What are babies looking for when they look to their mothers?

This is a guest post by Anna Coon, one of my top student writers from fall 2006

i-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gifIf a baby is placed in a new, strange situation, a common reaction is to look to its mother. For example, whenever I met a new baby I was to babysit, she would always look to her mother at first, as if to get her mother's opinion on the potentially frightening situation. But why, exactly, is the baby looking to its mother? It might be for comfort in a novel situation, but it might also be to receive information. A team led by Trisha Striano has developed a study to test whether babies look to their mothers for comfort, or just to get facts about a situation.

In their first experiment, Striano et al. used ambiguous and unambiguous cliff set-ups in order to determine whether infants look to adults in novel situations for comfort or for information. Here's an example of a visual cliff:


The "cliff" consists of Plexiglas extending beyond the edge of a platform, created to look like a potentially dangerous drop-off to the infant. The ambiguous cliff was 20 cm deep, and the unambiguous cliff was 56 cm deep; the researchers assumed that the unambiguous cliff was obviously deep to the infant and therefore would be seen as dangerous. In the experiment, the mother was instructed to encourage her infant to crawl across the cliff without using any gestures. An experimenter placed the infant at the edge of the cliff, with the mother 30 cm away from the deep side of the cliff. The mothers began encouraging their infants to cross the cliff only after the infants initially looked at them.

The result of this study was that infants placed on the unambiguous, deep cliff took significantly longer to cross the cliff than the infants placed on the ambiguous cliff, and the duration of the first look to their mother was also significantly longer. The fact that the initial look was longer for infants presented with the deep cliff suggests that infants were seeking comfort when looking to their mothers. However, the overall amount of time infants took looking at their mothers was the same for all groups. Striani's team speculates that it is possible that the deep cliff is actually more ambiguous to infants than the shallow cliff and that therefore infants look at their mother longer when presented with the deep cliff because they are seeking information. Since this study could not give a conclusive answer about whether infants look to their mothers for comfort or information, the researchers developed a new experiment.

In this study, the same cliff setup was used, but there were four different conditions that varied in the amount and type of encouragement and information each infant received from his/her mother. The first group of infants' mothers encouraged them vocally while facing them (face plus voice), the second group of infants' mothers encouraged them vocally while facing away from them (voice only), the third group of infants' mothers talked about crossing the cliff apparatus to an experimenter and in "non-motherese"(talk to adult), and the fourth group of infants' mothers gave no encouragement at all and did not face their infants (no cues).

This experiment used100 10-month-olds, but only 34 were considered in the results because the other 66 were excused from the study either because the infant became fussy or because of technical problems with the experiment. Of the 34 infants considered, 12 were in the face plus voice condition, 12 were in the voice only condition, 6 were in the talk to adult condition, and 4 were in the no cues condition.

Although prior to the experiment the researchers did not intend to focus on how many infants they could actually consider in their results, that is what they focused on after the experiment concluded. Twenty-two infants had to be excused from the experiment due to fussiness. Out of those 22 infants, most were in the talk to adult or no cues conditions. Take a look at this graph of the portion of infants excluded from each condition:


The research team argues that the high number of infants that needed to be excluded from the experiment suggests that infants are looking to their mothers for comfort in novel situations, because they were not receiving any form of comfort in the third and fourth conditions and therefore became fussy and did not cross the cliff. The crossing time, frequency of looks, and proportion of total duration of looks were not significantly different for any condition. However, the length of the initial look was significantly longer in the talk to adult condition than in any other condition.

So it appears that infants look to their mothers in novel situations for comfort, not information, because although they received information in the talk to adult condition, they did not receive any comfort and therefore most did not cross the cliff. The results also suggest that infants as young as 10 months old can distinguish between when a person is talking to them and when they are addressing others, but cannot utilize any information that is not addressed directly to them. This is evident because although the mothers in the talk to adult condition were giving information about crossing the cliff, because the information was not addressed directly to the infant, the infant did not cross the cliff.

Both studies conducted by Striano et al. suggest that infants look to their mothers in novel conditions in order to be comforted. However, neither study can be considered completely definitive, as there are a few other possible explanations for the results. For example, in the second experiment, it is possible that infants were in fact seeking information, but did not cross in the talk to adult condition because they did not understand that they could use information that was not directed specifically at them. Also, in the first experiment, it is possible that the fact that mothers were encouraging their infants to cross a deep cliff in the unambiguous condition actually made the situation more ambiguous for the infant, thus causing them to look at the mother longer initially in order to seek information about the situation. Although the results cannot be considered completely definitive, they offer insight into a fascinating aspect of child development.

Striano, T., Vaish, A., & Benigno, J.P. (2006). The meaning of infants' looks: Information seeking and comfort seeking? British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 24, 615-630.

