Reflecting on the Mirror


Here’s a prediction: in the coming years, we’ll see mirrors popping up in the entryways of churches and other places of worship. And the reason won’t be to let those entering fix their hair. As we’ll see, the mirror has a rather magical effect on us.

For years, motivation experts have told their audiences to “look in the mirror” as they formulated their goals or imagined the future they wanted. As it turns out, this advice wasn’t all motivational hokum. When we look in a mirror, our behavior is actually altered – at least for a short period of time.

Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive by Cialdini, Goldstein, and Martin, led me to mirror and related research peformed both by Cialdini and other teams. The most venerable piece of mirror-behavior research is a 1970s study, Social Awareness and Transgression in Children: Two Field Studies, by Beaman et al. Like many experiments in social psychology, the setup was simple: children making their Halloween rounds were told they could take one piece of candy from a large bowl of candy, and then left alone. About 34% helped themselves to more than one piece. When a mirror was placed behind the bowl so that the children could see themselves as they took the candy, only 9% disobeyed their instructions. The simple addition of the mirror cut the rate of bad behavior by almost three-fourths!

And it’s not just kids that respond to seeing themselves. Another experiment described in Yes! showed subjects either a live video of themselves (rather like looking in a mirror except for the image reversal part) or neutral geometric shapes. They were then given a small task which required them to exit the room with a used paper towel. Almost half of the subjects who saw the neutral images “littered” by dropping the used towel in an empty stairwell, while only a quarter of those who saw themselves did so.

It seems that seeing one’s image causes one to think about one’s behavior and ultimately behave in a more socially desirable way. According to Cialdini, other actions can have a similar effect. Asking people their names can have a similar effect, and one experiment showed that a picture of eyes dramatically reduced “theft” in a break area where employees were supposed to drop money in a jar when they were supposed to pay for coffee or tea.

Cialdini notes that mirrors could be an inexpensive way to cut shoplifting or employee theft in areas that can’t readily be monitored.

I think there could well be some interesting marketing applications for this “self awareness” strategy. The most obvious are for non-profit marketers. Generally, they are seeking financial or time commitments for a cause that most people would consider socially beneficial. What better way to boost the success rate than letting potential donors see themselves?

If a solicitation is taking place in an environment controlled by the non-profit, e.g., their office, one or more strategically placed mirrors (in the waiting room, behind the solicitor’s desk, etc.) could work to increase the close rate and perhaps boost the average commitment. Of course, relatively few non-profits have the luxury of bringing donors into their environment.

I think there are applications for this reasearch in the most common way of soliciting contributions, direct mail. The most obvious would be to include an inexpensive reflective area on part of the solicitation, perhaps accompanied by wording that urged the reader to “imagine the good you could do…” While the image quality wouldn’t be as good as a real mirror, the thought would be there. Personalizing the pitch by printing the donor’s name below the reflective area would likely help as well. More costly solicitations aimed at individual large donors could incorporate a real mirror in some way, or perhaps a photo of the donor. It’s even possible that an image of eyes could help, although clearly it would be necessary to incprporate that in a way that made sense and didn’t appear bizarre.

The neuromarketing implications for other sales situations aren’t quite as clear. One application that comes to mind is the marketing of green products. Trying to sell a buyer on an environmentally-friendly hybrid car? Put a mirror in the closing room. Whether this self-awareness phenomenon would apply to self-image factors that aren’t related to desirable social behavior is hard to say. For example, if an individual thought of himself as a rather dashing fellow, would seeing a mirror help sell him a sports car?

At the moment, I think the most probable benefits of using mirrors or other self-images will accrue to marketers who are clearly on the side of what is socially desirable: charities, universities, green marketers, etc.

  1. marc says

    I notice how you didn’t venture into what happens when mirrors are placed in the bedroom-I would suggest that placement would have the opposite effect of creating good behaviour 🙂

    1. ar says

      Depends on what good behavior is… if, for example pajamas or a loose outfit is consider distant from a true picture of the self, the physical one and closer to the ideal i.e. the mirrored or un-mirrored one in terms of projecting into other people’s mind, it may perhaps be logically deduced that mirror in bedrooms may lead to good behavior, or bad depending on what good behavior is, relative to the other.

