Kat Thomson

The New MCAT and Agents of Socialization

MCAT And Agents of Socialization

How might the concepts “socialization” and “agents of socialization” appear on the MCAT? Aside from a textbook definition, what should you know about these terms, especially in relation to other theories? Since the new MCAT was launched in 2015, students have been asking a lot of content-related questions about biochemistry and the behavioral sciences. Here, I’ll share an overview of socialization and how it links to other terms you should memorize as you prep for the psychology and sociology section of the MCAT.

How the MCAT tests Socialization

I always like to draw students’ attention to the AAMC’s MCAT foundational concepts because it’s a great way to ground yourself in the material while making sure you don’t get sidetracked by extraneous information. You’ll see that 7B, 7C, and 8A list several of the terms I’m about to cover. We’ll be looking at socialization in relation to some other hot-item MCAT terms: mirror neurons, looking-glass self, reference groups, primary and secondary groups, and outgroups.

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What is Socialization?

Socialization can be thought of as the lifelong process through which a person becomes an active participant in their culture, defined by language, customs, and values. The process is intricately tied to the development of self-identity. A baby of 12 months can be conditioned into habits that look like socialized behaviors, such as putting a napkin on their lap before eating (not typical infant behavior, but it wouldn’t be a hard habit to condition with enough positive reinforcement). However, “true” socialization requires conscious identification with others, which emerges around 18-24 months. And yet, that conscious identification with others won’t happen in the absence of socialization. Therefore, socialization and identity formation are circular, incremental processes that shape one another and evolve across the lifecourse.

What are Agents of Socialization?

Agents of socialization are social entities that impart values, beliefs, and social norms. You should definitely memorize the four Agents of Socialization, which is easy: family, school, peers, and media. I think of agents of socialization as “houses” or “domains” for groups of people that children identify with and emulate. Don’t forget, though, that socialization is a lifelong process. For this reason, some sociologists list “workplace” as an agent of socialization, sometimes alongside or instead of “school”.

This ongoing process of knowing ourselves and our culture through our identification with others has long been observed in biology. For years, we’ve known that humans begin imitating others in infancy without conscious awareness. And by the 1990s, scientists began identifying “mirror neurons” in the brains of various primates, which inspired hundreds of articles, discussions, and subsequent research. Primates and some other animals have certain neurons that fire both when performing an action and when watching another animal of the same species perform that action. MRI research shows that most of these mirror neurons are located in the inferior frontal lobe and superior parietal lobe in humans. Encouragingly, we now have physiological explanations for this hardwired ability to identify with others and to know ourselves through relationships. Your pain is my pain, so to speak.

The Looking Glass Self

At some point, we develop conscious awareness about how our identities relate to our perceptions of others. Social psychologists observe this phenomenon in relation to “the looking glass self,” which is likely to appear on the MCAT. The looking glass self is a theory coined by Charles Cooley that argues people’s identities are shaped by others’ perceptions of them. More specifically, it states that our identities are shaped by our beliefs about what others think of us, whether or not those significant others really hold those beliefs. So, a boy who imagines that his parents see him as bratty will see himself as bratty. A girl who imagines that kids at school find her ugly will regard herself as ugly.

References Groups

Obviously, we care more about what significant people think about us than we do about the opinions of anonymous strangers. “Reference groups” provide a way of thinking about why this is so. A reference group is any group a person compares themselves to, positively or negatively. I might compare myself to siblings, neighbors, and musicians, while not comparing myself to preschoolers, professional athletes, or comedians. We all have several reference groups and there are 3 ways of categorizing our multiple reference groups. The first is known as “associative reference groups.” These are groups we belong to, so this would include siblings and neighbors, if I have ongoing relationships with them. Then there are “aspirational reference groups,” which are groups we admire but don’t belong to. These might include people with skills or status or resources we wish we had. Lastly, “dissociative reference groups” are those we don’t want to belong to; usually, these are groups we judge negatively.

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There are other ways of naming groups, and you should know these for the MCAT as well: primary, secondary, and outgroups. Primary groups are those we belong to for long periods of time. These could be our family, religious or artistic communities, or professional affiliates. In contrast, secondary groups are short-lived. You might reflect on the people who lived in your residence hall three years ago, or a task committee you once joined. Outgroups are groups we regard as “not us.” An example of this might be people who attended a college on the other side of the nation or people with specific interests that we don’t share. Having said that, we might relate to certain attributes of the people in these outgroups. If you were reflecting on “all people born in 1997” and you happened to be born that year, some of the people at this distant college you don’t identify with would still contain people you do identify with. For these reasons, the concept “outgroup” is fairly abstract and shifts according to the person in reference.

What, then, is the difference between dissociative reference groups and outgroups? That’s exactly the type of question you should be asking yourself, because it shows that you’re trying to synthesize meanings across terms rather than studying lists of vocabulary. There is a distinction. Outgroups are people we could feel positively, neutrally, or negatively about. We simply don’t identify with them. Dissociative groups are groups we actively do not want to be identified with. All dissociative reference groups are outgroups, but not all outgroups are dissociative groups. By knowing how all these terms and concepts relate to one another, you’ll have a huge advantage over MCAT students who solely memorize definitions. Best of luck!


  • Kat Thomson

    Kat is the Senior Curriculum Manager at Magoosh with a specialty in the MCAT. She has a BA from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a Ph.D. in medical sociology from the University of California, San Francisco, where she earned the Distinguished Dissertation Award in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Kat has been teaching premed and nursing students since 2005 as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of San Francisco, Bowdoin, and the University of California, Berkeley, while collaborating on multiple research projects and publications. In addition to the MCAT, Kat has taught courses in Research Methods, Gender, Global and Environmental Health, and others. She is passionate about increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in medicine and helping students get into the medical schools of their dreams. You can join Kat on Instagram and YouTube.

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