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The Five Stages of Self-Awareness Explain What Kids See in the Mirror

That's a mirror (Level 1), there's a person in it (Level 2), that person is me (Level 3), that person is going to be me forever (Level 4), and everyone else can see it (Level 5).

There’s an awkward developmental stage that occurs as children develop theory of mind, during which kids are apt to demonstrate a creepily splintered sense of self. Daniel Povinelli of the University of Louisiana captured this moment in 2001 when he showed three-year-old Jennifer a video of herself, sitting with a sticker on her forehead. He asked what she saw. “It’s Jennifer. It’s a sticker,” she began, correctly. “But why is she wearing my shirt?”

Self-awareness, it turns out, comes in stages. A little boy may understand that he’s looking at his own reflection, but not grasp that the image therein is what he looks like all the time, sans mirror. An older girl might comprehend the permanence of her image, but not fully understand that this is also the image that other people see. In 2003, Emory University’s Philippe Rochat scoured developmental studies to construct his Five Stages of Self-Awareness, describing how children learn to identify themselves and their loved ones as distinct entities, from birth until age five.

Each of Rochat’s stages revolves around the mirror test, an assessment of self-awareness that rose to prominence in the 1970s. Chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants have all passed the most basic mirror test, which means they can look in a mirror and gesture toward a tiny, odorless mark painted on their faces while they were sleeping. But the mirror test does not end with dotted dolphins. Rochat crafted his Five Stages based on studies of how newborns and toddlers interact with mirrors, photographs, and video recordings. Here’s what he found.

Stage 1 (Birth): What Happens In The Mirror, Stays In The Mirror

The most primitive stage of interacting with a mirror involves slamming into it, unaware that it’s a mirror. (Ask a bird that what it’s like to take a beating from a pristine glass window). Fortunately, studies suggest humans entirely skip this stage, which Rochat calls Level 0, or “confusion.” Although the 19th century philosopher William James wrote that infants are born in a state of “blooming, buzzing, confusion,” Rochat argues that infants can almost immediately differentiate between self versus non-self touch. There’s a basic self-awareness that this is my body.

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That only goes so far, however, achieving Level 1 (“differentiation”). A newborn knows that there’s a difference between his image and the background images in the mirror, and between himself and his environment. But deeper sense of self-awareness will have to wait. “Infants do not come to the world with the exclusive expression of self-obliviousness,” Rochan writes. “It appears that immediately after birth, infants are capable of demonstrating already a sense of their own body as a differentiated entity: an entity among other entities in the environment.”

Stage 2 (Two Months): Manipulating That Image

Only two months after birth, infants achieve Level 2 (“situation”). Now, the baby not only recognizes the difference between himself and the environment, but also gains a sense of how his body is situated relative to that environment. Although studies suggest even newborns can copy facial expressions, it isn’t until about two months that a baby figures out how to manipulate his own body to respond to the environment. This is perhaps best illustrated by a 1992 study that found that two-month-olds could mimic an adult sticking his tongue out to either the left or right. “In addition to differentiating their own actions from those of the model,” Rochan writes. “They are also capable of mapping their own bodily space to the bodily space of the model.”

But it doesn’t take a tongue study to demonstrate that a two-month-old has achieved situational awareness. Ask any parent—two-month-olds reach for everything. The simple act of estimating the distance to an object in the environment and reaching for it is a self-awareness milestone. Because you don’t reach for an item unless you recognize that objects external to yourself exist.

girl looking in mirror

Stage 3 (18 Months): Basic Self-Awareness

This is when babies first pass the basic mirror test. Between the ages of 18 months and two years, children learn that the image in the mirror is not only distinct from the rest of the environment (Level 1) and not only distinct from the in-mirror environment (Level 2), but a representation of themselves (Level 3, “identification). At 18 months, an infant will reach for a mark painted on his or her body, using only the image in the mirror as an indication that something on the “self” is amiss.

This may also be why 18 months is when most children begin to develop language skills. Language demands, “a theory of the self as distinct from other people, and a theory of the self from the point of view of one’s conversational partners,” cognitive scientist Elizabeth Bates wrote in 1990.

Stage 4 (2-3 Years): This Is Me, And I’m Stuck With It. Sometimes.

The next few years are developmentally awkward, and are perhaps best captured by Jennifer, the three-year-old who wondered why her image was wearing her clothes. Rochan calls this the “Me-But-Not-Me” dilemma. On the road to full self-awareness, toddlers begin to identify the image in the mirror as “self” but still frequently revert to seeing the image as an odd third-person version of self. That can be hard to grasp (and a bit terrifying to imagine), but it means that if the researchers had asked Jennifer who she saw in the mirror, she would have probably said “me”. And yet, if asked to describe three figures in the mirror, she might have responded “Mommy, Daddy, and Jennifer”.

Stage 4 (“permanence”) comes slowly. “They appear to still oscillate between an awareness of the self and an awareness of seeing someone else facing them,” Rochat writes.

boy looking into mirror

Stage 5 (4-5 Years): Everyone Can See Me—Stop Looking At Me!

The final stage hits us like a ton of bricks at around age four, and is known as self-consciousness or “meta self-awareness”. At this age, a child first realizes that the image in the mirror is not just “me” (Level 3) and not just “me” permanently (Level 4) but the “me” that everyone else sees. Four-year-olds often respond to this realization by becoming mirror shy, hiding their faces whenever they see their reflections. Now that they know that’s what everyone else sees, they’re horrified.

Adults, too, hover at Level 5 and the fact that we’re not horrified by own our images is probably not because we’re mature, but because we’ve come to terms with it. Indeed, when the legendary anthropologist Edmund Carpenter presented a mirror to Papua New Guinea tribesmen in 1975, they jumped straight to Level 5—but with all the disappointment that one would expect from a newcomer to meta self-awareness. ‘‘They were paralyzed,” Carpenter wrote. “After their first startled response—covering their mouths and ducking their heads—they stood transfixed, staring at their images, only their stomach muscles betraying great tension.”

That, right there, is self-awareness in a nutshell: that’s a mirror (Level 1), there’s a person in it (Level 2), that person is me (Level 3), that person is going to be me forever (Level 4), and everyone else can see it (Level 5).

Queue your five-year-old’s first existential crisis.