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Social Referencing
Running head: SOCIAL REFERENCING
Literature Review: Social Referencing in Children
Mariam Aziz
996762098
University of Toronto Mississauga
1
Social Referencing
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Abstract
Social referencing is a phenomenon in which mostly children and other individuals look
towards a person in position of power for their approval to perform a task in an ambiguous
situation. The purpose of this paper is to list the relevant research performed on the phenomenon
of social referencing so one can understand how it affects human behavior, and to show that
parents can have an extensive impact on the lives of their children based on how they act in a
situations where the children require the use of social referencing. The introduction of this paper
elaborates on how social referencing occurs in children, and the literature review further goes to
explain the research that has occurred in this field in a chronological order. Hence, it is clear
from all the research in this field that social referencing is one of the factors that have a clear
effect on how a child will turn out to be as an adult.
Introduction
Everyone at one point or another has been in the predicament of meeting with something
or someone unexpected, unfamiliar and unable to respond, the person withdraws or makes a
reference to how they know this person in order to react. In other words, based on the
referencing, we wait to see their response in order to react based on how they express their
feelings. The process is as natural as it is fast. In every culture, there is a sense of social
referencing from the religion to the education standards; all is done based on the response of the
‘other’. Social referencing is important but it's a skill that must be learned in order to pinpoint.
Infants, using social referencing, are able to learn and adapt to new situations, students are able
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to follow a pattern of studying based on others’ success, and society in general is always guided
by the reaction of others in relation to the reaction by the self. The point of this essay is to
determine if empirical literature has succeeded in finding out more about social referencing than
its mere surface. The main question to be investigated in this essay is: how can social
referencing contribute further to our learning about the human mind and its reactive behaviors?
The essay argues that social referencing in infancy can affect the child in adulthood negatively
only if the parent presents negative reinforcement of cues, scenarios, etc. Therefore, social
referencing is learned as the parent teaches it.
Kalat and Shiota (2007) noted that based on the emotional reaction “to the ambiguous
situation” by the other, the person will experience emotions to counteract the ambiguity of the
situation. Fleeing to another location or spot or simply fighting it out with the person
(demonstrating emotions back); this natural process is present every time a new situation is
encountered regardless of age, status, gender or race. The ability for social referencing is a gift
that is learned and, thus, can benefit the doer. By gradually developing social referencing,
throughout life, the person is able to connect with maturity, reach a level of understanding (of
the self and the other) and carry on with a secure attachment to his or her life, parents, love,
‘others’ and environment.
Fienman, Roberts, Hsieh, Sawyer and Swanson (1992) believe that social referencing
begins at home. The caregiver will aid the infant in learning the processes involved (p. 32).
Nishida and Lillard (2007) note that referencing will be used later in life, in situations unknown
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to the person, and the person will be able to triumph, as it has learned the art of social
referencing. The idea is that by developing its instincts, the caregivers are providing the children
with the most-up-to-date skills needed to survive, socially, in our world. There is learning
periods and priorities, social referencing is certainly one of them as every human being, at one
point or another, will or is exposed to an unknown, uncertain, unfamiliar situation and will
either make it or break through with anxiety and run. The idea is for the latter to not occur and to
have a secure attachment style allowing the person to be assertive, confident and sure of what
the other person is attempting to emote to them through their reactions, questions, body
language and so on.
There are two levels to social referencing: first, the primary inter-subjectivity; second, a
secondary inter-subjectivity level. The first is shared through body language, sounds, and
expressions; in other words, it is an explicit level of referencing. The second is when the
caregiver and the infant have experienced social referencing together and the learning is
implicitly ingrained within the instincts of the person. Therefore, the reinforcement of the
feelings and emotions makes it more plausible for the referencing to be known to the person
when it happens and for the person to instinctively know what to do about it. According to Kalat
and Shoita (2007), there are also three parts to social referencing: first, the infant needs to be
able to understand the emotional message set out by the caregiver; second, the infant must be
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able to identify the reference; third, the infant must be effective at appraising the response and
incorporating learned skills into his or her reactions.
Literature Review
The study of social referencing has been part of psychology since its birth. Furthermore,
this essay outlines several studies, in chronological order, to see what progress has been made in
the field and how psychology has contributed to more human understanding in terms of social
understanding. An interesting find is in a study by Klinnert, Emde and Butterfield (1986).
