Still Face Experiments are More about Power than Attachment Parenting

Still face experiments demonstrate the importance of babies’ attachment to their parents. The video below portrays the natural human process of attachment between a baby and mother, and then the effects of non-responsiveness on the part of the mother.

At the mere suggestion that you are about to watch a mother being unresponsive to a child you feel revulsion even before you click “play.”

Then as you watch it and delight in the wonderful interaction between mother and baby, neurons are firing in the same parts of your brain as in the mother’s (your mirror neurons at work), and oxytocin is coursing through your body. We are wired this way.  Empathy, relationships, responsiveness, interaction…we call it love, and it is. Then, when the mother becomes still-faced, you immediately feel the pain of both the child and the mother.

But is this about attachment or something else?

One of the beauties of the scientific process is that experimenters sometimes set out looking for one thing and uncover another. I think this is one of those times.

While the video shows the importance of mother-child attachment, it also reveals something else of vital importance to parents and all other educators. Watch it again. Is the baby experiencing a loss of attachment or a loss of agency?

When the experimenter says that the baby “uses all of her abilities to try to get the mother back,” that is poetic rather than scientifically precise language. The mother is still there. Perhaps the child’s distress is the frustration of no longer having an effect on the mother rather than her “loss.” Smiling, beguiling faces, pointing, reaching, clapping, whining, even screeching…all her tried-and-true methods no longer work. She had power; then she lost it. Do we detect the baby trying to think up something new to do to get the mother to react? Maybe the baby is experiencing powerlessness.

Attachment experiments going all the way back to Harry Harlow’s rhesus monkeys show that babies attach—they even attach to abusive surrogate parents, so great is the need for contact. Parental love is good, AND the form that love takes matters. I would suggest that the greatest loss, when the mother goes still-faced, is the child’s sense of efficacy.

The need to know that you can get what you want, that you can create, that you are not powerless in the world—let’s call it the “need for agency”—this is a big need. The truth of this doesn’t even require research or a video. Each of us begins to discover where our power lies and where it doesn’t early in life; then we spend the rest of our lives learning how to use it and grow itToddlers are powered from within and communicate,  “Self do it!” with their whole complicated selves. My three-year-old grandson’s favorite line is, “I like to work.” Helping someone else is one of his great loves, and this inclination is basic to three-year-olds.

The reason this is worth mentioning is that it seems to be forgotten when it’s time for school. In general school is not understood as a place for you to continue to practice your agency: making things, making friends, making books, solving problems, making a difference. All too often school is waiting patiently—in silence–for the adults to do things to you so you can make them feel efficacious. (And if you don’t make them feel efficacious, it’s your fault and they start diagnosing you.) When kids drop out, maybe they are on to something: “Sorry guys. I am off to seek my fortune.”

Look at the video again. Look at the pain on that one-year-old’s face when she tries to communicate and fails. Let’s imagine this baby four years later. She is about to walk into her first kindergarten on her own. By now she has been experiencing herself as an agent in the world for about 20,000 waking hours. How will she reply when her mother asks her, “How was your first week of kindergarten, Pumpkin?” Will it be “Boy, I love school. I get to do so many cool things!” Or will she say, as Emily did last September, “Kindergarten is a waste of time. I can’t write; I can’t read; and they won’t let me talk.”

Most teachers do not  “still-face” a child, but all too many schools create the conditions in which the child gets still-faced.


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24 thoughts on “Still Face Experiments are More about Power than Attachment Parenting

