The process by which infants seek out and interpret the emotional responses of their parents to form their own emotional understanding of unfamiliar events, objects, or persons.
The concept of social referencing in children has been the subject of increasing study over the last quarter century, as developmental psychologists seek to understand the formation of emotion in infants and children. Research in this area has sought to understand how children learn to respond emotionally to various events, how they learn to interpret the emotional responses of others, and how they form ideas about appropriateness of emotional displays.
Studies have shown that beginning in early infancy, children begin looking at their parents for cues about how to respond to various situations, persons, and stimuli. Researchers have concluded that this kind of social referencing generally occurs in situations of high ambiguity, when infants are presented with novel, startling, or otherwise unfamiliar occurrences. Social referencing in early infancy has been broken down into a four-stage process by a group of researchers in the 1980s (Klinnert, et al, 1983). After conducting several studies, they constructed a sequence beginning with 1) the ability to recognize emotional expressions; 2) the ability to understand emotional expressions; 3) the ability to respond to emotional expression; and 4) the ability to alter behavior in response to emotional expressions.
While little is known for certain about how social referencing develops, researchers have suggested several hypotheses. The question at the heart of the debate is to what extent infants attach the emotional responses of their parents to the object, or referent, of the message. If an infant is uncertain about how to react to a strange adult, he checks the expression of a nearby parent. The question is whether the infant is simply imitating the parent's reaction or whether he understands the reaction is related to this stranger. Researchers who suggest the latter speak of social referencing in early infancy as a generalized process of mood modification, whereby infants' emotions are spurred almost by contagion. Other researchers suggest that infants are simply imitating parental responses and do not feel or understand the emotion they are modeling.
In a 1988 study conducted at Vanderbilt University, researchers sought to resolve these questions about the nature of social referencing by studying infants ages 6 to 22 months to determine under what conditions they reference parents, how they interpret the information gained in referencing, and to what extent they modified their behavior in accordance with that information. They found that, as they develop, infants use social referencing in varying ways. When confronted with a novel situation or an unfamiliar toy, the youngest infants were found to be less concerned with looking at their mothers' faces than they were with simply making sure the mother was there. This, the researchers hypothesized, suggests that very young infants are not so much referencing their mothers for emotional cues about how to respond, but simply checking to see that their mother was nearby when confronted with ambiguous or fearful situations. Infants older than 10 months began looking specifically at their mothers' faces when referencing, leading researchers to believe that it is at about this age that true social referencing begins.
The study also found that younger infants were more likely to continue looking at their mother if she was expressing positive emotions rather than negative. Older infants gazed longer at apprehensive or negative responses. Significantly, younger infants were also found to be less affected by a parent's reaction, so that while they gazed longer at positive expressions than negative, fearful reactions to a new toy expressed by a parent had little effect on their willingness to play with the toy. In infants 14 to 22 months, fearful expressions had the effect of decreasing their likelihood of playing with an unfamiliar toy. In infants approaching two years, fearful expressions had the opposite effect.
Overall, the study's authors found that both the hypotheses mentioned above, that infants simply imitate emotions or that they assume them through contagion, were flawed. Neither hypothesis could account for the age-specific variables in responses they had observed. Instead, they suggest that the children were using the parent's response to interpret the event in a way that was meaningful to them. This interpretation suggests that children are more cognitively aware of the meanings of emotional expressions and how to react to them than previous theorists have been willing to concede. It also suggests that infants are capable of interpreting something as subtle as context in measuring the seriousness of a parental cue.
Klinnert, M., et al. "Social Referencing: Emotional Expressions as Behavior Regulators." In Emotion: Theory, Research, and Experience: Vol. 2. Emotions in Early Development. Academic Press, Orlando, FL.
Waiden, Tedra A., and Tamra A. Ogan. "The Development of Social Referencing." Child Development 59 (1988): 1230-40.