Mirror Test

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Psychologists have a test that's generally agreed to show whether a child or an animal has self-consciousness. Someone will put a red dot on their forehead while they're asleep and then see what happens when they look in a mirror. If orangutans, say, can put their hand on their forehead when they see a red dot on the forehead of the image of the orangutan in the mirror, it's supposed to show that the orangutan is thinking, "Hey, that's me, and I've got a red dot on my forehead."

I've been thinking about this, and I'm not so sure. Doesn't it really just show that they expect a correlation between things in mirrors and things that we know mirrors reflect? I wonder about this as I see my kids learning to identify themselves in the mirror. They might easily first get the concept that the things in the mirror match up with the things outside the mirror, long before they start thinking "that's me in the mirror". So why are these tests supposed to tell us that orangutans, gorillas, and chimps have self-consciousness? Maybe they do, but I can't see how this test should show that.

Update: Chris says there are other experiments that do show this (see comment below). If so, my point still stands. You need to have a different experiment to rule out the possibility I presented.

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Mirror Test from OrangePhilosophy on March 12, 2005 7:38 AM

Psychologists have a test that's generally agreed to show whether a child or an animal has self-consciousness. Someone will put a red dot on their forehead while they're asleep and then see what happens when they look in a mirror.... Read More


You're absolutely right. Dig into some cognitive development work and you'll find that expectation of object permanence is a developed behavior.

If a monkey doesn't do this and hence is deemed not self-aware, then likewise small babies will have to be deemed not self-aware.

I recall my eldest daughter (now 10 y/o) encountering a mirror on her own when she was four to six months old. She had rolled over to the miror and looked down into the mirror. Then she picked it up and peered underneath to check to see if there wasn't a baby hidden in the floor.

I guess the upshot of this comment is, besides my need to connect by sharing :), is that I agree with your assesment of the "test".

They're not going to see that as a problem. The original point was to see at what age children have definitely developed self-awareness. When they can perform this function is somewhere around 3-4, I believe. Being able to do this is sufficient for demonstrating self-awareness, they say, but not necessary, since someone who is self-aware may not know how a mirror works. They may have a concept of themselves. Negatives on this test don't establish lack of self-awareness, but positives are supposed to show self-awareness. I'm not sure it can show either.

Jeremy, that was one of the potential alternative explanations that experimenters thought of, and ruled out, by showing that one can train some monkey species to use mirrors (I believe some of the research is presented in Anderson & Gallop, 1999,
"Self-recognition in non-human primates: past and
future challenges," which was in Animal Models of Human Emotion and Cognition. In essence, the animals learn to use mirrors to locate objects in the environment which they cannot see without the use of mirrors, but they still perform no self-directed behaviors when looking in the mirror.

The mirror test may have flaws, and there is a substantial literature on them, but that's not one of them.

Hey, I heard somewhere... Wikipedia perhaps? That pigeons had passed the mirror test? Is that true?

I love watching my cats explore the mirrors in our house. Mostly, they'll paw at the cat in the glass and sometimes, they'll make noises of conversation. Often, they'll peer around the mirror to the back to see where the other cat is hiding. It really occupies their time.


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