When young infants gaze at the face of an emotionally unresponsive mother, they typically react by sobbing and turning away. The lack of attunement alarms their system, disrupting security, and leads to a behavioral reaction. A child suffers mental anguish when bids for attention are ignored or misinterpreted. A series of studies known as the still face experiment explores a child’s reaction in detail.
During the 1975 biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, developmental psychologist Edward Tronick along with his colleagues T. Berry Brazelton MD, and Lauren Adamson presented a paper titled Infant Emotions in Normal and Perturbed Interactions (Tronick, Adamson, & Brazelton, 1975).
The highlight of this presentation was the illustration of the still face effect on infants. Tronick described the still face phenomenon as the reaction of an infant after three minutes of interaction with a non-responsive expressionless mother. He explains that the child “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 When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression” (Adamson & Frick, 2003).
Tronick later published their findings in a peer reviewed journal in 1978. Since this publishing, the still face experiment has been replicated numerous times, supporting the earlier hypothesis and empirical results.
Mother Infant Interaction
Tronick’s findings suggested more than the simple negative response of an infant to a mother’s still face. Tronick was exploring the early social cognitions of an infant. Within the dawning moments of life, an infant begins social interaction. Tronick captured the emotional attunement, and dyadic regulation of a mother and child on video tape (new technology at the time).
Tronick’s recordings captured the intimate cyclic ebb and flow of an infant and mother’s face to face interaction.
In a 2010 article, Jason Goldman explains the deeper implications of the “still-face” studies. He wrote, “the still face experiment demonstrated that very young infants already have several basic building blocks of social cognition in place.: He continues by listing other contributing implications of Tronick’s study:
- the study suggested that infants “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.”
- “The still face experiment has also proved useful in determining the extent of an infant’s social world.”
- “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” (2010).
Precursors to Tronick’s Still Face Experiment
Prior to Tronick’s published findings other research findings were zeroing in on the depth of the infants social cognitions and abilities. A notable contributor to the field was Dr. Gerry Stechler (1928-2013). Stechler and his colleagues began observation of infants during the 1960’s, publishing several peer reviewed findings.
Stechler and his colleague Genevieve Carpenter conducted a study observing infant interactions with a mannequin as a stimulus. They concluded that the infant reactions were deliberate. They wrote, “the infant is trying to alter the behavior of the stimulus. It is as if the infant has expectations of the target which are not being met and it appears that the baby is attempting to change its discrepant environment” (Carpenter et al., 1970. p. 105).
The Significance of the Still Face Experiment
Research is only of value if it has real life significance. The still face research offers a peek into real life interactions that impact early child development. Vast majority of parents and caregivers don’t purposely put on an expressionless face in response to child bids for attention. Yet, we unintentionally do just that.
A young mother pushing her child for a morning walk, puts ear buds in and listens to music, grandpa repeatedly checks his phone, and dad is drawn into the NFC championship game. Not to mention parental depression, anxiety, and other emotional disturbances that create disconnection from the gentle (or not so gentle) calls for attention.
The child reaches out and the adults in its life coldly miss the cues. The child, instead of receiving a warm recognition, is met with a still unresponsive face. These missed connection, when routinely repeated without repair, rupture the child’s security to damage a child’s future ability to relate.
The Value of Emotional Attunement
One of the earliest articles published by Flourishing Life Society was Emotional Attunement. In that article, T. Franklin Murphy explains:
The young brain develops, creating the connections and networks that follow the child throughout life. The child’s brain isn’t frozen with fixed traits, experience continues to mold and adapt but the massive mapping of infancy quickly closes doors and forms the quality of life. One of the greatest gifts a parent can offer to the developing child is emotional attunement (Murphy, 2012).
During these dawning moments of life, the child begins to form the rudimentary forms of communication. The sense of self in relation to others. The child caregiver interaction is more than listening. A healthy interaction is an attunement and appropriate response to inner states of feeling.
