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.
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.