Virtue's Reflection
By Joel F. Wade - January 25, 2013

The reflection that you provide for others has a greater impact than you might know.

When a person looks inward, exploring his or her thoughts, feelings, motivations, or values, we call it self-reflection. What we compare our actions to when we self-reflect are our standards.

It turns out that a simple mirror can provide enough of a reflection to help us to live up to our standards.

This is what was discovered by researchers Robert Wicklund and Shelley Duvall back in the 1970s. They found that when people were in front of a mirror and told that they were being filmed, those people changed their behavior: They worked harder, gave more accurate answers to questions, were more consistent in their actions, and those actions were more consistent with their values.

About a decade later, Charles Carver and Michael Scheier looked at this in more depth. When people sat at a desk with a mirror – not a great big ostentations mirror but just a small part of the surroundings – they were more likely to follow their own values than someone else's orders, they would work harder and they would resist being bullied into changing their opinion on something.

What's more, when they were told to administer shocks to somebody they were more restrained in their actions. This is not unlike the important revelation of Stanley Milgram in his Obedience to Authority experiments, in which people who witnessed others refusing to comply with directions to severely shock somebody were dramatically less likely to comply themselves.

The self-reflection that was aided by the actual reflection of the mirror helped people to regulate themselves.

Self-regulation is the moral fulcrum that allows all other moral behavior. It allows a person to decide what action they will take in a given situation. It provides the capacity for integrity – knowing what you value, and speaking and acting from those values.

It also makes it possible for a person to reassess what they have done – or not done – in the past, and to change their behavior accordingly in the present and the future. It therefore gives us the capacity for moral redemption.

Because we have the capacity for self-regulation, we have the capacity to think in terms of moral or immoral acts. Self-regulation places the burden upon the individual to determine right from wrong, and to use our willpower to direct our words and actions accordingly.

It also makes it possible for us to be free.

Without the capacity for self-regulation, the idea of individual liberty would be an empty concept. Without the capacity for self-regulation, we would live in an amoral world, a world where the concept of right and wrong is irrelevant.

If a person is not in charge of his or her actions, if he does not have a choice in what he does or does not do, then he cannot reasonably be held responsible for his actions – nor can he enjoy the benefits of his actions. This is, of course, the underlying premise of all statists, that the government has to decide for people what they should and should not do, because they cannot be trusted to do so themselves.

Self-reflection is what makes self-regulation possible. These experiments show just how powerful a force the reflection of what you do can be.

In these experiments, a mirror was used to enhance people's self-reflection. But self-reflection is also enhanced by the feedback we receive from others, and the often less-forgiving feedback we receive from the objective world.

Young children learn a great deal from the feedback they receive from things like hot stoves, yucky tasting food and gravity. They also learn from the praise they get from parents or teachers at a job well done, or a joke well told, or a cute or amusing face well made – and from the punishment they receive for shameful or hurtful behavior.

People in business learn from their customers – or lack of them – what is useful or desired enough by others that they will swap their money for those goods or services. Performers learn what gets the most applause or fills the most seats. Engineers, builders and manufacturers learn what is possible and what is not with the current technology.

All of this feedback from the physical world, and from the more emotional world of relationships, helps a person to understand right from wrong, good from bad, effective from ineffective.

Our own self-reflection helps us to sort out what we believe is true from all of this. It allows us to decide what we want to do about it.

And then we have the capacity to will ourselves to do what we decide.

A great effect of people's relationships is to have who they are – their actions, words and way of being in the world – reflected back to them, and to do the same for others. The experience of being seen, being visible to others is a fundamental emotional need.

Having a regular positive experience of this is central to the feeling of love. The lack of it can be terribly painful and lonely – the experience of being even mildly shunned activates the same areas of the brain as does physical pain.

The downside of this effect is that if the people in your life reflect to you that you should think of yourself as a victim of others or of your circumstances then you may be persuaded to modify your own standards and be drawn toward those very harmful ideas or actions.

Your choice of relationships, therefore, can make a big difference in your life.

A reflection is an image. Images can be real or imagined, useful or troublesome. In Greek mythology, Narcissus stared at his own reflection, too absorbed in his own image to notice anybody else. The image that he saw drew him from the world. Not even Echo, the nymph who loved him but could only repeat his own words back to him, could pry him from his self-absorbed reverie.

Narcissus had a serious problem, and it served to disconnect him from any actual relationship with others, leaving only his image to hold his sense of self together.

But aside from those suffering from the condition of narcissism (a certain US president comes to mind), one's reflection can be a source of the kind of useful self-assessment that allows a person to live up to his or her own standards.

This is interesting information but how can you use this to make a better life for yourself and those whom you care for?

If a mirror can have the kind of impact that was demonstrated in these experiments, think of how great an impact you have on the people in your life, particularly those who look up to you – children, employees, students and lots of other people who you might not ever think you were influencing.

When you pay attention to a loved one, when you respond to them when they ask for your attention, when you show enthusiasm and interest at their good news, you are reflecting something precious back to them, and it really matters.

When you affirm human virtue, when you publicly assert qualities such as honesty, integrity and personal responsibility, you are reflecting something very important to the people around you. When you look for the best within people, and benevolently expect to see them express it, you are providing a mirror to their virtue.

They will do what they will with that, of course. You don't have control over what other people say or do. But you do have influence and you are likely to see more of whatever you reflect out towards others.