Take elephants for instance. In 2006 Reiss worked with Joshua Plotnik, head of elephant research at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand, running the mark test on three elephants. Only one passed, but the two that failed still demonstrated much self-aware behavior, such as making repetitive movements that showed they connected the image to themselves. Why didn't they go after the mark? Reiss and Plotnik, say it just might not be something elephants care much about.
"The mark test can be difficult to apply across species because it assumes that a particular animal will be interested in something weird on their body," Plotnik says. Primates are interested in such things—we're groomers. But elephants are different. They're huge and they're used to putting things on, not taking things off of their bodies, like mud and dirt."
Humans, animals and cultural understandings of self
Elephants, it seems, have unique expectations about the world, which influence the way they respond to the mark test. Their ambiguous performance on the test is an example of how different animals interact with their environments in different ways based on their physical abilities, and the behaviors which served their species well over millennia, says Pete Roma of the Institutes for Behavior Resources and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
These tendencies weave themselves into the behavioral fabric of a species. Akin to an animal version of culture, it might explain why some not particularly vision-oriented creatures, such as dogs, fail the mark test. We're just not applying the test in a way that means something to them. Gorillas are another good example: for many years, nobody thought gorillas could pass the mark test. Turns out, the test was just very uncomfortable for them. Eye contact is a thorny social issue for gorillas, often leading to fights, several researchers said. More than that, gorillas are easily embarrassed, says Robert Mitchell, foundation professor of psychology at Eastern Kentucky University. Instead of messing with the mark in front of the mirror, they would sometimes go away, hide in a corner, and wipe the mark off there. Gorillas got what was going on, they just didn't respond the way we thought they should.
In a sense that's what Broesch thinks is happening with the Kenyan children. Raised differently than those in Western, industrialized countries, Kenyan kids have a different understanding about what is socially acceptable. And that socialization usually produces a false negative on the mark test. The test largely doesn't work for these cultures, and the kids are not likely to ever pass. The earlier research done on younger children, published in 2004 and 2005 by Heidi Keller from the University of Osnabrück in Germany, came to a similar, but slightly different conclusion. Keller assumed that non-Western kids would eventually pass the mark test; it just look them longer because their cultures emphasized interdependence over independence.
The difference is not about when the children develop self-awareness or empathy, Mitchell says. Rather, it has to do with their social conditioning. Kids raised in interdependent cultures learn from the earliest games they play how to be part of a group.
"They aren't supposed to look different so when they see that mark they're stunned," he says.
Meanwhile, children raised to be independent are taught games that emphasize how they are separate and unique. In fact, Western kids are much more likely to be raised with lots of mirrors around them, and to play games in which their parents point at those mirrors and say, "Who's that? Is that you?"
If the relatively small differences among human cultures can alter mark test results so profoundly, then we have to consider what researchers really learn—and don't learn—when they run the test on an animal.