A crooked tooth. That funky mole. A pimple on your chin. When you stare into the mirror and pick apart the little imperfections, you're doing more than being too hard on yourself. In fact, that behavior—understanding that your reflection is you, and seeing how you differ from other people—is often taken as a demonstration of some complex cognitive gymnastics that not all species can pull off.
Since the 1970s psychologists have used mirrors to search for signs of self-awareness in both humans and animals. Along the way, they came to believe that humans were almost universally able to pass a mirror-based self-recognition test by 24 months of age. But a 2004 study published in Child Development called that idea into question. Researchers found the widely accepted finding only applied to kids from Western nations, where most of the previous studies had been done. Now, a study published September 9 in The Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology is reinforcing that idea and taking it further. Not only do non-Western kids fail to pass the mirror self-recognition test by 24 months—in some countries, they still are not succeeding at six years old.
What does it mean? Are kids in places like Fiji and Kenya really unable to figure out a mirror? Do these children lack the ability to psychologically separate themselves from other humans? Not likely. Instead researchers say these results point to long-standing debates about what counts as mirror self-recognition, and how results of the test ought to be interpreted.
Strange results and 'freezing' behavior
The classic mirror test of self-recognition starts with a mark placed on a subject's body, somewhere he or she can't see it without help—such as the forehead or back of the shoulder. Then subjects are put in front of a mirror. To pass the test they have to first figure out that the reflection they see is not somebody else, understand that it is themselves, and then examine their bodies enough to find the mark. Finally, they have to realize the mark shouldn't be there and try to remove it.
The theory is that subjects who pass the test—animal or human—are self-aware, says Tanya Broesch, a doctoral candidate in Emory University's Department of Psychology and lead author on the 2010 study. That is, the subject understands the concepts of "self" and "others," can differentiate between the two, and can recognize themselves in the reflection. Based on results with Western children, psychologists have linked the age humans start passing the mark test with other milestones that happen around the same time, such as development of empathy. The ability to separate oneself from others is often thought of as a prerequisite for understanding that someone else might be hurt or sad, even if the beholder is not.
But when Broesch tried the mark mirror test outside the U.S. and Canada, she got some strange results. In Kenya, for instance, only two out of 82 children, some as old as six, passed. But the kids who did not pass were not psychologically damaged or lacking empathy. And most displayed what Broesch calls "freezing" behavior—the children did not greet or smile at their reflection. Instead, they stood still and seemed deeply uncomfortable.
Broesch thinks that freezing is indirect evidence of self-awareness. The kids didn't pass the mark test, per se, but their behavior still demonstrated that they knew they were looking at themselves. Diana Reiss, a professor of psychology at Hunter College in New York City, agrees. She works with animals, primarily dolphins, and she says that relying solely on the mark test to measure self-awareness can give you a false negative.
"I think it's gotten confused in the field. We've forgotten that the behavior itself is also an objective means of showing that the subject understands self," she says.