The mirror self-recognition test is flawed, specious, obtuse, ignorant, and offensive

The mirror self-recognition test first described by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970 is an experiment to test whether animals or young children have a sense of self. It involves marking the animal/child (e.g., using a marker or paint or something to put a dot or x on their face) and then presenting them with a mirror and seeing if they show any interest in the mark. Most animals and even many human children tend to “fail” the test.

This test is all kinds of bad science. The biggest reason is that it presumes the animal/child even knows that the mark is unusual in the first place. If the animal has never seen its reflection before, why would it bother touching the mark? For all it knows, that’s just part of what it normally looks like, especially if the animal has stripes or spots or ingeument or pimples or scars or any other sort of markings. Just because the animal doesn’t pick at the mark doesn’t mean it doesn’t realize that’s its reflection, it just means that it doesn’t have any reason to or any interest in it.

Moreover, the test presumes that animals would be unaccustomed to their own reflection because there are no mirrors in nature. That’s obviously not true. While it might be amusing to picture, animals don’t routinely freak out and assume another animal is coming at them whenever they go to take a drink at a watering hole. They are fully aware that they are just seeing their own reflection. Duh. 🙄 And thanks to all the metal and glass that humans are putting everywhere, more and more animals are getting accustomed to seeing reflections and rapidly evolving.

One way to attempt to fix this test is to present the animal/child with a mirror before marking it and letting it get a good, long look at itself for a while, and then mark it with something over like a large neon-colored x (and do it quickly to ameliorate any effects of short memory). That way, the animal will actually be able to detect a change worthy of investigating (though even then, maybe it just doesn’t care 🤷).

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