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Social Referencing in Psychology: Definition & Examples

Social Referencing in Psychology: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:02 Social Referencing
  • 1:50 Examples
  • 2:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Social referencing occurs when infants read facial expressions and use the information to help make decisions. Learn more about social referencing from examples, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Social Referencing

Willow is a curious ten-month-old child. While visiting her grandmother, she notices the shiny, green crystals hanging off the ends of the curtains. What Willow doesn't know is that the curtains are wrapped around a metal rod. If she pulls the curtains, the metal rod would tumble down, likely injuring Willow. Willow's mother is standing about 30 feet away having a conversation with her father. Willow reaches toward the curtains and looks back at her mother, who glances at her with fear and says a stern 'No.' Willow hesitates, and she does not grab the curtains. Willow's mom picks her up and places her in her play pen, preventing her from reaching for the curtains in the future.

What made Willow decide not to reach for the curtain? The answer is social referencing. Social referencing occurs when infants look at the facial expressions of others to help figure out how to proceed in a certain situation. In the situation earlier, Willow was able to read the fear in her mother's face, pick up the warning in her mother's tone of voice, and determine that pulling the curtain was not a good idea.

Infants begin to use social referencing between eight and ten months of age. During this time, infants learn the meanings of several facial expressions as well as tones of voice. Infants then use this information to guide their behavior in all types of situations, from potentially dangerous ones, such as pulling curtains, to pleasant situations, such as playing with a new toy. By twelve months of age, infants can use visual information obtained from their caregivers' faces to help them understand new or uncertain situations. For example, an infant presented with a new toy car may look at the facial expressions of his mother for guidance before determining whether to play with the car.

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