Social referencing is a psychological process that refers to when infants look to adult emotional and affective displays to regulate or cue their behavior toward environmental objects, people, and situations (Feinman et al., 1992).
Social referencing helps infants learn how to proceed with their behavior in certain situations. In addition, it allows infants to learn about their environments and understand the world around them (Feinman et al., 1992).
It is typically studied in infants and children and is frequently examined in developmental and affective psychology. However, people of all ages can look to other people’s emotional responses to inform how they react in certain situations.
Social Referencing Definition (Psychology)
In 1960, Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk demonstrated social referencing in action by testing how emotional and nonverbal cues from mothers impacted their babies’ behavior in a novel and intimidating setting (Gibson & Walk, 1960).
Gibson and Walk set up an experiment where the infants (ages 6-14 months) had to crawl across an elevated platform with a glass pane creating the illusion of a sharp drop. The researchers found that the infants crawled across the platform when mothers made happy faces.
But, if the mothers made scared or negative faces, the babies did not attempt to cross (Gibson & Walk, 1960). This study demonstrates how infants look to adults to learn and gauge things like danger while in a novel setting or completing a new task.
Social referencing is particularly important in new situations where an infant is unsure how to behave or proceed.
Experiments examining this phenomenon have found consistent results. Most infants use referencing to help them understand their environments (Hertenstein, 2011).
Social referencing is crucial because it helps infants understand the world around them and represents a significant milestone in emotional development (Hertenstein, 2011).
It is very important in an infant’s development. But it doesn’t just apply to infants. We don’t stop looking to other people for cues once we get a bit older.
In adulthood, it refers to when people evaluate how they think, express themselves, or behave compared to others (Walle et al., 2017).
In adulthood, it can help us understand how to react in certain situations and adapt our behavior in ways that are considered appropriate. If you find yourself trying to pick up on social cues, you’re likely engaging in social referencing.
Causes of Social Referencing
Social referencing emerges once infants are capable of understanding emotions and emotional cues (Hertenstein, 2011).
For example, infants need to be able to tell the difference between a cheerful face and a gloomy face to use that information to inform their decisions. It usually develops in infants after eight months of age (Hertenstein, 2011).
Referencing can impact infant behavior in a wide variety of settings (Hertenstein, 2011).
It is more potent in regulating an infant’s behavior when an adult uses both vocal and facial expressions than just facial expressions (Hertenstein, 2011).
Negative emotions are more powerful than positive ones (Hertenstein, 2011). In other words, when an adult expresses negative emotions, the infant is more likely to stop their behavior. Conversely, when an adult expresses positive emotions, an infant may be encouraged to continue their behavior, but the effect isn’t as strong.
Infants and young children can take their cues from a parent or another adult, but not other infants or young children (Hertenstein, 2011).
Social referencing is an active process where the infant or person engaging in the process seeks and processes the emotional information to inform their behavior and actions (Walle et al., 2017).
Related: Social Comparison Theory
Social comparison theory is related to social referencing in adults. Social comparison theory explains that people evaluate their abilities, beliefs, and attitudes concerning those of others (Gerber et al., 2018). This comparison can be important to self-image, self-esteem, and well-being.
10 Social Referencing Examples
- Facial expressions and vocal cues: A parent takes their toddler to the park. The toddler is considering whether to crawl up a small set of stairs. The parent encourages the toddler by smiling but doesn’t use any vocal cues. The toddler decides not to continue to try to climb up the stairs.
- Eliciting approach: A parent brings their toddler to a friend’s home. The friend has two large but gentle dogs behind a baby gate. The toddler hasn’t interacted with dogs much. The toddler starts to approach the dogs to investigate them, and the toddler looks back at their parent. The parent smiles and says, “nice dogs!” The toddler is encouraged and more confident, so they continue crawling toward the dogs and reach out to pet them.
- Behavior withdrawal: A family is hosting a holiday party for the first time with their 10-month-old toddler in attendance. The family just put up a Christmas tree with shiny decorations and ornaments. The infant reaches to grab one of the ornaments. While reaching, the infant looks up at their father, who immediately makes a stressed face and says, “No!” The infant lets go of the ornament and stops their behavior.
- Behavior withdrawal: An infant goes to pick up a shiny object off the ground but looks to their parent before they touch it. Their parent frowns or looks upset, so the infant might decide to leave that object on the ground.
- Social referencing and emotional reactions: If you’ve had a younger sibling or worked with small children, you may have received advice not to make a big deal of a trip or fall. Unless the child is in physical pain, when they fall, they may first look at you to see how they should react. If you remain calm, the child may seem unphased and continue with whatever they are doing. But if you react negatively and look stressed or upset, the child will likely pick up on that cue and start crying.
- The visual cliff paradigm: The visual cliff experiment is a great way to test and demonstrate social referencing. The visual cliff test has been consistently replicated. It shows that when placed in a new and somewhat perplexing situation, infants look to their parents to decide whether to crawl across the potentially steep cliff or stay put.
- Social referencing and learning: Think about all the new things infants encounter daily. Social referencing is very important for infants to learn about their environment quickly. By looking to their caregivers for cues, infants can learn if an object or action is, for example, safe or dangerous.
- Social referencing and emotional development: Besides learning about their environments, it helps infants continue their emotional development. Infants can learn more expressions and sound meanings by paying attention to the caregiver’s reactions.
- Social referencing in adults: Have you ever been in a situation where someone tells a long-winded story to a group of people? They don’t seem to be picking up on the cues that the group is no longer interested in the story. It might occur if the individual telling the story noticed people becoming bored and wrapped up their story as soon as possible.
- Emotional contagion: Emotional contagion is related to social referencing but is distinct and occurs later in social development (Walle et al., 2017). Emotional contagion is the process by which we can “catch” feelings from someone else. For example, if you have a friend who doesn’t like their job and vents to you all the time, you may start feeling the same stress and negative emotions that they are going through. You’re not necessarily following a social cue from them like in social referencing, but this is another process where observing emotions is involved.
Overall, social referencing refers to when you look to another person’s emotional response to help inform your behavior or reaction to a particular situation.
It is a significant emotional developmental milestone, and infants typically use it towards the end of their first year of life. However, people continue to use it throughout life. It is related to emotional development and other social processes involving observing and internalizing other people’s emotions.
Feinman, S., Roberts, D., Hsieh, K.-F., Sawyer, D., & Swanson, D. (1992). A critical review of social referencing in infancy. In S. Feinman (Ed.), Social Referencing and the Social Construction of Reality in Infancy (pp. 15–54). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4899-2462-9_2
Gerber, J. P., Wheeler, L., & Suls, J. (2018). A social comparison theory meta-analysis 60+ years on. Psychological Bulletin, 144, 177–197. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000127
Gibson, E. J., & Walk, R. D. (1960). The “Visual Cliff.” Scientific American, 202(4), 64–71.
Hertenstein, M. J. (2011). Social referencing. In S. Goldstein & J. A. Naglieri (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Child Behavior and Development (pp. 1403–1404). Springer US. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-0-387-79061-9_2704
Walle, E. A., Reschke, P. J., & Knothe, J. M. (2017). Social referencing: Defining and delineating a basic process of emotion. Emotion Review, 9(3), 245–252. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073916669594
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]