Social referencing - a complete explanation
Join us as we tell you everything you need to know about social referencing, and why it could be important for your child’s development.
What is social referencing?
Your child is approaching a new and interesting object, perhaps the steps in an unfamiliar café. They look at the steps, then back at you, before looking again at the steps. But what next? Will your baby boldly approach the steep set of steps or hesitate and avoid the hazard? The answer might well lie in your reaction to that momentary look you shared. If you were wide-eyed and fearful, perhaps using a tone of voice to match, your baby is far less likely to approach the steps.
The process of looking to another person to help inform your own reaction to a situation is called social referencing. It takes place whenever you look at someone else, read that person’s response and then change your behaviour towards an object or situation. The other person’s facial expression, gestures, body language, tone of voice and what they say might all impact your own response. Encountering an object or animal for the first time, being in an unfamiliar place or meeting a stranger could all be classed as ‘ambiguous’ situations, in which social referencing can be a useful tool.
There is more research to be done to understand exactly why we use social referencing. Some researchers believe the primary reason we look to others in new or threatening situations is a cognitive, information-gathering response (your baby is looking to see how the other person responds and copy this action, seeking information). Others view it as primarily a desire for emotional co-regulation (your baby is looking at the other person to receive emotional support and regulate their reaction). Reviews of studies into which of these theories might be more accurate have shown that there is plausibility in both reasons, it may well be due to a combination of the two, though more research is needed in this area of social referencing.[1, 2]
Social referencing is closely related to attachment, the child’s desire to be close to and acknowledged by their primary caregiver. This is especially clear when we think of social referencing in terms of the desire for emotional co-regulation, rather than information-seeking alone. Our article “What factors can affect social and emotional child development?”: a summary (mffy.com) talks about attachment in more detail.
Interestingly, research seems to indicate that children choose when to use social referencing. They are most likely to rely on social referencing in ‘ambiguous’ situations, when something is completely new and unknown to them. For example, infants might stop to gauge their parent’s reaction when approaching a never-before-seen object then follow the social referencing cues they receive, but it would be very unusual for them to stop and look to their parents for social referencing when approaching a much-loved toy at home.
So why is social referencing important?
When encountering a new or ambiguous situation, social referencing is important because it gives your child a way to gauge the level of danger and modify their behaviour to reflect this. It can also have a positive influence, if they were to feel uncertainty or anxiety at seeing a new toy (or person) for the first time, your relaxed smile and encouraging noises might make your child more likely to approach them. Being reassured that all is well through social referencing will allow them to feel more comfortable in social situations or new environments.
It is also likely that social referencing plays an important role in helping children become attuned to their specific environments. Unfortunately, there is little research on the subject of cultural variation in relation to social referencing, but researchers believe that because the core skills used for social referencing (emotion recognition, gaze-following, and joint attention) are largely universal it “seems likely that social referencing would also be present cross-culturally" and in fact that the difference between cultures is likely to be related to what children learn from social referencing.
Take, for example, a baby meeting a spider for the first time. A parent in the UK is more likely to smile and encourage exploration of the spider than a parent in Australia, where the spider could potentially pose a serious threat. If the Australian parent reacts with fear, the child will be more likely to avoid the spider than approach it. This is an important life lesson for the little one, and will help them to thrive in the specific environment they’re growing up in.
What can I do to support social referencing skills?
It's useful to understand what social referencing is, but how can we actually use social referencing to aid your child’s development? This is a complex question, as social referencing relies on many interconnected skills. As your baby is growing, their social referencing skills will also adapt and change over time.
It is important to be aware of the fact that, in reviews of studies about social referencing, most studies found there was a significant difference in babies’ behaviour if they got a negative reaction from the adult, compared to a neutral reaction – they were much more likely to avoid the object if the reaction was negative. In contrast, there was very little difference between babies' behaviour when they received a positive reaction, compared to a neutral reaction, from the adult.[5, 6] This is important because it shows that social referencing might function most effectively as a way of encouraging infants to avoid objects and situations, rather than to embrace them, although it is not always black and white, positive reactions can have an impact in certain circumstances too.
