What is social referencing and why you need to understand it

PIP Reference Points

Adults’ facial expressions have a strong impact on very young children learning about social relationships. Anne O’Connor explains social referencing and why early years workers need to understand it…

Orson and his brother Seb are playing happily with dad. The mood changes when Seb bangs his face on the guitar. Orson looks carefully at dad and registers that he is no longer smiling and relaxed, and is showing concern for Seb in his expression and the way he is talking to him.

Orson turns back to his brother and copies dad’s concerned expression. Dad’s response to Seb’s mishap provides Orson with information about how people handle distress and show their concern and empathy for each other. This not only helps Orson build a bigger picture of how relationships work, but gives him the specific information he needs to guide his own responses.

1 When babies look towards their carers for a response to help them deal with a new experience, they need the adult to assess the situation and give them a positive or negative reaction, so that they know how to proceed.

This process is called ‘social referencing’ and is linked with a baby’s growing abilities to share ‘joint attention’ and to ‘read’ facial expressions. Once a baby has reached this stage of development, they are highly likely to copy the adult responses that they see in their faces.

  • It might, for example, be about safety – is it ok to pick up this plate, to crawl out the door or to pat this dog?
  • Or it could also be about emotions – Does mum like this person, is dad scared of the wasp, are they worried about my brother?

2 A famous piece of research (Source et al, 1983) showed just how influential the facial expression of a parent is in encouraging a child to attempt a new experience.

In the experiment, one-year-old babies were presented with what would seem to them to be a confusing and frightening situation – a ‘visual cliff ’ with what appeared to be a drop on one side.

Mothers were asked to provide different facial cues as the babies moved towards the pretend cliff. This showed the researchers the impact that the mothers’ facial expressions had on their babies’ attempts to try to cross.

The researchers found that the babies’ behaviour was directly affect ed by the expression they saw on their mother’s face.

Anger and fear proved to have the biggest impact, as angry or fearful expressions on the mother’s face resulted in very few babies attempting to cross.

Sad faces caused confused responses as the babies tried to make sense of the situation. Joyful, interested expressions gave most babies the confidence to cross.

In a similar experiment, mothers of one-year-old babies were asked to react in varied ways to new toys. Even if the toy was one that would have been expected to appeal to the baby, the research found that their response reliably mirrored that of their mother.

What seems to be significant is that responsive carers instinctively exaggerate their emotional reactions to things and events around babies. This high level of expressiveness (positive or negative) means the baby is more likely to notice and pay attention.

Not only does this affect the baby’s reaction to things, but as they mirror the expression, the meaning of the emotion also becomes established for the baby.

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Article written by Anne O’Connor and published in Nursery World © www.nurseryworld.co.uk

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