What Is Social Referencing, And How Does It Relate To Object Permanence?

by Team Scary Mommy
Originally Published: 
Social Referencing
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Watching your baby as they first discover and learn about the world around them can be fascinating. At this stage, you don’t know what’s going on inside that sweet little head of theirs and are probably wondering what they’re thinking as they see, hear, touch, smell, and taste new things. You may also wonder if there’s anything you can do to help facilitate their cognitive and emotional development. One way is through responding to your baby’s attempts at social referencing — or looking to you (or another caregiver) for cues as to how they should react to a particular object.

If you’ve never heard of social referencing before, hey, no sweat. We’re here to help walk you through what you need to know. Keep reading for a definition, some examples of social referencing, and more.

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What is social referencing?

Being new in the world is probably pretty overwhelming. New people, places, and things constantly cross baby’s path, and they must figure out how to respond to each of them. Most importantly, they must decipher what’s safe and what’s not. Social referencing is also a component of a child learning object permanence. Perhaps you might have noticed that when your baby or inquisitive toddler encounters something new — whether it’s a spoon, the dog, or a person — they’ll look to you before reacting. This refers to “social referencing,” and it’s one way that babies learn about their environment. It’s kind of like a shortcut babies and toddlers use to figure out how to respond to or behave around something. They look to a trusted caregiver, observe whether they appear to approve or disapprove of something, and then log that reaction in their baby brain for next time.

But social referencing isn’t limited to babies. In fact, it was first studied in adults beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, and it wasn’t until the 1980s that it was determined that infants were even capable of social referencing. At that point, psychologists understood the concept of attachment — that babies view their caregivers as a safe place from which they can explore and experience the world — as well as the fact that babies and toddlers use their caregivers as sources of information.

When does social referencing start?

It is thought that social referencing begins towards the end of a baby’s first year. It typically occurs as a child is getting the hang of object permanence. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done in the field of psychology for experts to better understand the extent of social referencing in babies and toddlers, as well as how it may differ from child-to-child.

At this point, experts consider social referencing a universal skill for babies and toddlers. However, there are individual and potentially cultural variations on it. Researchers hope that further studies on developing social referencing may provide insight into how it can be used in the cognitive development of children on the autism spectrum, for example, who may have difficulty with this skill.

What are some examples of social referencing?

As a parent, social referencing is one of those things that you probably already do without being fully aware of what you’re doing and how it works. Let’s say your baby is learning how to crawl, scoot, and/or cruise around. If you live somewhere with stairs, chances are good that one day you’ll find your baby attempting to crawl up at least the bottom step. After some effort, they finally manage to hoist their little butt up on the next step, plop it down, and turn to you to get your reaction. Is this some sort of accomplishment they should be proud of? Or maybe it’s something their parent views as being potentially dangerous, and whose behavior will signal that they shouldn’t try this again (at least not now). This could go a few different ways and, as the parent, it’s important to keep in mind that the way you react to your baby’s stair-climbing achievement will affect their behavior moving forward.

Another example would be when a toddler or slightly older child is playing on the playground and then trips and falls. Unless they are in immediate, serious physical pain, they’ll likely remain relatively calm and look to you (their parent or caregiver) to see how they should react. If you, as the parent, look upset and/or distressed, the child will likely follow your lead and start crying. If you act as though it’s no big deal — or smile as you hug them and do a quick check for scrapes or other injuries — there’s a good chance that they’ll remain unfazed by their fall and get on with their playing. Your baby might even flash a smile back.

When does social referencing stop?

Social referencing isn’t something that stops at infancy. As children develop, they continue to use this skill to learn from their parents and those around them up until adolescence. Social referencing is a big part of the development and what children use to understand the world around them. Children begin to express their moods based on their own feelings from the ages of two to four years old, but they still use social referencing.

What is a social smile?

This brings us to social smiling. Thanks to social referencing, parents can get a smile from their baby just by smiling at them. This is when a baby grins in response to seeing someone smile. But a grinning baby isn’t the only thing parents should celebrate. This also confirms the babe can see from short distances and is beginning to understand expressions. It’s a sign of maturation and one of the first forms of communication between parents and baby. This appears in little ones when they’re about two months old.

What is emotional contagion?

This happens much later than social referencing. Much like a cold, you can “catch” the emotions of others. When we recognize sadness or happiness in someone or listen to a friend vent about their stress, we tend to relate to their experiences. Sometimes we put ourselves in their shoes and connect their experiences to our own lives. During this type of interaction, you may even copy their facial expressions or hand gestures. Mimicking signs of emotion increases the chances of you internalizing them, which is how feelings “spread.”

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