That awkward moment when I have the cognition of a fish

betta fish

The mirror test is used to gauge self consciousness by ascertaining whether an organism can identify itself in the mirror. Usually, the experimenter puts some kind of ink or marking in a spot that can’t be seen without a mirror and then observes the animal. Examining or touching the spot or marking indicates that the animal knows the image is, in fact, not another individual but a reflection. Richard Byrne spoke about the mirror test last week at his talk at Portsmouth and showed us that elephants can recognize themselves in a mirror (or at least one elephant can, the other apparently showed no interest). He also told us that dogs and cats cannot recognize themselves in the mirror but eventually acclimate to having an intruder around all the time who they cannot smell.

When I was last in the States I was at a pet store and saw the betta fish display. Bettas, otherwise known as “Siamese fighting fish”, are colorful, aggressive, territorial fish that will display when put in proximity to other fish. Like many territorial species the males will size each other up with aggressive displays and it’s in both males’ interests if they can figure out who would win without actually fighting. Many places that sell Bettas put these fish close together where they will display all day to one another ultimately stressing them out and potentially reducing their longevity. Often Bettas will be put in front of mirrors which will get them really geared up as they prepare to fight a rival who is equally matched on all dimensions of strength, size, vigor, and display.

I know how the fish feel.

Sometimes I will go into a room with mirrors that I’m not expecting, like long mirrored hallways in women’s restrooms. For fraction of a second before my face recognition comes online and I realize I am being faced with a mirror there is always a tense moment in which I am ostensibly confronted with my clone, a woman that looks exactly like me.

For this fraction of a second I size up this other person and invariably begin to feel like I’m saying: “WELL WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?!”. And then another millisecond passes and I chuckle at how ridiculous some of my mind is.

This might be a strange reaction. If one was to think about the situation objectively and from an evolutionary perspective you could imagine I would hail my reflection as a long lost twin. For a moment I might feel warm, fuzzy, I love you because you share 100% of my genes types of feelings (see this but see also this).

Socially (and romantically) we all have a niche, a distinct corner of the market in which we are special. In the context of competing for friendship, alliances, status or mates having skills or attributes that everyone else has is almost worthless (here’s a great explanation of these ideas). Ideally we all want to differentiate ourselves from others to the extent that we are irreplaceable. Envy is also designed to help us become irreplaceable. We tend to envy those who excel in self-relevant domains. An academic might envy a colleague’s publication record while a model might envy another woman’s waist size and in general women tend to be more envious of the appearance of other women than men.

Both in friendship and romantic relationships people often have a favored physical types. Time and again psychologists have found that judgements made on incredibly thin slices of information such as a few seconds of silent video or even a picture are very accurate at predicting personality and other attributes. So when I see some other woman in my niche who looks like me and dresses like me and and may have a similar personality to me it’s a challenge to my being irreplaceable. And in that awkward moment I’m not very much different than a Siamese fighting fish.

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