Tronick’s still face experiment captured the series of reaction when misattunement occurred. Tronick’s research clearly identified that adult and infant are “participants in an affective communication system” (1989. p. 112). When the child displays an emotion and the caregiver fails to respond there is a rupture in the connection. The child draws information regarding its self and the environment from this perturbation in communication, contributing to the forming of the child’s mental map of the world.
The Child Receives Messages From Interactions
Tronick explains that the child learns three things from these interactions:
- the meaning of their own experience;
- the characteristics of people that are important to them; and
- cognitive and affective information that allows for them to fit into their culture, to identify with their caregivers, and to identify themselves (1978, p. 1).
Through his experiments, Tronick demonstrated that “feeling understood has its roots in early experiences of moment-to-moment mutual emotional attunement of caregiver and child.” This creates a felt sense of being understood, attained through “the act of matching, each person’s psychophysiology changes” (Fosha, 2000, location 764).
Aimee Yazbek and Barbara D’Entremont explain that “during reciprocal interactions, such as when the adult tickles the infant and the infant coos in response, the infant learns that although she is ‘like’ others, she is also separate and distinct from others and others are ‘not like me’ (2006, p. 590).
Emotional Attunement and Child Development
Emotional attunement contributes to the normal development of social capabilities. Attunement is a process of affective and intentional involvement in each others emotional worlds. When in tune with each other Tronick refers to this as ‘affective involvement synchrony’ (1977, p. 77).
Misattunement may occur through a variety of reactions to a child’s communication, not just a missed response or an overlooked bidding for attention but ‘mismatched’ communication. Attuning and responding in context validates emotional expressions. In psychology, this is known as emotional validation. “Validating emotion is communicating to another person that their emotions are heard, understood, and appropriate” (Murphy, 2021).
Colwyn Trevarthen wrote, “this ‘blank face’ or ‘still face’ procedure provoked an immediate response from the baby. First, the baby became attentive and sometimes made attempts by smiles, vocalizations, or gestures to appeal to or stimulate a response from the mother; then the baby became withdrawn, avoiding the mother’s gaze, with signs of distress and confusion. The baby looked depressed” (2009, Kindle location 1,809).
Infant Reaction to Misattuned or Ignored Messages
Daniel Siegel explains that when a parent fails to attune to the child’s communication, the child’s emotional equilibrium is thrown out of balance. He wrote, “with the parent’s face being still, the baby no longer has the attuned responses that she needs to keep herself in equilibrium.” Siegel explains that “a young infant’s own equilibrium depends on the attuned, contingent communication with a caregiver who is attending to signals that communicate his or her internal, subjective state” (2012, Location: 2,754).
Infants quickly learn to communicate needs. When lines of communication are broken the child reacts. Lawrence Heller explains, “infants express their need for touch, nourishment, love, and connection at first by fussing and crying, which is simply an expression of healthy aggression. Attuned mothers recognize their child’s need and respond appropriately.”
However, “if the infant’s need is not appropriately responded to, the infant escalates the demand, ramping up the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, protesting the lack of response, and finally erupting into anger” (2012, p. 279).
In neglectful environments, the still face becomes a traumatic reoccurring event. A child quickly learns that their bids for connection and requests for need fulfillment are not heard. An ignored child responds to impoverished environments in protective ways. The child does not cry when no one is listening. The ignored child adopts protective mechanisms for survival.
Misattunement and Repair
The goal of a parent is perfect attunement. We can strive to appropriately attune to all our child’s need but misattunements in any relationship will occur. Healthy relationships repeatedly address misattunment through repair behaviors.
Fosha reports that these misattunements are quite common. she wrote that “although the ‘affectively positive mutually coordinated interactive state’ is striven for, departures from it are frequent. In normal, optimally interactive dyads, only about 30 percent of their time together is actually spent in the affectively positive, mutually coordinated interactive state.” Fosha continues, “the rest of the time is spent in miscoordinated interactive states, accompanied by negative affect, attempts to get back to coordinated states, and positive affect” (2000).
