Does your brain trick you when you look in the mirror?

You look in the mirror, you look incredible. You take a photo and delete it immediately because you don’t like it. What is the cause of that? Is it some trick of our brain?

In this article we are going to answer the question ‘’Does your brain trick you when you look in the mirror?’’ We will analyze the main mistakes people make when interpreting the mirror image and explain why we do not look the same in the mirror and in photos.

Does your brain trick you when you look in the mirror?

Yes, our brain trick us when we look in the mirror. The more time we spend looking in the mirror, the more our brains create an image of ourselves that is not real.

We are surrounded by mirrors all day, whether at the wheel, in the bathroom when we wash up or to check our appearance before going out to dinner with friends. But despite their ubiquity, they are somewhat mysterious.

In fictional literature and folk tales, they can become passageways that lead to spiritual, magical, or supernatural realms; They can even drive out the soulless vampires among us.

Mirrors may be alluring in part because they often defy our expectations. Not only is the left / right reversal of reflective surfaces puzzling, but many of our intuitions about how mirrors work are totally wrong.

Psychologist Marco Bertamini, from the University of Liverpool, and other scientists have identified three common but misconceptions around mirrors.

In the first place, people anticipate that they will see themselves reflected in the mirror before standing in front of it. In other words, they overestimate the image visible in a mirror. This is the so-called initial error.

Second, almost all humans assume that their projection in the mirror (the profile that could be outlined on the surface with a marker pen) is the same size as their body. False. The dimensions of the reflection, which we see, are half the actual body size.

And third, it tends to be thought that the reflection of the image itself will contract with distance: if we get far enough away we can see ourselves in full. However, distance does not affect the size of a body’s projection.

On the other hand, research reveals that some people consider reflected objects less real than non-reflected ones. The illusions that we present in this article take advantage of the little knowledge we have about mirrors.

Why do we like how we look in the mirror but hate being in photos?

Most of us have experienced how strange it is to hear our own voice recorded. Accustomed to hearing ourselves in real time, that sound sounds false, alien, ugly. A question comes to our mind with a certain horror: “Do I really speak like that?”

A similar sensation -for very different reasons- occurs when we see ourselves in photos: we do not find in them the image that we observe every day in the mirror. We like how we see ourselves in the mirror, but the same does not happen to us with how we see ourselves in photos.

There are those who say they take more than 200 selfies a day. Some researchers even speak of selfitis, the obsession with taking selfies and sharing them on social networks as a way to “compensate for the lack of self-esteem.”

But many of these photos are eliminated, as they are nothing more than the “drafts” necessary for the person portrayed to find one in which they do like how it turned out. Dissatisfaction multiplies, of course, when the photos are taken by others. A dissatisfaction for which science offers some explanations.

We like the image of ourselves that we are used to seeing

In the first place, there is the so-called principle of familiarity or mere exposure-effect half a century ago by the American social psychologist Roberto Zajonc, according to which, with repeated exposure, the liking of a certain stimulus increases.

Due to this psychological principle, we like the image we see on a daily basis in the mirror: always from the front, looking at us fixedly and from the height of our eyes, at a short distance, in movement, in three dimensions and with immediate feedback, in function of which we can modify that image.

The mirror shows an inverted image and, as no human face is symmetrical, this is the first thing that misses those who see themselves in a photo: it is “upside down” from how it looks every day.

Although these are subtle differences (from the hairstyle part to the smallest differences between the right and left side of the mouth or nose), not seeing the familiar image, but a different one, already generates a certain displeasure.

But there are many other factors involved in the displeasure that we often get when we see how we look in certain photos.

Perspective is one of the keys. Unlike what happens with what one sees in the mirror, the photo can be taken from the most varied angles and distances. This can enhance or emphasize features that, in everyday reflection, go unnoticed.

The same can happen with the different types of light at the time of taking the photo or with how focused (or out of focus) certain parts of the face or body are.

In addition, the photo is the capture of an instant, which can lead to unexpected gestures, from the classic eyes closed by a blink that not even the portrayed person is aware of, to a funny grimace that -as part of a fast movement- it is imperceptible in real face to face.