Children will react differently to strangers in front of their parents than when the parents are not
present. Specifically, when the mother is present, the infant will have a different reaction to
social ambiguities. The authors studied 46 1-year-olds and presented unusual toys in order to
examine their reactions in front of mother and away from her. They were confronted with
familiar and unfamiliar experiences, some happy and others fearful, in order to test the facial
signals by the mother on the child and their reaction as a result. Results indicated that about 83%
of the children referenced the stranger to their mother. Once the child noted the face signals, the
behaviors and expressive responses were then tested. The results suggest that the influence may
be a lot more intense than originally thought and that further research needs to investigate further
into this.
Walden and Organ (1988), to begin with, noted that social referencing affects expression
either through modifications or simple imitations. The effects of social references indicate that
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behavior is observed, the younger the child, the faster the behavior will be learned, and the
components that develop during the first year of the infant will last a whole lifetime (p. 1232).
The authors studied a total of 40 infants; their main purpose was to find out if the infants needed
mood modification in order to adhere to standards of a new situation. The evidence showed
behavioral effects when toys appeared to note that their behaviors had to be modified in order for
them to react. Furthermore, there were positive and negative expressions based on the reactions
by the referencing parent. Preference was shown for looks in faces over looks elsewhere in the
parent. There were two significant correlations, one was between the toys used and the messages
perceived as well as the expressions used by parents in their faces and the messages received by
the infants.
A study by Dickstein and Ross (1988) studied the relationship between infants, fathers
and social referencing. Again, an ambiguous scenario was presented to 40 11-month-old infants
and the reaction to a female entering the room was tested in the child as they saw their father
react to the presence of a female that was not the mother/wife. The study concluded that marital
standards are set from an early age based on social referencing and marital satisfaction is
correlated with the social referencing of both parents. Therefore, social referencing builds
character in the child. Another interesting study completed by Kasari, Freeman, Mundy and
Sigman (1995) investigated social referencing in children diagnosed with Down syndrome.
Based on the 35 children under study, the authors found that there were no significant
differences with the child who has Down syndrome and the one that does not when it comes to
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social referencing. Coordination looks, joint movement and body language is the same in these
children which led the authors to conclude that the difference in children with Down syndrome is
based on “cognitive appraisal abilities” and not referencing. It is the assimilation of a reference
that may lose them but it is not that they cannot follow; it is based on how hard it is to follow.
In 1993, there was a realization that vocal and visual referencing are different yet both
very much influential. Each child will perceive differently based on how the reference is
expressed (vocally or visually). Join attention became quite the phenomenon in research
literature and, therefore, authors such as Slaughter and McConnell (2002) noted that among the
participants they studied, there were no significant correlations between joint attentions. There
was one exception, however, and this was following the caregivers’ “gaze” and the reaction.
Therefore, the study found that unlike the study by Carpenter, Nagell and Tomasello (1998),
which noted a correlation emerging from joint attention behaviors, such as listening and seeing,
this study found no such thing. By 2004, researchers studied visual reference in relation to its
condition as necessary in a social referencing scenario (p. 902). By 2006, literature was
discussing the transmission of anxiety through social referencing learning between mother and
infant (p. 902). This paradigm in the way social referencing is understood continues to show
why further research is needed. However, let us move towards the present day and see what
literature has in store for us. Have there been any new discoveries from 2006 to 2014?
Discussion
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Certainly, scientific research continues to advance and surprise its audience every time.
The psychology field has not left the notion of social referencing behind, but instead, it has been
working passionately on attaining answers to the question: how can social referencing contribute
further to our learning about the human mind and its reactive behaviors? First in the list, Hamlin,
Wynn and Bloom (2007) studied social reference in terms of judgment in infants. It was
concluded that infants differentiate between the references and their judgment based on their
color or shape of the cue or person, the order in which the references are presented (i.e.,
greeting, conversation, retrieval, etc.) and the order in which the infant is looking at it (p. 31).
