one idea remains the same: the way that we view other people influences the way that we view ourselves.

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.