The deceptions of self-perception

Beyond all these characteristics of photography, in the fact that we often do not like ourselves in photos, psychological factors intervene. In particular, the fact that, in general, we think we are more handsome than we really are, as confirmed by a study carried out by scientists in the United States and published in a specialized journal as early as 2008.

The experiment basically consisted of offering some people various portraits of themselves, some of which were retouched in such a way that their appearance appeared “enhanced.” When asked to identify the images that they believed reproduced them most faithfully, the majority of people chose retouched photos.

The same thing happened with photos of his friends, which, on the other hand, did not happen with portraits of strangers. According to the researchers, this attitude was correlated “with implicit measures of self-esteem and not with explicit measures, which is consistent with the idea that it is a relatively automatic and non-voluntary process.”

Before the mirror, one can pose and move in such a way that the image in the reflection resembles as much as possible his positive self-perception, that is, how handsome he – unconsciously – thinks he is. The photos do not offer that possibility, and there you can find another reason why they like less.

The importance we give to physical appearance

Another proof that self-perception misleads us was provided by a study by Australian researchers. They asked a group of more than 130 students to select, from a group of photos of themselves, those that they believed best portrayed them.

They then asked a group of people who did not know the students in the experiment and who only knew them from a one-minute video.

The results? The strangers chose more accurate photos than those portrayed themselves. We are not as we think we are.

On the other hand, there is also what in technical terms is called body dysmorphic disorder, also known as dysmorphophobia, which occurs when a person becomes obsessed with some physical defect (or more than one), a defect that is actually very small, imperceptible or even non-existent.

Although this problem is also known colloquially as “mirror syndrome”, in the mirror it is easier to avoid the vision of the supposed defect, something that in a photo may be impossible.

In any case, the relevance of physical appearance in relation to the feeling of well-being seems unquestionable.

A 2016 study, carried out by scientists in the United States with data from more than 12,000 people, revealed that people who are more satisfied with their appearance and their body weight, in general, are also happier with their lives: they have higher self-esteem, they feel more secure in their interpersonal relationships and are more open and outgoing.

Results that are not surprising in an era marked by social networks such as Facebook and Instagram, in which the image plays a fundamental role.

Faced with such a situation, to the traditional advice not to give so much importance to the external appearance and to value the interior of people, it is convenient to add that, although we are not as handsome as we tend to think, we are not as bad as, sometimes, we are we see in the photos.

FAQS: Does your brain trick you when you look in the mirror?

Is a mirror how others see you?

The mirror reflects our face with inverted features, in a symmetry opposite to that by which everyone recognizes us and which is what is reflected in the photographs. All the photos show us our face upside down from how we are used to seeing it every day. 

Our faces are not totally symmetrical, so self-perception in the mirror is not the same as in photographs, nor is it the same as how others perceive us.

Does your brain trick you into seeing yourself more attractive?

According to a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, we think we are much more handsome and attractive than we really are and this perception improves the more we look in the mirror.

Is it true you look more attractive in the mirror?

And it is that, after all our lives seeing ourselves in mirrors, it is the most familiar image we have of ourselves. And when the cameras give us the “real” image of ourselves, we look so strange that we don’t like it.

Is looking at yourself in the mirror bad?

It depends. If you look excessively in the mirror Beware: you could suffer from captotrophy. This obsessive compulsive mania has as its origin the search for perfection, and links perfectionism, self-demand and personal worth. Those who suffer it are kept in constant self-punishment and anguish

Do we see ourselves uglier or prettier?

Epley and Whitchurch found in a series of experiments that we see ourselves as better looking than we really are. The researchers took images of study participants and created more attractive and less attractive versions of those photos using a computerized process.

In this article we answered the question ‘’Does your brain trick you when you look in the mirror?’’ We analyzed the main mistakes people make when interpreting the mirror image and explained why we do not look the same in the mirror and in photos.

If you have any questions or comments please let us know!


Epley, N. & Whitchurch, E.(2008). Mirror, mirror on the wall: enhancement in self-recognition. Pers Soc Psychol Bull.34(9):1159-70.

Ozgun Atasoy. (2013, May 21). You Are Less Beautiful Than You Think. Retrieved December 17, 2020, from Scientific American website:

‌What Do You See When You Look in the Mirror? (2016). Retrieved December 17, 2020, from Psychology Today website: