Tag Archives: developmental psychology

What can Mickey Mouse tell us about a growing child?

At a party some time ago, I got talking to a biology graduate friend about comparative psychology, as a geek tends to do at social occasions.

Comparative psychology is the study of animal behaviour and mental processing across different species. By doing this, it gives us clues to the function, benefit and development of a particular behaviour. Understanding the similarities and differences amongst different animals in this way can shed light on evolutionary relationships.

The topic came up because our friends were revelling in how cute baby animals are. If you don’t believe me, just look at these cherry-picked examples:

Author: George Estreich

Baby monkey

Author: Ville Miettinen

Baby fur seal

Author: Matt Stanford

Baby elephant

Author: uaeveggies

Baby duck

What’s striking is how wildly different baby animals can provoke the same “aaah” reflex. Baby primates and baby birds, separated from each other and from us by millions of years of evolution, can elicit the same cooing reaction. And size doesn’t seem to matter − a 100kg baby elephant can bring as much infatuation as a 5kg baby seal.

In other words, there’s something about being a baby, and not just a miniature version of an adult.

This immediately reminded me of an image drawn by Nobel prize-winning animal behaviourist, Konrad Lorenz. It shows how juvenile proportions are conserved across different animal groups, and goes someway to explain why we react to many baby animals as we do.

From Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, vol. II, by Konrad Lorenz, 1971. Methuen & Co. Ltd.

From Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, vol. II, by Konrad Lorenz, 1971. Methuen & Co. Ltd.

I think I first saw this image in a book by renowned evolutionary biology, Steven Jay Gould*. He also included it in a wonderful essay called Homage to Mickey Mouse. In this article, Gould explains that over time, to chime with his softening of character, Mickey’s appearance became increasingly juvenile.

via Zoonomian

A large head relative to body, short legs and feet, bulbous cranium and big eyes, as seen in a latter-day Mickey, look like the hallmarks of a juvenile. And Mickey travelled this path to juvenility in reverse − a phenomenon known as ‘neoteny‘.

An illustration’s fine, but to truly demonstrate this scientifically, Gould actually measured the relative changes in Mickey’s physical attributes and plotted the results on a graph. The result, as was Gould’s wont, is an engaging fusion of science and creative writing − do read it. (On reading, I did wonder whether Mickey’s appearance was altered to match a desired change in character, or the other way round.)

The key to all this is that the proportions of a baby’s face, as compared to an adult, are similar across many different animals. This set of features triggers what Lorenz described as an ‘innate releasing mechanism’ − an automatic and consistent reaction to an important behavioural cue. It makes sense that a hard-wired mechanism has evolved to trigger an immediate sense of attachment when confronted with a baby’s face − it will promote parental care, which has clear evolutionary advantages.

But that same hard-wired mechanism also appears to fire when we see similar baby-ish proportions in other animals. It’s an inappropriate response in an evolutionary sense, but it’s better to be harmlessly fooled by a baby bird than to not feel instinctively drawn to our own baby.

What’s fascinating is that, in some cases at least, these ‘releasers’ are reduced to very specific features. A classic example was demonstrated by Lorenz’s Nobel prize-winning collaborator, Niko Tinbergen, using three-spined sticklebacks. A male stickleback will attack another male, as identified by a red belly, but will also attack any object with a red spot − fish-shaped or otherwise. A stickleback-shaped object without a red belly is suitably ignored. Like a red rag to a stickleback, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Babies do something similar in reaction to stylised smiley faces − a circle for a head, two dots for eyes, and a curved line for a mouth is enough to grab a baby’s attention. This stays with us into adulthood and is, for better or worse, the reason why emoticons are so enduring. So, similar to a stickleback reacting solely to a red spot, it seems it’s not a whole baby’s face we respond to, just a certain set of features.

Yes, your baby’s cute because of this graph:

“At an early stage in his evolution, Mickey had a smaller head, cranial vault, and eyes. He evolved toward the characteristics of his young nephew Morty (connected to Mickey by a dotted line).” By Steven Jay Gould

* I should dedicate this post to the late, great Derek Yalden, who taught me zoology at The University of Manchester and told me to read The Panda’s Thumb.

(As an addendum: none of this makes animals we find cute any more ‘worthwhile’ than “ugly” animals. Check out the recent campaign by the “Ugly Animal Preservation Society“.)

How to engage a baby

When you share a laugh with your baby, it can be one the warmest feelings as a parent. But is this a genuine mutual exchange, and how does it come about?

