Magic Mirror Pattern
30 Sep, 2009
3 minutes read

Problem Summary

We humans are tribal creatures. We seek safety in numbers, and reassurance in commonality. New situations often force us to reconsider norms, and look for guidance from others. Society does not, however, accept those who imitate or repeat the actions of others parrot-fashion. You should know your ways as if born to them.

This pattern aids the user in adapting to a new situation quickly, without needing to be all Monkey See, Monkey Do about it.

Use When

  • You find yourself in situation in which you are socially uncomfortable. This may be a new situation, or one where you do not feel that you naturally fit in.
  • There is no opportunity for prior learning or acclimatisation and it is safe to participate without such prior learning.
  • You can identify one or more individuals who are ‘naturals’ in this environment.
  • The situation dictates that the ‘naturals’ will not actively participate in your learning, e.g. you can’t ask them questions.
  • The ‘naturals’ are in plain sight and can be observed without arousing suspicion.


The title of this pattern alludes to the idea that your actions should mirror, but distort, those of your observed ‘naturals’, such that your imitation will go unnoticed. To do this, first identify a target action being performed by your ‘natural’ — this is an action that is essential to the task of fitting in. Your aim is to now perform the target action, but to improvise any lesser, intermediate steps along the way. This process can then be repeated.

Advanced proponents of the Magic Mirror pattern can add variety and improve realism by switching the ‘natural’ that they observe, like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. With practice, it also becomes possible to identify likely future actions of the ‘natural’, allowing them to be targeted without any time-lag.

The canonical example of the Magic Mirror pattern in use can be seen when a heterosexual couple enter a womens’ clothing store. The man’s objective in this situation is to feel at ease in this alien environment. However, he must, at all times, be seen to be involved in the shopping process. His ‘natural’ in this case is his partner. He cannot afford to act independently of his partner, in case he is singled out and offered assistance by shop staff. This outcome must be avoided at all costs. Conversely, pure imitation of his partner’s actions will lead to her irritation. The Magic Mirror pattern is applied by targeting locations rather than actions — a particular pair of shoes or a dress at which his partner has stopped. He must then distort by moving towards the item taking a different route (shown below).



  • Shopping for clothes with one’s partner (above).
  • Drinking (alcohol) at an acceptable pace for the social gathering–target sips, distort by adding a time delay.
  • Visiting a foreign country or martial arts event–when in Rome. Unless of course you’re Roman.


Identification of a true ‘natural’ is critical, and may be difficult dependent on the context. It is important to assess the degree of distortion one can apply. This will differ between situations. When observing multiple ‘naturals’, one may get conflicting impressions of how to approach an action.

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