Simple ways to support your child with social referencing
- Stay mindful! Be aware of your responses to situations, and try to ensure they are appropriate and in proportion when you can. If your little one trips over (but is not hurt) they might look to you for guidance on how to feel. A smile and encouragement to keep playing will be more likely to result in their rejoining the play than an uncertain or panicked response would, as they will pick up on your fear and relate the experience to something to be afraid of.
- Don’t be afraid to use exaggerated facial expressions and tone of voice to really convey your emotions. We often do this naturally when communicating with children, and although it may feel a little silly, it helps our little ones to keep track of emotional responses and begin to make associations between expression/tone and feelings.
- Keep in mind that you should aim to show genuine emotion and expression when your child is close. Babies and children are experts at reading subtle clues to work out what people are feeling so the ‘happy to see you’ reaction you might put on for that surprise visitor (who did not call or text before they arrived) can be confusing. They are likely to pick up that this is not your usual, or genuine, joyful response.
- Keep your feelings about foods you don’t like to yourself at mealtimes. In a recent study of both children and adults, people were more likely to try a ‘disliked’ food when they were shown an image of a pleasant face alongside that food – and this was particularly true of the children aged five years old. It’s worth remembering that, when offered ‘liked’ foods alongside a disgusted face, all the participants showed less desire to eat the food, with the biggest impact for five-year-olds.
Will I be able to spot social referencing in my child?
Research tends to agree that infants begin to show signs of social referencing in the last quarter of their first year of life, however studies vary when attempting to identify exactly when this instinct becomes a skill. Some studies have shown what could be social referencing indications in babies as young as five months old, but there is debate about the accuracy of identifying this as ‘social referencing’. It is likely that, if this is the beginning of the skills needed for social referencing becoming visible, it is difficult to track directly, as babies this young are still developing the other cognitive, emotional and physical skills needed to process or use the knowledge to adapt their behaviour.[2, 8]
In addition, babies’ stage of development will impact when they use social referencing regularly. Their gross motor development, in particular mobility, is a significant factor. Crawling babies will check back with their caregivers more often than those who can’t yet crawl. This may be related to the fact that babies who are moving around their world independently are more able to follow others’ gaze, or gestures, than younger babies.
What if I can’t see my child using social referencing?
Not all children will use social referencing to the same degree and if you feel your little one is not showing significant signs of social referencing in their day-to-day, don’t worry!
Every infant is an individual who will have a different threshold for uncertainty, and because infants tend to use social referencing only in truly ‘ambiguous’ situations it may simply be that your child is not currently encountering sufficiently unknown challenges.
One study identified that babies used social referencing more when they were less experienced at the task being set. Babies were shown a slope to move over. The experienced walkers were more likely to trust their own instincts and knowledge of the situation than follow their parent’s negative emotional response. That is, they were more likely to continue down the slope even when their parent showed fear. Inexperienced walkers, on the other hand, did not attempt the slopes if their mothers gave a negative response, implying the babies’ uncertainty about the situation was enough for them to want to rely on social referencing to help them make a decision.
Social referencing in children with non-typical development
Overall, there is a lack of research into how social referencing might be used (or not) by children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND).[11, 13] Research into children diagnosed with Down Syndrome and Williams Syndrome noted that these groups of children are less likely to use social referencing in the way we have seen in previous studies. The study identified several of the key skills needed to successfully use social referencing (initiating eye contact, gaze-following and emotional responsivity), and noted that some of these skills are less developed for children with Down Syndrome or Williams Syndrome, making social referencing difficult for them or giving a different outcome from their social referencing. In contrast to studies of children without a diagnosis, these children responded more often to a joyful reaction than a fearful one.
Another diagnosis that can cause children to rely less on social referencing is Autism Spectrum Disorder/Condition (ASD). Studies of children diagnosed with ASD have noted that these children responded less to the adult’s emotional reactions, which were both visual and verbal. It is important to note that some of the children did respond using social referencing and adapted their behaviour accordingly. There is no ‘one size fits all’ for this skill, or for any child!
