Ed Tronick and the "Still Face Experiment"

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ResearchBlogging.orgIn 1975, Edward Tronick and colleagues first presented the "still face experiment" to colleagues at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. He described a phenomenon in which an infant, after three minutes of "interaction" with a non-responsive expressionless mother, "rapidly sobers and grows wary. He makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression." It remains one of the most replicated findings in developmental psychology.

Once the phenomenon had been thoroughly tested and replicated, it became a standard method for testing hypotheses about person perception, communication differences as a result of gender or cultural differences, individual differences in attachment style, and the effects of maternal depression on infants. The still-face experiment has also been used to investigate cross-cultural differences, deaf infants, infants with Down syndrome, cocaine-exposed infants, autistic children, and children of parents with various psychopathologies, especially depression.

Why has this experiment, first published in the mid-1970s, become so important?

The still face experiment demonstrated that very young infants already have several basic building blocks of social cognition in place. It suggested that they have some sense of the relationship between facial expression and emotion, that they have some primitive social understanding, and that they are able to regulate their own affect and attention to some extent. The infants' attempts to re-engage with their caregivers also suggest that they are able to plan and execute simple goal-directed behaviors.

In addition, the still face experiment is among the more reliable and valid measurements of infant cognition and behavior; infants find it more disturbing than other violations of normal social interactions (such as the Ainsworth Strange Situation). The response is very complex, with infants displaying subtle facial cues such as dampened smiles, yawns, and sideways glances at the mother. Further, and perhaps most importantly, the still face experiment was the most revealing experiment conducted in terms of infant social cognition. By 1975, researchers had already devised ways to describe and quantify the reciprocal social exchanges that are characteristic of infants and their caregivers. However, the still face experiment allowed researchers to examine the ways in which infants spontaneously initiate social exchanges and the way they modulate their affect and attention, and provides rich data on the ways in which infants re-organize their behavior after the re-establishment of the reciprocal interaction. Importantly, it is a very easy experiment for researchers and parents to properly execute, which is perhaps why it is so popular.

The still face experiment has also proved useful in determining the extent of an infant's social world. That is, the still face effect is not only elicited by the mother (i.e. the primary caregiver), but also by fathers, strangers, and even by televised images of other adults. However, infants do not respond in similar ways to objects, no matter how interesting, interactive, or dynamic they appear to be. This provides more evidence that young infants readily categorize the world into potential social partners and inanimate objects.

The still-face experiment has likewise been useful in answering questions about how the still face effect may be related to earlier experiences and how it may predict later social-emotional variables. For example, variations in the still-face effect have been associated with mothers' baseline sensitivity and interactive style, and the infants' later attachment classification at age 1, internalizing (e.g. depression, anxiety) and externalizing (e.g. aggression, impulsivity) behaviors at 18 months, and behavior problems at age 3.

For an experiment that is so useful, so robust, so popular, one might think that it has outlived its usefulness, at least as far as research is concerned. But despite the robustness of the effect, nobody has been able to fully explain it. No theoretical paradigm has been able to account for the infants' response. Therefore, it is an area open for more investigation.

Adamson, L., & Frick, J. (2003). The Still Face: A History of a Shared Experimental Paradigm Infancy, 4 (4), 451-473 DOI: 10.1207/S15327078IN0404_01

Tronick, E., Adamson, L.B., Als, H., & Brazelton, T.B. (1975, April). Infant emotions in normal and pertubated interactions. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Denver, CO.

Image from Daily Mail

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This I think explains what happens when Mom is engaged with her baby, then her cell phone rings, and quickly the baby gets 'fussy'. Mom's phone face is utterly uncorrelated with the baby's efforts to connect.

OK, I just tried it on Huxley. Instead of going cold, he started giggling and dancing, then he filled his diaper.

BTW, FWIW, Ed was one of the principles on the Ituri Forest project so we are distant colleagues (though I only worked with his grad students, and I'm not entirely sure what they were doing).

Oooh, interesting (@Greg). I bet if you did it longer, he would've stopped the giggling and dancing. But the fact he filled his diaper is totally in line with the predictions, in terms of losing self-control (loss of muscle tone, drooling, etc).

This sounds like the meanest experimental procedure ever! (Except perhaps the marshmallow test.) I think that, even if the still-face response is ever explained, it will probably still be a useful test, and might even become a diagnostic tool.