This is a video of what is now a classic experiment in developmental psychology. It shows a mother happily engaging face-to-face with an equally happy baby. The mother then ceases all facial engagement – the “still face” – to which the baby reacts by trying, with all its might, to reestablish the happy interactions. It’s quite a marked and powerful effect:

A historical review of the experiment quotes the researchers who first documented the effect:

“the infant first “orients toward the mother” and “greets her expectantly.” But then, when the mother “fails to respond appropriately,” the infant …

… 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.”

The experiment, in this form, was first presented at a scientific conference in 1975, but it wasn’t the first to document what happened when infants are exposed to varying social interactions. It was, however, the first to use “then-novel videotape technology” on the conference hall’s big screen. Adamson and Frick, in their historical review, suggest that the  immediate and dramatic illustration of the phenomenon contributed to the broad interest this experiment gained. An early lesson in the power of ‘modern’ technology for effective science communication and to maximise research impact.

This may all seem a little obvious to some parents. You may feel that you don’t need a psychologist with a video camera to tell you that a baby is happiest when you are engaging them face-to-face. But there are a number of reasons why the methodical description of this effect has had profound and lasting influence.  

What this experiment first showed, by deliberately manipulating the parent’s engagement, was that the baby is an active player in this exchange. The infant’s social behaviours can influence the parent’s level of engagement, just as the parent can influence the baby, and it can subtly alter these depending on the context. It’s not simply the parent reacting to the baby’s randomly generated cues. It has even been detected in babies as young as a few weeks old.

As Jason Goldman at The Thoughtful Animal says:

“The still face experiment demonstrated that very young infants already have several basic building blocks of social cognition in place. It suggested that they 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.”

But one reason why this experiment has been so important and enduring is that it provided a standard and reproducible way of measuring children’s social emotional development.

By using the same set-up time-and-time again, it has shown how a child’s social and emotional development becomes richer as they grow older. The response becomes increasingly complex with age, and can include deftly timed facial cues, dampened smiles, sideways glances at their parent and yawns. Adamson and Frick cite a lovely example for the original set of experiments in which a five-month old boy, upon encountering a still face, stopped being wary and…

“…looked at the mother and laughed briefly. After this brief tense laugh, he paused, looked at her soberly, and then laughed again, loud and long, throwing his head back as he did so. At this point, the mother became unable to maintain an unresponsive still face.”

An experience I’m sure many a parent can relate to when – armed with a stern face – they try earnestly to tell off their child, only to be met with a cheeky grin or giggle!

The experiment has also allowed researchers to deconstruct these parent-baby social interactions into visual, auditory and tactile components. Vision and hearing, it seems, is especially important as children get older, but touch can be enough to, at least partially, lessen an infant’s anxiety when confronted with a still face.

Nevertheless, a still face is usually enough to produce the basic negative reaction in a child, even if it’s in response to their mother, father, a stranger or someone on television. Children make a distinction, however, for inanimate objects, even if they appear quite human-like, demonstrating their ability to form genuine social relationships.

This experimental set-up has also revealed possible negative consequences of a parent’s still face. According to Adamson and Frick, children actually show a more dramatic reaction to a still face than to a brief period of separation or to situations in which the parent interrupts interactions to talk to a researcher. Babies assimilate and react to a negative social cue, rather than simply becoming distressed at the lack of stimulation.

The “still face” experiment has shown its use in further understanding various developmental disorders, such as Down’s syndrome, deafness and autism, as well the effects of environmental conditions like infants exposed to cocaine prenatally or to depressed mothers.

The still face experiment has been used to ask questions about how early social and emotional engagement may affect later behaviour. The strength of an infant’s still face effect has been linked to their mother’s normal sensitivity and interactive style, and it may predict the degree of later infant attachment, depression or anxiety, and even behavioural problems.

Clearly, parents who may have a lower level of engagement, such as those experiencing postpartum depression, should not be guilt-tripped, especially as this could have an exacerbating effect. But the still face experiment has shown that simple procedures can help in these situations – depressed mothers who are encouraged to provide more touch stimulation are often able to offset the lack of visual or auditory engagement to bring about more positive social interations.

As Ed Tronick – one of the original researchers of the “still face” experiment – says on his website:

“An infant’s exposure to “good, bad, and ugly” interactions with the mother, as repeatedly communicated by her facial expressions or lack of expression (i.e., a still-face) has long-term consequences for the infant’s confidence and curiosity, or social emotional development, with which to experience and engage the world.

Though let’s not forget the role of fathers, or other partners, either.

[Thanks to mum-in-law Jenny (once again) for the video and @matthewcobb for the Adamson and Frick article]