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Developmental Psychology


At some point, infants begin to be aware of themselves as individuals. They comprehend that they exist, and that they possess recognizable characteristics that set them apart from the rest of the world. From this starting point of basic self-awareness, they eventually develop a more elaborate sense of their own identity or self-concept . This includes their mental images of themselves, what they believe to be true about themselves, and how they feel about themselves.

Since we can't directly ask infants to tell us about themselves, how do we know when self-awareness begins to emerge? For over a century, researchers have employed methods that focus on the ability of infants to recognize their own images in a mirror (Darwin, 1877; Preyer, 1893). The most popular version of this technique is the so-called rouge test (Amsterdam, 1972), which involves surreptitiously putting a spot of red makeup (rouge) on the infant's nose and then placing the infant in front of a mirror. If an infant, seeing the red mark on the mirror image, reaches up and touches her own face, it is inferred that she recognized herself-a basic kind of self-awareness. The assumption of many of these researchers is that "[a]n organism that can recognize itself is one that can conceive of itself" (Gallup, 1991).

Using the rouge test with children aged 9 to 24 months, Lewis & Brooks-Gunn (1978, 1979) found that prior to about 15 months of age, a rouge-marked child confronted with his mirror image would reach up and try to touch the spot in the mirror — as if the image was another child with an intriguing red mark. Self-recognition and the search for the mark on their own face rarely occurred before 15 months of age. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also around this age that many children begin to say their own name when shown a picture of themselves (Bullock & Lütkenhaus, 1990).

Language also provides evidence of the child's growing self-awareness. Children begin using personal pronouns such as I and me at around 22 months of age, with use of the pronoun you emerging a few months later. Two-year-old children begin to describe their own actions as they are performing them, providing a running commentary on their own behavior. At around this age, children start labeling belongings and toys as mine and behaving possessively toward them.

Describing the Self

When asked, younger children tend to describe themselves in physical, concrete terms: They say that they are tall or short, a boy or a girl, blue-eyed or brown-eyed, with long or short hair. As they get older, children begin to use more abstract attributes to describe themselves, such as their social characteristics (a good student, a Baptist, a basketball player) or their psychological traits (shy, humorous, ambitious, honest) (Montemayor and Eisen, 1977; Hart et al., 1993).

Researchers (McGuire, date?) have noted that when describing themselves, children are more likely to mention distinguishing features, characteristics that set them apart from the people that surround them. If you're a boy growing up in a household with several sisters, you are more likely to mention your gender when asked for a self-description. Similarly, left-handers are more likely than right-handers to mention their handedness when describing themselves. This focus on the uniqueness of the self may be less prevalent in non-Western cultures. In Asian cultures, where interdependence (how we are related to others such as our family and friends) receives greater emphasis, children are more likely to mention their social roles and relationships (a dutiful son, a good friend, a hard-working student) at an earlier age .

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