Cross-cultural studies of toddler self-awareness have been using an unfair test

There’s a simple and fun way to test a toddler’s self-awareness. You make a red mark (or place a red sticker) on their forehead discreetly, and then you see what happens when they look in a mirror. If they have a sense of self – that is, if they recognise themselves as a distinct entity in the world – then they will see that there is a strange red mark on their face and attempt to touch it or remove it.

This is called the “mirror self-recognition test” (it’s used to test self-awareness in animals too) and by age two most kids “pass” the test, at least in Western countries. Several studies have suggested that the ability to pass the test is delayed, sometimes by years, in non-Western cultures, such as rural India and Cameroon, Fiji and Peru. But now a study in Developmental Science says this may be because the mirror test is culturally biased. Using a more physical and social self-awareness test, Josephine Ross at the University of Dundee and her colleagues actually find more precocious performance in a non-Western (Zambian) group of toddlers.

The researchers tested 33 mother-child pairs in Ikelenge, Zambia (a rural culture that emphasises the important of interdependence); 31 in Dundee, Scotland (a typical Western culture that emphasises independence and autonomy); and 22 in Istanbul, Turkey (a mixed culture that emphasises both autonomy and interdependence). The children were all aged between 15 and 18 months.

The researchers first filmed the mothers and their children playing and looked for differences in their parenting style: whether it was more “distal” involving more talk and less physical contact, which is typical of Western cultures, or more “proximal”, with more physical contact, which is more typical of non-Western interdependent cultures. During play, the mothers put a red sticker on their child’s head. Then the children were given the mirror self-recognition test. The Scottish children showed the highest pass rate (47 per cent) followed by the Turkish children (41 per cent) and the Zambian children (15 per cent), consistent with past research.

Next, the researchers used a different test of self-awareness that actually originates in the writings of the great developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. The children were asked to push a toy trolley toward their mother while they were standing on a mat that was attached to the bottom of the trolley. To succeed they must realise that their body is holding down the mat and step off it to push the trolley.

Whereas the mirror test is about recognising that the self has a distinct visual identity (a concept consistent with Western notions of an independent, autonomous self), the trolley test is more about realising that the self is a physical object like other objects. There is also a more social, collaborative element to the test because it involves pushing the trolley towards another person. The researchers reasoned that children raised in a more interdependent culture would excel at the task and that’s exactly what they found. Fifty per cent of the Zambian children passed the test, compared with 57 per cent of the Turkish and 23 per cent of the Scottish.

The measures of parenting style that the researchers looked at did not explain much of the cultural variance in performance, but they said that might be because they looked at the wrong things, such as eye contact and physical proximity and future research will need to explore other factors, such as mothers’ attitudes towards teaching their children interdependence versus autonomy.

The Zambian children were less familiar with mirrors than the other children, but they were given the chance to explore one before the self-awareness test, and anyway, past research has shown that performance on the test is not related to mirror experience. The Zambian children were also more precocious walkers than the other children, which you might think would explain their superior performance (compared with the Scottish kids) on the trolley test, but in fact performance on the trolley test was not related to walking ability. In short, the researchers favour the idea that the cultural differences on the two tests are due to the distinct perspectives on the self that are encouraged in the different cultures, rather than to familiarity with the test equipment or simple physical skill.

“Whatever the explanation for the cultural difference,” the researchers said, “this study highlights the necessity of recognising that the measurement of self-awareness is inextricably bound with the context of our development. More care needs to be taken in measuring self-awareness if valid cross-cultural comparisons are to be made.”


Ross, J., Yilmaz, M., Dale, R., Cassidy, R., Yildirim, I., & Suzanne Zeedyk, M. (2016). Cultural differences in self-recognition: the early development of autonomous and related selves? Developmental Science DOI: 10.1111/desc.12387

further reading
Cross-cultural reflections on the mirror self-recognition test
Study uncovers dramatic cross-cultural differences in babies’ sitting ability

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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