At some point or another many parents have placed their infant in front of a mirror and wondered if their child could understand that it was their own reflection they were seeing. Based on the infant's reaction, most parents realize pretty quickly that their baby doesn't really understand that it is themselves in the mirror. This raises the question of when do babies and young children begin to develop a sense of self? Child psychologists have used this mirror test in a creative way to help uncover the answer to this question.
In a classic psychological experiment in the 1970s, researchers took a group of children ages 6 to 24 months and placed a spot of lipstick on their noses. They then placed the children in front of a mirror to see how they responded. Here's what they found:
- Young infants (age 6-12 months) seem to think the baby in the mirror is another baby. They smile and approach the baby in a friendly way.
- Older babies (age 13-24 months) respond with a little more hesitation at this point. Researchers aren't sure if the children know that the reflection is themselves or whether they still think it is another child.
- Toddlers (age 20-24 months) seem to clearly recognize that the reflection in the mirror is their own. The clear sign of this is that while looking in the mirror, they touch the dot of lipstick on their own nose instead of touching the mirror.
Of course, the results of this mirror test are not clear cut. Just because a toddler recognizes themselves in the mirror doesn't necessarily mean they have a mental concept of themselves. It may simply mean that by this age they have enough visual maturity to distinguish themselves in the mirror. Other, more complex studies would have to be conducted to determine when the mental concept of the self emerges.
Interestingly, animal studies have shown that some of the more intelligent mammals such as elephants, dolphins, and chimpanzees also recognize themselves in the mirror. Does this mean that these animals have a mental concept of "the self?" Who knows? It seems unlikely but maybe so. All these animals have fairly complex social systems so maybe they do have a concept of self.
Could you tell when your child started to develop a concept of themselves? How could you tell?