A very recent study focused on the infant siblings of children with ASD, following them to identify if they were later diagnosed with ASD themselves. It found that those who were later diagnosed with ASD were overall less likely to look to an adult when an ambiguous toy was present, compared to those who were not later diagnosed with ASD. It should be remembered that the sample size of this study was small, and more research is needed, however one proposed outcome is that by supporting high-risk infants with intensive joint attention activities from an early age it could be possible to help them develop social referencing (and other related) skills over time.
Building joint attention is a valuable, joyful skill for all children, and can be a truly fun part of your day at any age. Our blog post about the magic of nursery rhymes explains how simply singing together can develop joint attention for your little one. Why nursery rhymes are magic when it comes to helping children to learn (mffy.com)
Social referencing is an important development in your child’s exploration of the world around them, but it is also a very individual skill. If you have concerns about your child’s use of social referencing (particularly if you feel this comes alongside concerns in other areas of development such as joint attention, emotional development or speech delay), speak to your health professional for advice and support.
 Ehli, S., Wolf, J., Newen, A., Schneider, S. and Voigt, B. (2020) ‘Determining the Function of Social Referencing: The Role of Familiarity and Situational Threat’. Front. Psychol. 11:538228. Available online: Determining the Function of Social Referencing
 Fawcett, C., & Liszkowski, U. (2015) ‘Social Referencing during Infancy and Early Childhood across Cultures’ in Wright, J. (Ed) International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 22 Amsterdam: Elsevier.
 Ainsworth M.D.S. (1992) ‘A Consideration of Social Referencing in the Context of Attachment Theory and Research.’ In: Feinman S. (eds) Social Referencing and the Social Construction of Reality in Infancy. Boston, MA: Springer.
 Bandura, A. (1992) ‘Social Cognitive Therory of Social Referencing’ in Feinman, S. (ed.), Social Referencing and the Social Construction of Reality in Infancy New York: Springer Science+Business Media.
 Hornik, R., Risenhoover, N., & Gunnar, M., (1987). ‘The effects of maternal positive, neutral, and negative affective communications on infant responses to new toys’. Child Development, 937–944.
 Mumme, D.L., Fernald, A., & Herrera, C. (1996). ‘Infants’ responses to facial and vocal emotional signals in a social referencing paradigm’. Child Development, 67 (6), 3219–3237.
 Barthomeuf, L., Droit-Volet, S., & Rousset, S. (2012). ‘How emotions expressed by adults' faces affect the desire to eat liked and disliked foods in children compared to adults’. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 30(2), 253-266.
 Walden, TA., Ogan, TA. (1988) ‘The development of social referencing’. Child Development. 1988 Oct;59(5):1230-40. Available online: The Development of Social Referencing
 Campos, J.J., Kermoian, R., Zumbahlen, M.R., (1992) ‘Socioemotional transformations in the family system following infant crawling onset’. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 1992 (55), 25–40.]]
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 Hertenstein, M. and Vandivier, L. (2013) ‘Social Referencing in Infancy: Important Findings and Future Directions’ in Mohiyeddini, C., Eysenck, M. and Bauer, S. (Editors) Handbook of Psychology of Emotions PLACE:Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
 Tamis-LeMonda, & CS., Adolph, KE. (2005) ‘Social cognition in infant motor action’. In: Homer, B. and Tamis-LeMonda, CS. (editors). The development of social cognition and communication. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates; 2005. pp. 145–164.
 Monlux, K., Pelaez, M., & Holth, P. (2019). ‘Joint Attention and Social Referencing in Children with Autism: A Behavior-Analytic Approach’. European Journal of Behavior Analysis. 20. 10.1080/15021149.2019.1644831.
 Thurman, A.J., Mervis, C.B. (2013) ‘The regulatory function of social referencing in preschoolers with Down syndrome or Williams syndrome’. J Neurodevelop Disord 5, 2 (2013). Available online: The regulatory function of social referencing...
 Cornew, L., Dobkins, K. R., Akshoomoff, N., McCleery, J. P., & Carver, L. J. (2012). Atypical social referencing in infant siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 42(12), 2611–2621. Available online: Atypical social referencing in infant siblings...