  2. Andre says

    You have mentioned Dan Ariely?s work before. He shows how our decisions are influenced by different states of mind.

    It may be a wild trip, but I guess that the mirror takes us back to our basic frame of reference (beliefs, behaviors, rules, etc). So my take is that we are more inclined to make decisions that are in line with that frame (one may say rational decisions).

    Certainly good for marketers in the social-oriented field, but also for any area where we need the consumer to make best principle-based, rational decision.

  3. Alan says

    Roger — Pseudo “self-awareness” via a mirror is far surpassed by the real Self-awareness which sages have exhorted us to practice over millennia…

    Turn away from any mirrors and simply become aware of yourself looking. If you find this difficult, try paying attention to the shapes and colors in your peripheral vision. Then you will have the impression of viewing your broad field of visual perception like a mirror — just as symbolized in much art and literature. Here’s a detail from a 15th c. painting:

    …with the implication that it is you, the viewer, looking in the symbolic mirror. And the complete work shows the practice of Self-awareness on the right, leading to the “birth” of spiritual Presence on the left:

    It is this “birth” of a new consciousness (effortless real Self-awareness) which provides a lasting improvement in our behavior. And rather than churches placing mirrors in their entryways, they should be explaining that this practice of Self-awareness is what is meant by “Watching” in the New Testament.

  4. Medical Practice Marketing says

    Would it not be wild if we could get screen resolution so fine that a practical mirror could be put on the internet?

    See… a narcissist’s screen would be double wide with one-half for the web and one-half for the user. 🙂

    Oh well, just a thought.

  5. Cal Gravatt says

    Reminds us we are visible?

  6. Jason Sparks says

    Is there any correlation to seeing oneself and our behavior in social media. Most social sites allow for an avatar or user images to be uploaded…

  7. Roger Dooley says

    That’s an interesting idea, Jason. It also suggests the possibility of other behavioral changes if one chooses an avatar other than a photo of oneself. If one chooses an avatar of a pirate or a seductive nymph, would that tend to make one behave in a more aggessive or flirtatious manner?


  8. Duncan says

    It is my understanding that mirrors trigger the reticular activation system (RAS) and cause an involuntary, piercing exposure of our non-conscious selves. Ever notice how difficult it is to disregard a mirror, even in peripheral vision.

    It is my theory that mirrors also are vital in triggering a sense of physical and personal imperfection, and thus induce brief blasts of the toxic emotion of shame. For more on shame, and the deeper dimensions of our construction of self, see Silvan Tomkins.

  9. Wrauny says

    Interesting that in Mormon temples, where the marriage ceremony is performed, they have mirrors on opposite walls creating an “infinite mirror” effect. These marriages have about a 6% divorce rate compared to 24% of Mormons not marrying in the temple.

  10. Strange Loops says

    Wrauny: except there might be other factors differing between couples who marry in-temple and those who marry out-of-temple which lead to subsequent divorce rates (i.e. those couples more devoted to the religion might marry in temple for that reason and also stay together because the religion says not to divorce)…all of which would have nothing to do with those mirrors. In other words, it could just be natural confirmation bias making the temple mirrors stick out as an example supporting your hypothesis. Still, makes an interesting speculation that could indeed be tested in more controlled lab settings which control for other non-mirror factors.

    It’s probably too early for us to know how it is that mirrors produce these effects, and to what extent it is mirror-specific (as opposed to simply seeing some other human-like form, or seeing yourself, or seeing a life-form, or being stimulated/activated/aroused by the simple movingness of the image which makes us attune to the environment more). Interesting speculation, sure, but lots more testing to come before we can really apply this directly to anything like marketing.

    No offense to your work, Roger…we just always have to take care that we don’t over-interpret or over-apply results found in very limited conditions without really knowing whether they generalize.

    More positively, on a somewhat related side-note: mirrors have been used with phantom limb patients who have chronic pain in their phantom limb. And the link below from the New Yorker describes some mirror therapy where simply looking in a mirror the right way can radically reshape how we perceive our own bodies, and fix brain problems:
    It’s amazing that a mirror can have such an effect on something as basic as how we perceive and establish ownership of our bodies. So while all this stuff about mirror effects is pretty nascent, it’s pretty cool!

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