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Journal Article

Explaining cross-cultural variation in mirror self-recognition: New insights into the ontogeny of objective self-awareness


Cebioğlu,  Senay       
Culture Cooperation and Child Development Research Group, Department of Human Behavior Ecology and Culture, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Max Planck Society;

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Cebioğlu, S., & Broesch, T. (2021). Explaining cross-cultural variation in mirror self-recognition: New insights into the ontogeny of objective self-awareness. Developmental Psychology, 57(5), 625-638. doi:10.1037/dev0001171.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000A-CD15-8
Mirror self-recognition (MSR) is considered to be the benchmark of objective self-awareness—the ability to think about oneself. Cross-cultural research showed that there are systematic differences in toddlers’ MSR abilities between 18 and 24 months. Understanding whether these differences result from systematic variation in early social experiences will help us understand the processes through which objective self-awareness develops. In this study, we examined 57 18- to 22-month-old toddlers (31 girls) and their mothers from two distinct sociocultural contexts: urban Canada (58% of the subsample were Canadian-born native English-speakers) and rural Vanuatu, a small-scale island society located in the South Pacific. We had two main goals: (a) to identify the social-interactional correlates of MSR ability in this cross-cultural sample, and (b) to examine whether differences in passing rates could be attributed to confounding factors. Consistent with previous cross-cultural research, ni-Vanuatu toddlers passed the MSR test at significantly lower rates (7%) compared to their Canadian counterparts (68%). Among a suite of social interactive variables, only mothers’ imitation of their toddlers’ behavior during a free play session predicted MSR in the entire sample and maternal imitation partially mediated the effects of culture on MSR. In addition, low passing rates among ni-Vanuatu toddlers could not be attributed to reasons unrelated to self-development (i.e., motivation to show mark-directed behavior, understanding mirror-correspondence, representational thinking). This suggests that differences in MSR passing rates reflect true differences in self-recognition, and that parental imitation may have an important role in shaping the construction of visual self-knowledge in toddlers.