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This term refers to those individuals who play an essential part in another’s internalization of social norms and plays a formative role in his or her development of a concept of self. Most commonly associated with American pragmatist, George Herbert Mead’s (1934) work on child socialization, the concept of significant other is an integral part of symbolic interactionism. It continues to play a key role in contemporary studies in social psychology and social cognition.
“Significant other” was coined by psychiatrist Henry Stack Sullivan in Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry (1940) to describe anyone, of whom one has specific knowledge, believed important to one’s well-being. Mead’s theory of child socialization involves three stages: preparatory stage, play stage and game stage. In the play stage, the newly linguistic child moves out of meaningless imitation (preparatory stage) and adopts the roles of certain significant others such as a parent, a sibling or a teacher. In doing so, the child is able to conceive of how they are perceived from the position of this significant other. Embodying this role in play is an indispensable part of the child’s formation of selfhood as they are, as of yet, unable to form an abstract perspective (game stage).
Contemporary research has developed towards a “social-cognitive model of transference”, which outlines how in the mind of an agent a hitherto unknown person can activate, and have applied to them, a mental representation of a significant other.
- Forgas, J. P., Williams, K. P., & Wheeler, L. (2003) The Social Mind: Cognitive and Motivational Aspects of Interpersonal Behaviour. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self, and Society: From the Perspective of a Social Behaviorist. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.