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What Do You See in the Mirror?

what do you see in the mirror?In 1973, an inquisitive psychologist named Beulah Amsterdam wanted to know whether babies recognized themselves in the mirror. To explore this riddle, he used the rouge test, which you likely studied in Psychology 101. Step one: put rouge on baby’s nose. Two: place teeny clown before mirror. Three: observe.

Babies aged 6 to 12 months typically thought, “Woot! Another baby. Let’s play.” Infants in their second year of life often acted wary of the “imposter” before looking away. Toddlers aged 24 months often recognized themselves, prompting some to wipe off the rouge. (Others were arguably too busy mulling over riddles, such as, “Where’s my milk carton?”)

Unlike kids, when adults see our reflections, we’re reminded of issues such as:

  • Our mortality
  • How well we’ve been treating our bodies – often not too well
  • How our appearance compares to that of others

It’s the last issue on the list that’s key because, in the words of economist Robert Frank, “[Humans] have strong concerns about relative position” — a phenomenon resulting in websites like Hot or Not, where humans are ranked as though they were chili sauce.

However, to whom we choose to compare ourselves, and the evaluations we give to ourselves and others, is influenced by what I call “The Big Three,” namely our biology, psychology and environment.

For example, when cheerful, we more often compare ourselves favorably against Mr. or Ms. Average, instead of rating ourselves unfavorably next to Mr. or Ms. Model. Environmental changes, such as installing soft lighting, can silence our inner critics — a truism that inspired Virgin America’s design director to install low-wattage bulbs, as opposed to fluorescents, inside the airline’s toilets.

So, last week, how did you feel about your wake-up reflection?

Chances are, if you’re a woman, especially if you’re married or cohabiting, one thing you likely thought was, “I look drained.”

When I asked 2,500 Americans that question, roughly 60 percent of married or cohabiting women ages 18 to 44 (without kids) answered, “I look tired.” Among men of the same age cohort (also without kids), 30 percent replied, “I look tired.”

More reflective findings for adults over 18 included:

  • 24 percent of women and 27 percent of men had thought, “Bad hair/gray hair/no hair.”
  • Four percent of women and three percent of men had been “too depressed to look.”

On the upside, ten percent of women and 16 percent of men had thought, “looking good.”

So how might we feel better about our reflections and ourselves? Commonsense suggestions include:

  • Reduce the likelihood of snoring. This can be done by upping our fitness. And more frequently replacing our pillows will lower the allergens in our bedrooms. One reason for women’s greater reported tiredness in my study is that according to the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, roughly 40 percent of men versus 24 percent of women habitually snore — an imbalance partly due to biology.
  • Equally divide chores. In my study, married or cohabiting women confessed to handling more chores, even when both partners worked full-time.
  • Practice better sleep hygiene. Sleep specialist Andrew Hall describes sleep hygiene as: “how you organize your sleep: no over-stimulating activities too late at night, no computers or television, exercising earlier in the day, a little alcohol sometimes but not too much, and nothing with pilot lights, or bleeping, or things telling you that you have new messages in the bedroom.”

But these days, the above steps are easier said than done — especially in cities, where a good night’s sleep is becoming a luxury. That’s why I’d like to kiss the inventor of earplugs. Sweet dreams.

To read more, buy Are You Buying This? What Americans Think About Money and Life From an Advertising Propagandist on Amazon.

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What Do You See in the Mirror?

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J.J. Robertson, M.A.

J.J. Robertson has headed account-planning departments at award-winning U.S. ad agencies. She's presented research to Fortune 500 CEOs; holds social science master's degrees from UCLA and the University of Edinburgh, and she’s the author of Are You Buying This? What Americans Think About Money and Life From an Advertising Propagandist on Amazon.

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APA Reference
Robertson, J. (2018). What Do You See in the Mirror?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 19 Jun 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.