The famous “still face” experiment
When we think about giving love to someone, we often think of it in terms of what we can do for them. While giving gifts or offering a helping hand when needed are great options, we often forget how much love we can put into a simple smile in the way we acknowledge other people.
Research shows humans are extremely sensitive to interaction through facial expression from infancy and whether positive or negative, the effect is felt deeply. Nowhere has this phenomenon been more dramatically demonstrated than in Dr. Edward Tronick’s “Still Face Experiment” that was first presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development in 1975.1
In the experiment, Dr. Tronick had mothers interact with their infants in a normal manner, smiling and responding physically and verbally. After several minutes, the mothers were instructed to turn away from their babies for a moment, then look back at them with a non-responsive, expressionless face for three more minutes of interaction.
The effect on the babies was immediate and dramatic. Sensing the energy shift, their disposition turned apprehensive and wary. Frantic to restore the human connection with their mothers, the babies smiled, pointed at objects, clapped aggressively, reached out, and finally shrieked in desperation to gain a reaction. After all attempts failed, the babies withdrew by orienting their bodies and faces away from their mothers with hopeless expressions.2 After 45 years of repeated study, this effect remains one of the most replicated in developmental psychology.
The experiment revealed several interesting facts. Not only is infant social cognition more advanced than previously thought, but infants have the ability to sense the relationship between facial expression and certain emotions. Their repeated attempts through different means to elicit emotion from their mothers shows the ability to plan and execute simple goal-oriented tasks.
Over the years, further research has shown that the still face effect is also triggered by fathers, primary caregivers, and even strangers, although to a lesser degree.3 The important point to remember here is how crucial it is to show our love to children through facial expression. They need to see it registered on our faces how much we love them and how they brighten our lives. Even after children learn to speak, our faces will reveal the truth of our hearts in spite of what we say to them.
The Still Face Experiment shows clearly that we don’t have to be mean or cruel to harm our children. An indifferent attitude from a parent or teacher will quickly tell a child he or she doesn’t matter. This is something we all must be conscious of as we interact with our small children, regardless of whether we’re tired, stressed out, frustrated or distracted by something else. Smiling is the quickest and easiest way to show them we love them, and they’re waiting for us to do just that.
It’s also the easiest way to give others love, too. Smile at the baby in a stranger’s grocery cart who says “hi” to you. Send a knowing smile to the mother struggling to feed three children in the restaurant, letting her know you’ve been there, too. Smile at the fast food cashier who’s working frantically to keep her line moving because you appreciate her effort. Too often we dismiss smiling as a way of giving love to others because it seems too simplistic to us, but we forget we’re hardwired for smiles from the day we’re born. So smile at someone instead of unconsciously giving them the still face. It might create an equally dramatic effect in you, too.
1Tronick, 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.
2Brazelton, T., & Tronick, E. (1975). Early mother-infant reciprocity. Ciba Foundation Symposium, 33(1), 137-154. doi:10.1002/9780470720158.ch9.
3The Still Face: A History of a Shared Experimental Paradigm. (2003). Journal of the International Congress of Infant Studies, 4(4), 451-473. doi:10.1207/S15327078IN0404_01.
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