Therefore, the authors found that there is a relationship between visual and vocal cues to social
references. In fact, there is more than that, there is a whole connectivity process happening
between the order of actions and the order of perception by the infant. These are also directly
related to the interpretation of the reaction by the parent encouraging the child to take on that
direction as well. The conclusion was followed by a study that studied the regulation of
emotions, as infants perceive the reaction. Written by Kleef (2009), the study noted the behavior
of infants and the way they managed their emotions in social settings with and without the
parents present. The first obvious result is certainly the idea that the child will act differently in
front of the parent than when it’s not with the parent. Earlier studies suggested this as well (seen
above). The idea behind this study, however, was to investigate the reaction, reaction times and
expressions to new, strange and maybe even scary environmental cues. The study found that
there was a correlation between emotions and formations of the world outside in that the reactive
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emotion presented to the individual at the time of the meeting with the strange and new cue will
create a firm link between the two whereby the individual will always reason that one infers the
other and vice versa.
A microanalysis in 2010 studied the interaction between mother and infant and tested the
regulation of behavior, not emotions, when in a social scene that was either unfamiliar or
unknown. The study found out that a lot could be said about these exposures beginning with the
fact that autism can be noted much more easily if this technique is used in contrast with the
normal autistic testing currently in the field. The significance of the gaze was of particular
interest because it noted the signs of either an autistic child or one that was not. This provides
much help in the field in noting who is autistic, diagnosing and not falling into the risk of
misdiagnosing (Stern, 2014).
Conclusion
What can be said about learning social referencing? What was learned throughout this
discussion? For one, the answer to the question posed at the introduction can be proposed. How
can social referencing contribute further to our learning about the human mind and its reactive
behaviors? This essay brought out specific points that aid in the progression of our learning
about our species as human beings and the meanings behind our actions, interactions and
reactions. This essay showed, through literature, that there are various ways of referencing
social reactions. There are also many ways in which the infant can select a reaction or perceive it
and this has a lot to do with the choice used to demonstrate the cues and the parental reference to
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that reaction. The infant automatically leans to the side of the parent for approval as they mimic
him or her. It was also demonstrated in this essay that social referencing can be used to tell if a
child is autistic or not. This helps because in the field there are many gaps in the research and
one step closer to being able to diagnose properly always makes it easier for therapists, doctors
and the research industry alike to find out more about social referencing. Social referencing is a
key learned skill that can lead to negative or positive experiences for the person. Parents have a
lot of influence on their child’s view of the world and the child will act differently when the
parent is there and not certain when the parent is not. This shows the independent side of social
referencing created by the instincts founded from nature, rearing, and the mother.
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References
Carpenter, M., Nagell, K., Tomasello, M., Butterworth, G., & Moore, C. (1998). Social
cognition, joint attention, and communicative competence from 9 to 15 months of age.
Monographs of the society for research in child development, i-174.
Dickstein, S., & Parke, R. D. (1988). Social referencing in infancy: A glance at fathers and
marriage. Child development.
Hamlin, J. K., Wynn, K., & Bloom, P. (2007). Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Nature,
450(7169), 557-559.
Kalat, James & Shiota, Michelle. (2007). Emotion. Wadsworth Pub Co.
Kasari, C., Freeman, S., Mundy, P., & Sigman, M. D. (1995). Attention regulation by children
with Down syndrome: Coordinated joint attention and social referencing looks. American
journal of mental retardation: AJMR, 100(2), 128-136.
Klinnert, M. D., Emde, R. N., Butterfield, P., & Campos, J. J. (1986). Social referencing: The
infant's use of emotional signals from a friendly adult with mother present.
Developmental Psychology, 22(4), 427.
Murray, Lynn & Roshay, Marc De, et al. (2008). Intergenerational Transmission of Social
Anxiety: The role of social referencing. Child Development, 79(4) 1049-1064.
Nishdia, Tracy K. & Lillard, Angeline (2007). The informative value of emotional expressions.
Developmental Science, 10(2) 205-212.
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Slaughter, V., & McConnell, D. (2003). Emergence of joint attention: Relationships between
gaze following, social referencing, imitation, and naming in infancy. The Journal of
genetic psychology, 164(1), 54-71.
Stern, D. N. (2014). A micro-analysis of mother-infant interaction: Behavior regulating social
contact between a mother and her 3 1/2-month-old twins. Journal of the American
Academy of Child Psychiatry, 10(3), 501-517.
Thomaz, Andrea L. & Berlin, Matt (2008). An embodied Computational Model of Social
Referencing. MIT media Lab.
Van Kleef, G. A. (2009). How emotions regulate social life the emotions as social information
(EASI) model. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(3), 184-188.
Walden, T. A., & Ogan, T. A. (1988). The development of social referencing. Child
development, 1230-1240.
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