Babies love to gaze, laugh, and sometimes kiss themselves in the mirror, right? But it’s not until they are around 18-24 months old that they actually recognize that the chubby face reflected back is, in fact, them.
Scientists figure this out using the classic “mirror test.” A researcher dabs a spot on a baby’s face while she’s not paying attention, and then lets her loose in front of a mirror. If she walks over to the mirror, examines herself as if she knows something’s off, and then tries to wipe the mark away, she’s passed the test. She grasps the concept that she is her own separate self. This is her budding capacity for self-awaress — one of our most sophisticated human qualities.
So it was puzzling to researchers when children from countries like Figi and Kenya didn’t pass the test even at 24 months — or even at 6 years old…
In the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, researchers report that children outside the U.S. and Canada don’t display the same behavior in the mirror. For example, in Kenya, only 2 out of 82 kids passed. Most simply “froze” when they saw themselves with a strange mark on their faces.
Scientists think this has more to do with culture than self-awareness — kids in Kenya are, in fact, displaying self-awareness, they’re just reacting to it differently. It might make them uncomfortable or unsure of how to proceed.
Different groups of humans respond differently to the mirror test, just as different animals do. For example, elephants are more likely to make repetitive behaviors in the mirror (testing out what happens when they move) – they know it’s their reflection, they just don’t bother to wipe away the mark. And gorillas, who are uncomfortable with eye contact, tend to shrink away and wipe off the mark in secret.
The mirror test still stands as a benchmark of self-awareness — a better predictor has yet to take its place. But we can’t just assume that a child who doesn’t pass isn’t self-aware. The way he reacts could be colored by culture and social norms. Kids in the U.S., who often get prompted by enthusiastic parents to play with mirrors, might have the instinct to “groom” when they see their reflection.
If you have a toddler at home, have you tried the mirror test?
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