The mirror test

The mirror test (sometimes also called the mark or rouge test) is used to assess self-awareness in babies. A smudge of red colouring is placed on the infant’s nose and then they are placed in front of a mirror. If the infant responds by touching the mirror they have no self-awareness whereas if they touch the red mark on their nose this indicates comprehension that what they see in the mirror is themselves. Self-recognition is an important developmental stage, usually reached by about 2 years of age. (The test is also used with different animal species to see if they have self-awareness – the picture shows Happy the Elephant. See if you think she passed the test by looking at the video here).

A recent cross-cultural study by Broesch et al. (2010) found very different rates in different countries. In the US 88% of children passed the test by age 5, in Peru it was 52% whereas in Kenya only 2 children passed and in Fiji no children passed. The researchers don’t think the results are due to lack of self-recognition nor due to unfamiliarity with mirrors (animals pass the test despite never having seen a mirror). They suggest it may be related to the fact that children in some societies are discouraged from asking questions and lack the self-focus involved in self-recognition.

The key lesson, however, is the caution that is necessary in interpreting the behaviour of people in different cultures and in using techniques developed in one culture which we assume have universal meaning (called an imposed etic).