Mirrors Reflect Moral Character

How does looking in the mirror influence moral decisions?

Posted Sep 29, 2020

 Fares Hamouche/Unsplash
Source: Fares Hamouche/Unsplash

Imagine you are a doctor during a deadly epidemic. As your hospital becomes overwhelmed with infected patients, you receive a vaccine that can prevent healthy people from contracting the virus, but it sometimes causes death as a side effect. Despite this risk, should you administer the vaccine, killing a small number of patients to save the majority?

Like many people, you may think doing so is acceptable, by reasoning that it saves the most lives. But what if you had to look at yourself in the mirror while making your judgment? Would you be less able to do it while facing yourself in the mirror? Could you look at your own reflection and still agree to kill some to save others?

This vaccine dilemma is one of the scenarios psychologists have used to study moral reasoning and decision-making for years. (And now this one, in particular, seems a bit too familiar.) These scenarios exemplify a moral conundrum where causing harm maximizes overall outcomes. A good deal of scientific and philosophical work has looked at the psychology behind how such decisions are made. There are two basic types of decisions: those that minimize the harm to others at all costs (harm-rejection) and those that maximize individual gain despite costs to others (outcome maximization).

Self-awareness has been found to influence these judgments—and mirrors have been used to increase self-awareness in studies of moral reasoning and choices. As I discussed in a previous post, seeing oneself in the mirror evokes two very different types of self-awareness: The “who am I?” sort of feeling, called private self-awareness, involves being aware of your emotions, values, and personal sense of self. On the other hand, public self-awareness is being mindful of how others see you and your behavior. There is a good deal of research and real-life examples of people being on their best behavior when others are observing them—especially those with power over them like bosses, parents, and law enforcement officials. 

But what happens when we are watching ourselves? That is, how does increasing self-awareness through seeing one’s own reflection impact moral decision-making? 

Looking at yourself in the mirror can increase awareness of your personal values. Mirrors also reflect and can even magnify the negative emotions evoked by imagining harm to others. Mirrors can also raise awareness of social pressure to act to minimize harm. A glance in the mirror may also automatically evoke the orientation of being watched and judged by others. So, increasing self-awareness through seeing your own reflection may lead to more harm-minimizing decisions.

On the other hand, focusing on oneself could reinforce an orientation toward decisions that maximize personal gain. Think: narcissist looking in the mirror. There is also some evidence that self-awareness can facilitate more deliberate cognitive reasoning that often leads to more outcome maximization than harm avoidance decisions.

A recent article reported two studies (n = 370) in which research participants responded to 10 moral dilemmas. Each dilemma described a harmful action that would achieve a particular outcome. These included high-conflict moral dilemmas in which harm maximizes overall outcomes (for example, killing a baby will save many lives) and low-conflict moral dilemmas (killing someone will allow others to work less hard). Participants had to indicate whether causing harm in each dilemma was appropriate or inappropriate. By random assignment, half of the participants did the moral dilemma task facing the reflective side of a mirror. The other half completed the task facing the non-reflective side.

The results showed that facing one’s own reflection while completing the moral dilemma did, in fact, influence moral judgments. People who faced their own reflection while completing moral dilemmas displayed more harm-avoidant response tendencies than those who faced the non-reflective side of mirrors. However, the mirror manipulation did not impact outcome-maximizing response tendencies. 

Gazing into the mirror on the wall appears to make one more averse to causing harm. Still, more research is needed to clarify the relations between momentary awareness of oneself and moral judgment. For instance, to what extent does glancing in the mirror influence long-standing tendencies of moral behavior?

There can also be stark differences between what people say they will do in a hypothetical scenario and what they decide to do when the situation actually presents itself. Recently, video footage has captured many examples of people behaving in ways that probably go against their stated values. When emotions are running high, we can forget our values and don’t have the cognitive resources to think through the consequences of our actions. One way to prevent getting caught up in actions that you may later regret is to stop and take a moment to face yourself in the mirror.