BTW, don't forget to submit something to Encephalon this month! I'm taking submissions until the 29th.

It's possible I was making a silly face instead of the proper experimental face.

I found it very interesting that infants are able to perceive a loss of interaction and express negative emotions at this lack of engagement. The connection to the mother was astounding. The common misconception that babies are oblivious and donât engage in the world is proven false with this experiment. Even without verbal communication, the infant was able to express its discomfort and stress. It is also fascinating how such a basic experiment is used to study the intricacies of infant psychology. I never would have imagined that such a simple interaction could predict future emotions. However, I wonder if the baby was upset with the mother ignoring her or upset that she had no one to play with, and was in essence alone.

I found the still-face experiment very interesting, because it showed how much influence parents could have on their child. Before I read this article, I never thought that infants were able to interact with their mother by displaying facial expressions such as dampened smiles, yawns, and sideways glances at the mother. In the video, during the still-face experiment, the baby made repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual pattern. When these attempts failed, the infant withdrew his face and body away from his mother with a hopeless facial expression. Therefore, I believe that the interaction between a mother and her child is very important. If a baby begins to feel hopeless about the relationship between his/her mother, it could have many negative impacts on the baby while living out in the future society.

By Ye Jin Lim (not verified) on 23 Oct 2010 #permalink

Wow, this is truly fascinating. I never thought babiesâ brains would be developed enough for having interactions with others. But clearly, they are able to connect with their mothers, even trying to gain their mothersâ attention by performing a variety of actions. They knew what to do because of the usual patterns they engaged in, giving clues of long-term memory forming already. Also, itâs amazing how the prediction of later emotion and sociability could be based on the results of this experiment. Overall, I think it tells us how important it is for the parents to care for the baby.

By Heidi Kwak (not verified) on 23 Oct 2010 #permalink

Could this perhaps be useful as a screening test for autism?

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 24 Oct 2010 #permalink

I think this is very interesting because we usually think of babies as unintelligent and that they donât really understand anything thatâs happening around them. But this experiment really shows that infants are highly intellectual by being able to pick up on emotional responses. In the video, the baby almost instantly recognized that something was wrong with her mother, and therefore responded with negative reactions. This illustrates that a mother has an enormous effect on her child through her expression, so imagine how much of an effect she has on the child through other aspects like movement and voice. I find this astounding that at such a young age, a human is intelligent enough to know the difference between the usual state of his or her mother and the abnormal state. If this experiment showed results in a matter of minutes, how would this affect the child if a mother was non-responsive for years?

By Alec Coleman (not verified) on 24 Oct 2010 #permalink

Wow⦠I was amazed at how much the babyâs emotions change over such a short period because of a mother not reacting. This just comes to prove that babies do have real emotions, and the things they experience will have an effect later on in their life. I mean, even I would feel very lonely and upset if a friend just suddenly didnât react to what I was saying or doing. But I felt that reading this article really opened my eyes, because I havenât been that responsive to infants, say, when we go to group parties and the teenage kids are in charge to take care of the little ones. This also I believe will be useful information for me when I get older and start a family of my own⦠Never ignore your baby completely, or for a long period of time.

I thought about this scenario with a child with autism in mind. Imagine if instead of the mother being "stillfaced" it was the child! Imagine if the mother was attempting, as the baby in the clip was, to engage the baby and the baby was non-responsive! How must that feel to a parent of that child! They must be desperate to get that interaction from the little one that they love so much!

I can see how a parent of a child with autism would do just about anything to have this typical interactive dance with their child! I can't imagine how I would feel if my son couldn't engage with me in this way!

This study really hits home for me in the work I am doing with families with children on the spectrum using RDI to restore this foundational relationship, as I can really see how without this relationship intact, all developmental milestones would be affected!

By Chrissy Poulton (not verified) on 08 Nov 2010 #permalink

But the fact he filled his diaper is totally in line with the predictions, in terms of losing self-control. I wonder if the baby was upset with the mother ignoring her or upset that she had no one to play with, and was in essence alone.

They knew what to do because of the usual patterns they engaged in, giving clues of long-term memory forming already. Also, itâs amazing how the prediction of later emotion and sociability could be based on the results of this experiment.