Cross-cultural reflections on the mirror self-recognition test

The performance of young children on the 'mirror self-recognition test' varies hugely across cultures, a new study has shown. This is the test that involves surreptitiously putting a mark on a child's forehead and then seeing how they react when presented with their mirror image. Attempts by the child to touch or remove the mark are taken as a sign that he or she recognises themselves in the mirror. Studies in the West suggest that around half of all 18-month-olds pass the test, rising to 70 per cent by 24 months. Chimps, orangutans, dolphins and elephants have also been shown to pass the test, and there's recent debate over whether monkeys can too.

Tanya Broesch and her colleagues began by taking a simplified version of the mirror self-recognition test to Kenya, where they administered it to 82 children aged between 18 to 72 months. This version of the test involved a small, yellow post-it note rather than a red splodge, and children weren't given the usual verbal prompts such as 'who's that in the mirror?'. Amazingly, just two of the children 'passed' the test by touching or removing the post-it note. The other eighty children 'froze' when they saw their reflection - that is they stared at themselves but didn't react to the post-it note.

Next, Broesch and her team took their test to Fiji, Saint Lucia, Grenada, Peru, Canada and the USA, where they tested 133 children aged between 36 to 55 months. The performance of the North American children was in line with past research, with 88 per cent of the US kids and 77 per cent of the Canadians 'passing' the test. Rates of passing in Saint Lucia (58 per cent), Peru (52 per cent) and Grenada (51 per cent) were significantly lower. In Fiji, none of the children 'passed' the test.

So, what's going on? Are children in these non-Western nations seriously delayed in their mirror self-recognition. The researchers don't think so. First of all, they deliberately tested a wide age range - in Kenya up to age six - and they think it's highly unlikely mirror self-recognition could be delayed that far. 'Our impression,' the researchers said, 'was that they [the children] understood that it was themselves in the mirror, that the mark was unexpected, but that they were unsure of an acceptable response and therefore dared not touch or remove it.'

Inspired in part by past research conducted in Cameroon, in which children who failed the mirror test tended to be the most compliant and obedient, Broesch and her colleagues speculated that the performance in the non-Western, more interdependent cultures may have been affected by the fact that children in these societies are often discouraged from asking questions (they're expected to learn by watching). 'This is in sharp contrast with the independence and self-initiative that tends to be encouraged and nurtured in the Industrial West,' the researchers said. Another factor could be the non-Western children's relative lack of familiarity with mirrors.

More research is needed to test the truth of these assertions. Meanwhile, this study provides a compelling example of why we must be cautious when extrapolating from Western psychology research. 'Negative results (whether in monkeys or humans) must be examined more closely and results remind us that transporting culture-specific tests among diverse human populations has the potential to lead to flawed interpretations of cognitive differences and developmental processes,' the researchers said.

ResearchBlogging.orgBroesch, T., Callaghan, T., Henrich, J., Murphy, C., and Rochat, P. (2010). Cultural Variations in Children's Mirror Self-Recognition. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology DOI: 10.1177/0022022110381114

Link to Carl Zimmer post on mirror self-recognition in monkeys.
Link to recent journal special issue on psychology's over-dependence on WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich and Democratic) participants.
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