Check it out: Windows have a flip side

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

It is a commonly accepted truth. Just as the sky is blue and the earth is round, when students pass by the BioMedical Center on Brown Street, they look at themselves in its reflective windows. A lesser-known fact, though, is that there are people inside, looking out.

Behind the glass lie several faculty offices and a conference room: the ultimate people-watching venue.

“It is odd,” said Thomas Roberts, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, whose corner office gives him views of Brown Street and the BioMed Center’s concrete terrace. “You can be standing four feet away from somebody, and you can be essentially looking at each other, but they can’t see you.”

Sharon Swartz, associate professor of biology, holds the office adjacent to Roberts’. She notices students adjusting their clothes, touching their hair and stopping to pick at their teeth. “That’s the most unpleasant, I think, from the inside,” she said. She rearranged her bookshelves to cover the windows when the stream of self-conscious college students became distracting.

Alexandra Gallucci, a security guard stationed outside the BioMed Center five days a week, sees dozens of students staring at their reflections several times a day. “Anyone that walks through here looks at themselves in the windows,” Gallucci said. “I don’t think they even really realize they’re doing it. They walk by and pull their pants up and tuck their shirts in.”

She said even professors and University officials succumb to the temptation to gaze at themselves. As she spoke, a middle-aged man in a suit and tie entered the building. “He just did it,” she smiled.

“They’ll look, and then they’ll see me,” she said, laughing. “And then they’ll look down, look away or kind of look like, ‘Aw, you didn’t see that.'”

Some people, Gallucci said, are so preoccupied with their reflections that they trip over the small concrete step onto the terrace from Brown Street, often sheepishly meeting her eye as they right themselves.

“There’s definitely a distinctly elevated level of preening during Orientation,” Swartz said, speculating that the newly arrived freshmen are especially self-conscious and that it has not occurred to them that the windows are one-way mirrors. She also noted that males look at their reflections as often as females.

Professor of Psychology Joachim Krueger attributes this behavior to a mixture of vanity and instinct. “Most people like it when they see their own mirror image,” he said. “It’s an image that’s been repeated many times, so it’s more pleasant.” By contrast, our true image – the way the world perceives us – is often unpleasant, he said, citing people who complain that they look strange in photographs.

Krueger believes that the phenomenon is primarily a result of people being distracted by movement in their peripheral vision. “We’ve evolved to have this exceptionally wide field of vision,” he explained, to help us detect potential threats. But now, instead of seeing predators out of the corner of our eyes, we are greeted by the tantalizing image of our own reflections.

The phenomenon is not lost on the student body. In 2005, Caroline Goddard ‘09.5 and several friends created the Facebook group, “Don’t Deny it … you Know You Check Yourself Out In the Bio-med Windows Every Morning,” which now has 245 members.

“When you walk to class and you’re walking behind someone, you can totally see them looking at themselves,” Goddard said. “It’s pretty noticeable.”

Goddard lived on Pembroke campus for two years and remembers looking at her reflection every day, until someone mentioned the offices on the other side of the glass. “I realized I should probably stop,” she laughed, “because it was really narcissistic and embarrassing that there would be people on the other side seeing me.”

“I’m not ashamed,” said Andrew Berg ’11. “I just want to see how damn good I look.”

Just a few minutes in front of the BioMed Center produce a number of prime examples.

Two male students, one clad in a highlighter-yellow sweatshirt, turn their heads in unison to stare at the glass. A heavyset man with gray hair is so transfixed by his reflection that he meets his own eyes at each glass panel.

Lena Buell ’08 glances to her right and examines her reflection for several seconds.

“Sometimes people look at themselves and then stare as they keep walking,” Buell said later. “It’s pretty funny.”

Though she was unaware of the offices behind the windows, she said she believes the pull of one’s reflection would trump students’ embarrassment at being viewed from inside. “Even if you knew those people are there,” she said, “it’s an ingrained part of walking past (the BioMed Center).”

Goddard offered her own pet theory. “Maybe one of the reasons it’s so captivating is that you rarely get to see yourself in motion,” she said, since people generally stand still when looking in a mirror. She likened it to the experience of watching oneself on video or entering a dance studio lined with mirrors.

Though this may explain why people initially glance at themselves, why do they continue to stare? Krueger attributes this to narcissism. People with lower self-esteem and greater social anxiety, he thinks, are more likely to avoid their reflections.

But even someone keenly aware of the narcissistic undertones of mirror-gazing can give in to the urge. Krueger walked by the BioMed Center earlier that day, he said. “And I looked.”

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