The Test of Vainness: Anthropocentrism, Mirrors, and the Human Obsession with the Self

In an attempt to demonstrate that certain nonhuman animals are “persons,” animal behaviorists and ethicists often point to the higher level cognitive capacities that nonhuman animals are said to possess, such as rationality, abstract thought, language ability, self-awareness, or the ability to act morally.


Currently, there is significant debate regarding whether nonhuman animals have self-awareness. In order for nonhuman animals to be deemed as “self aware,” an animal must show signs that she can distinguish her own existence, as a particular self, from the existence of other animals and her surrounding environment. One of the common methods animal behaviorists and scientists use to demonstrate self-awareness in nonhuman animals is coined as the “mirror test,” introduced by Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970. This test, often referred to as the “Red Spot Technique,” involves placing a mark on the body or the forehead of the animal. If the animal sees herself in the mirror and understands that such image is of herself, it is assumed that she will try to take the stain off while looking at the mirror. Apparently, this demonstrates that the animal is aware of herself since she has “understood her own reflection.”

There are number of problems with the “mirror test.”

1. The mirror test only takes sight into consideration, and not other senses

While the mirror test focuses only on sight (which by the way, is the human’s superior sense) to test the presence of self-recognition in a being, many nonhuman animals, like dogs, rely primarily on scent to navigate the world; not sight (and in fact, many dogs, like canines, have very poor eyesight). Yet, scientists somehow assume that we should test the presence of self-awarenss in all nonhuman animals by putting them in front of the mirror.

Marc Bekoff notes this problem in his book The Emotional Lives of Animals (pgs 39-40), where he writes about an alternative “self-recognition” test which recognizes the importance of smell in dog life: the “yellow snow test,” which he conducted with his own dog. Bekoff moved his own dog’s “yellow snow” and the “yellow snow” of other dogs along a bike path. When he brought his dog down this path, his dog spent more time sniffing the “yellow snow” of dogs than his own “yellow snow.” Bekoff argues that this indicates that his dog knew what was his urine and what was others’ urine. Clearly, this dog has a sense of “mine-ness.”

You don’t even need to go to the lengths that Bekoff does to demonstrate self-awareness in nonhuman animals. Within a few minutes of interacting with nonhuman animals, one can readily see that they have what Bekoff refers to as a “sense of mine-ness.” If anyone has spent a few minutes with cats, who commonly hiss at others who try to eat their food or play with their toys, there will be no doubt in their mind that cats also have this sense of “mine-ness” (keep in mind that others, such as Stanley Coren, argue that having a sense of “mineness” is different than having a sense of “I-ness”).

This leads one to question whether those who so adamantly deny self-awareness to nonhuman animals have ever spent 5 minutes in the presence of one.

2.The mirror test only demonstrate awareness of one’s reflection; not awareness of one’s self

When an adult chimpanzee is put in front of a mirror, she might take some time to understand that the image in the mirror is of herself. But, if recognition of one’s image in a mirror is the measure of self-recognition, this would entail that the chimpanzee was not aware of herself at T1, but at T2 (perhaps within a few minutes), she all of a sudden become aware of herself once she understood her mirror image. This seems a little implausible. The most compelling explanation, then, is not that the mirror test demonstrates that nonhuman animals are aware of themselves, but rather, it demonstrates that the animal is aware of her own reflection. We then find ourselves back at square one: what is the test of self-awareness for animals without language?

3. Obsession with one’s reflection is a sign of human vanity; not self-awareness

The use of mirrors to test the “awareness of the self” is, once again, another instance of our anthropocentrism shining through. Those who employ “mirror tests” to demonstrate self-awareness in nonhuman animals seem to assume that what humans value is the center of the universe; if nonhuman animals don’t value or find interest in what humans value or find interesting, they are somehow “cognitively inferior.” Of course, human beings, because of the social pressure to focus on our appearance and vanity, are conditioned to obsess over our reflections in mirrors. Yet, nonhuman animals might not be that impressed or fascinated with their reflection and they might not find it necessary to bother wiping a silly dot off of their forehead. Failing to find interest in one’s reflection is not a sign that an individual is not self-aware; it is a sign that an individual is not vain.

The moral of the story: animal behaviorists and scientists need to check their anthropocentric inclinations when investigating the minds and cognitive capacities of nonhuman animals. As Bekoff points out, there might degrees of self-awareness in nonhuman animals that will never be acknowledged if we arrogantly continue to employ experiments that focus only on human values, behaviors, and habits.