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Pop Psychology Honors Michael: "Man In The Mirror"

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Call it a few slow work days. Or just call it Durham in the summer. Either way, this week brings a very special 5-part Pop Psychology series investigating the relevant scientific research behind some of Michael Jackson's greatest hits. First off is my second most beloved Jackson track, 1987's "Man In The Mirror," from the album Bad.

It's clear that "Man In The Mirror" was one of Michael's personal favorite tracks. Aside from being the fourth number one from Bad, the song was repeatedly used to close out concerts during the 1992-1993 Dangerous World Tour.

Throughout "Man In The Mirror," Michael confronts the fact that he has done little good with his tremendous fame, influence and wealth. The first verse sees Jackson reflecting that "I see the kids In the street/ With not enough to eat/ Who am I, to be blind/ Pretending not to see their needs?" Later, he fully admits to having "been a victim of a selfish kind of love." Of course, Jackson promises to start being more conscious of the struggles around him, a sentiment that is forever captured in his inescapably catchy chorus:

I'm starting with the man in the mirror

I'm asking him to change his ways

And no message could have been any clearer

If you wanna make the world a better place

Take a look at yourself,

And then make a change.

The catalyst for Michael's change of heart seems to come from having to face his own reflection. It's a nice thought, the idea that simply seeing our likeness can create a need for personal and moral growth. But is it true? One recent study seems to think so.

Consider this paper, published last year by Dutch researchers Carina Wiekens and Diederik Stapel in The Journal for Experimental Social Psychology. The authors attempted to investigate how looking into a mirror (and thus increasing self-awareness) would effect our tendency to stereotype others.

To do so, they asked 127 Dutch people who showed both high and low levels of prejudice towards the Surinamese (a minority in the Netherlands) to judge some ambiguous behaviors performed by a Surinamese man. Some participants made these judgments in the presence of a mirror in which they could see their own reflection, while others made the judgments with no mirror. The judgments revolved around a story regarding a Surinamese person named Clarence. The story was constructed so that Clarence could be interpreted as displaying either positive traits (like "easygoing") or negative traits (like "irresponsible").

The results showed that the mirror made a big difference for those people who already measured high in prejudice. Participants who made judgments without a mirror were significantly more likely to label Clarence as "irresponsible." Those who completed the study while occasionally seeing their own reflection were more likely to perceive Clarence as "easygoing." In essence, seeing themselves in a mirror made people high in prejudice behave in the same manner as participants who showed low levels of prejudice towards the Surinamese.

The authors go on to speculate that looking at oneself in a mirror forces us to consider how we are viewed by others. As a result, seeing our reflection makes us more likely to conform to social norms (you know, like not being racist). Michael came face to face with the man in the mirror and realized he needed to "make a change," to become a more concerned and compassionate person. Here at least, everyday people seem to be no different than the King of Pop.

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