Why some kids (and animals) can fail the mirror self-recognition test, but still be self-aware

Remember adorable, not self-aware kitty? I thought I'd drag him back out to illustrate the implications of some really interesting new research. Since the 1970s, psychologists have used the mirror self-recognition test as a way of figuring out which species are self-aware, and which aren't. It's used on humans, too—usually as part of developmental psychology.

But, here's a shocker, the test isn't entirely foolproof. This morning, Scientific American published a story I wrote about flaws in the mirror test. It's prompted by new evidence that the test is culturally biased. It's long been assumed that humans become self-aware somewhere between 18 and 24 months of age. But those assumptions come from studies of Western kids. New research shows that children in some developing countries might not ever pass the test. Not because they're not self-aware, but because their culture impacts how they interact with mirrors. Interestingly, that finding has implications for the animal mirror test results, as well.

In 2006 Reiss worked with Joshua Plotnik, head of elephant research at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation in Thailand, running the mark test on three elephants. Only one passed, but the two that failed still demonstrated much self-aware behavior, such as making repetitive movements that showed they connected the image to themselves. Why didn't they go after the mark? Reiss and Plotnik, say it just might not be something elephants care much about.

"The mark test can be difficult to apply across species because it assumes that a particular animal will be interested in something weird on their body," Plotnik says. Primates are interested in such things–we're groomers. But elephants are different. They're huge and they're used to putting things on, not taking things off of their bodies, like mud and dirt."

I don't know what this means for the kitten, but it's certainly fascinating.