Visual cliff image source:


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So it appears that infants look to their mothers in novel situations for comfort, not information

I'm not sure I understand why comfort can't be considered a form of information (comfort=everything is ok, you can take a risk, or at least solicit more information; lack of comfort=things are not ok or ambiguous, better to freeze or solicit adult attention).

It's also a little surprising that--considering the study was meant to check whether infants look at their mothers for comfort--it didn't occur to anyone that the infants left near a visual cliff while their mothers were ignoring them might get too distressed to complete the experiment.

Thanks for posting this but I also find the study presents more questions than answers.

For one thing, I would wonder what "facts" an infant's mind would be able to process in this instance. Facts are concepts. I doubt that such young minds can process any meaningful concepts. I could be wrong but I am not aware that infants like the one shown could have more than a few very basic words in their vocabulary. It would seem that very little reasoning would be occurring in the mind of this infant - reasoning that could be based on some meaningful facts (concepts) transmitted by the mother.

The mother could transmit perhaps assurance that the infant should come to her despite the emotional barrier. That is not a fact. It is an emotion. If transmitted as such, the child would perhaps experience a reduction in the net strength of the emotions opposing its desire to crawl to its mother.

Ultimately, behavior is the result of the brain choosing what it predicts will provide the greatest chance of the most emotionally satisfying outcome in the future.

That's true of a CFO suggesting to the board the expansion of her corporation's line of credit - just as it is of infants choosing to crawl to mother despite some scary impediments in the way.

The question posed by the study was whether infants in such situations were looking for comfort or "facts".

My guess would be that the infant was looking for an emotional clue from its mother that would either reinforce or reduce the anxiety the infant felt from the "survival problem" it was faced with.

Well before an infant can process "facts" it can learn emotional beliefs about the world - and it seems to look instinctively to its mother as a reliable source for clues. At this stage, the most significant emotional belief being reinforced or reduced, is the infant's sense of confidence in its mother's emotional clues.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 26 Dec 2006 #permalink

I don't understand this apparently unsupported claim:

they received information in the talk to adult condition

Is the claim here that ten-month-old babies actually understand enough vocabulary and sentence structure to work out that a conversation between two adults is saying that it is safe to crawl over an edge that the infant's prior experience or knowledge tells him is impossible to crawl over wihtout falling?

One other question: Was there follow-up for the infants persuaded to ignore their visual perceptions and crawl out into apparent open space? I'd be interested to know how many, for example, went home and promptly fell down the stairs. Is it possibly unethical to have a training session for infants in which they are encouraged/taught to do something that will be dangerous to them in every situation other than the original lab?

How do you distinguish between "comfort" and "information"? Doesn't comfort come from the child's perception that the mother is not distressed so it would be okay to cross the glass?

I was thinking the study could explore instead whether the child, in novel situations, is comforted by merely perceiving the presence of the mother versus by cues the mother directs at the child.

In that case, there will be two experimental conditions: one wherein the mother is merely present and does not provide cues (she could be reading a magazine or something) and one wherein the mother comforts the child using baby talk, facial expressions and gestures. The child's distress responses are measured. (Or some other independent variable. Can't come up with one right now.)

Wouldn't that kind of experimental design produce clearer answers to the question "What is it that babies look for when they look at their mothers during novel situations?" Are they just checking if their mothers are there or are they looking for cues from their mother?

But even with the study presented in the entry, I guess the design roughly works the same way. The mere presence of the mother does not comfort the child. When the baby looks at his or her mother in novel situations, it is because they are searching for cues.

How do you distinguish between "comfort" and "information"? Doesn't comfort come from the child's perception that the mother is not distressed so it would be okay to cross the glass?

Sorry, I'm not sure if I came across clearly. What I was getting at was that comfort is easily a result of information coming from cues provided by the mother. It doesn't seem to make sense to dichotomize "comfort" and "information".

We adopted our son when he was 8 months old. Up to then he'd been in an orphanage. His experience was limited. For example, he'd never been outside the building.

At 8 months, he clearly understood his name, and at least several words in Russian. My own Russian language skills are rudimentary, so i could not test the extent of his skill. It would soon be largely moot. We did not change his first name.

Once we removed him from the orphanage, essentially everything was new. He often looked to me for guidance. In my opinion, it wasn't for comfort.

For example. We boarded a jet. Shortly after takeoff, the air pressure drops, and you get this sensation in your ears. The sound you hear changes, and for some people there can be pain. All you have to do to fix it is swallow. Some poeple chew gum. I anticipated a problem, and figured out a solution. I prepared a bottle in advance. The plane left the ground, and my ears popped naturally. My son immediately turned and looked me in the face. I handed him the bottle. He looked at it as if it couldn't possibly help, but took a drink anyway. He then looked back at me with total surprise. Clearly, he was surprised that it worked.

Now, my sample size is small. But in the tradition of physics, i'm more than willing to draw a ninth order polynomial through my data point.