Fosha emphasizes that repair from misattunement is more important than the ability to be emotionally in sync. She explain that “repeated experiences of interactive error followed by successful interactive repair establish ‘the expectancy that repair is possible.'” Fosha explains that the child develops resilience and an “adaptive stick-to-it-iveness” from these repeated departures and repairs (2000).
In many ways, we prepare our children to respond to the imperfect connections they will have in their adult relationships by the way we respond to the imperfect connection we have with them in their childhood.
Children that experience repeated disconnection without repair may falsely believe in adulthood that they will find a relationship where no disconnection exists. Sadly, they will expect perfect harmony from partners and feel disappointment when the inevitable differences arise.
Misattunement and Ignored Messages in Adult Relationships
While the Tronick’s still face experiments were conducted on infants, the phenomenon and emotional impact of disconnection impacts us at all ages of life. Partners that ignore can hurt, leaving us momentarily experiencing abandonment. Repair is essential. We must consistently work through disconnections by offering repair.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “differences are inevitable in close relationships. Two people can never be exactly the same; and when they are different, occasionally, these differences collide in goals, opinions, desires, and behaviors. Couples handle these differences in a variety of healthy and unhealthy ways. The goal, however, isn’t to create a relationship without disagreement, but to navigate the disagreements in way that protects the bonds of intimacy, allowing each partner to develop both autonomously and as a member of the relationship” (2022).
The narcissist, psychopath, and manipulator may use this powerful tool to damage self confidence, conveying the message that their victim’s feeling are unimportant.
We all need connection, a sense of being heard, and the security of knowing our emotions and bids for connection matter. Acceptance validates our experience. We need more than a still, unresponsive face.
Psychology Fanatic New Article Updates
Adamson, Lauren B., Frick, Janet, E. (2003). The Still Face Experiment: A History of a Shared Experimental Paradigm. (PDF). Infancy. 4 (4) pg. 451-473
Carpenter, Genevieve C.; Tecce, Joseph J.; Stechler, Gerald; and Friedman, Steven (1970). DIFFERENTIAL VISUAL BEHAVIOR TO HUMAN AND HUMANOID FACES IN EARLY INFANCY. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly of Behavior and Development. Vol. 16, No. 1 (January, 1970), pp. 91-108 (18 pages). Published By: Wayne State University Press
Cohn, J., & Tronick, E. (1987). Mother-Infant Face-to-Face Interaction: The Sequence of Dyadic States at 3, 6, and 9 Months. Developmental Psychology, 23(1), 68-77.
Ekas, N., Haltigan, J., & Messinger, D. (2013). The Dynamic Still-Face Effect: Do Infants Decrease Bidding Over Time When Parents Are Not Responsive?. Developmental Psychology, 49(6), 1027-1035.
Fosha, Diana (2000). The Transforming Power of Affect: A Model For Accelerated Change. Basic Books.
Goldman, Jason G. (2010). Ed Tronick and the “Still Face Experiment.” Scientific American. Published 10-18-2010. Accessed 12-20-2022.
Gottman, John (2015). The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert. Harmony; Revised ed. edition.
Heller, Lawrence; LaPierre, Aline (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books; 1st edition
Murphy, T. Franklin (2012). Emotional Attunement. Psychology Fanatic Published 8-1-2012. Accessed 1-17-2023.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2021). Emotional Validation. Psychology Fanatic. Published 12-30-2021. Accessed 1-17-2023.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2022). Repair Attempts. Psychology Fanatic. Published 3-29-2022. Accessed 1-31-2023.
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Trevarthen, Colwyn (2009). The Functions of Emotion in Infancy: The Regulation and Communication of Rhythm, Sympathy, and Meaning in Human Development. In The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). Editors Diana Fosha PhD; Daniel J. Siegel M.D.; Marion F. Solomon Ph.D. W.W. Norton & Company; 1st edition
Tronick, Edward, Adamson, Lauren & Brazelton, T. Berry (1975). Infant Emotions in Normal and Perturbed Interactions
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Gottman Institute. The Research: The Still Face Experiment