  1. Rick,

    Thank you for this brilliant extrapolation. I’ve seen this video before, and I agree with you that the greatest loss the baby experiences is one of agency when the mother’s face goes still. When I’ve watched this video clip before, it has occurred to me that the baby in the experiment becomes upset not due to a loss of “attachment” but due to a loss of agency, and a feeling of powerlessness. The baby is trying to communicate and elicit a response, and when s/he can’t, s/he becomes distressed, and thus s/he feels powerless. If this happens too often and without repair (as in the case of maternal depression or abuse and neglect) the child will eventually withdraw, and experience a sense of despair- “I’m powerless. What I do and say (communicate) is not important or doesn’t make a difference.” As you note, all learning occurs within the context of relationships. I’d just never thought of this experiment in terms of what it might mean for children in school settings. Of course it makes sense and it is very possible for children to experience this same kind of “still face” effect in school settings, which can then turn them off, and cause them to turn away. “Nothing I say or do makes a difference here. I don’t matter. Why bother? I’m not being heard. I have nothing of value to contribute” The thing is, the earliest and most intimate relationships, and the responses children receive or don’t receive from their most intimate caregivers (and I believe this is not exclusive to the mother/child dyad) still make the biggest difference, so if the child feels listened to, and experiences agency or power in those relationships, this can and will act as buffer, if and when the child encounters the “still face” with other people or in other settings. For one thing, the child who has a good, healthy sense of personal power coming into a school situation, will be much less likely to endure or suffer the “still face” in silence. (Emily was particularly eloquent in her expression.) On the other hand, (I’ve personally seen and experienced this.) a responsive teacher, and a school setting (or culture) that allows a child to experience a feeling of agency and power can make a tremendous positive difference to a child who may have come from a home environment where they didn’t experience this sense of power, or the relationships are somehow seriously disrupted. Speaks to the tremendous resiliency of the human spirit, I think. Another thought: since so many children are spending so much time in childcare settings from a very early age (essentially a school setting or at least an institutionalized one) and the earliest ages are the ones when children are developing a sense of agency, the still face experiment and your theory about what it might mean in terms of a child’s experience, learning, and overall mental health would seem to have particular importance and meaning to infant and toddler caregivers and teachers, don’t you think?

  2. Wow! This is so insightful. You’ve identified something so key. One of the things I got from it was that everyone needs to feel important and that starts at infancy. When we feel important, valued, SEEN, we develop. When we don’t, we can’t become our best selves. It’s not a solitary process. It takes those key individuals around us to contribute.

    Thanks for another extraordinary post.

  3. What a wonderful post to wake up to this morning. This makes a lot of sense and I can definitely relate to it. Makes me think. Thanks

  4. Rick,

    I thought this was a very thoughtful post, and I thought the video was a great reminder of my own parental power of attention. Thanks for sharing.

  5. The post sparked a life discussion at a faculty meeting (unnamed school). and here are some of the questions that came up:
    Yes, the loss of agency as the reason the baby is upset is an insight.
    What about the young child who walks around with a “still-face” showing little affect to what is going on around him and little positive emotional responses to social interactions?
    Does his “still-face” give him a feeling of agency or could it be a a feeling of not being connected?
    Could there be mothers who, for whatever reason, are unable to interact with their babies in a way that allows their child to feel either connected or a feeling of agency?
    What can a teacher do to help?
    Thank you, folks.

  6. Lisa,
    Thank you for your long, thoughtful response. I like how you highlight the resilience of the human spirit. Yes, parents who educate for agency can empower their children to get an education despite being still-faced by school, and conversely, how a school that encourages agency can counteract the ill effects of disempowering parents.
    In other words, anyone who cares about kids can make a difference, and the ball they should keep their eye on is their sense that they can have an impact on the world.
    Even better when some adult goes all the way and helps the child make better and better differences: creating, helping, mending, changing bad situations to good.
    …And thank you all for your comments. There was some controversy about this online yesterday.

  7. This is a wonderful post, Rick, especially for teachers.

    There’s a preschool teacher, Teacher Tom, for whom this post would resonate. His preschool program is all about agency.

    I’m not sure what the internet controversy was about, but if it was about autism, it’s almost certainly wrong. Each autistic individual experiences autism in a different way.

    People with autism do have empathy. Childen with autism may have difficulty with social relations, but it doesn’t mean they don’t long for friends.

    OK, that’s enough lecturing. Let me know if you’d like to know more about autism.

  8. Dear Rick and friends,

    Thank you for letting a parent peek inside the world of professional educators, your experiments and musings, and for allowing an outsider to post his two-cents worth.

    During the week, March Break notwithstanding, I’ve come back to this post and your comments a dozen times trying to figure out “What’s in it for parents?” and “What here that I/they can use?” … (Note; I cheekily ass-u-me there SHOULD be some such here!)

    Sure, experimenters experimented and discovered that water does in fact flow downhill, and mused about this. (Laymen’s observations tell us that THE Basic Action of Life, all of Life, is to Cause Effects so as to (a) get nourishment – witness the flower petal that follows the sun, the pet poodle at dinner time and ones own children when the ice-cream truck chimes on the street outside; and (b) find and mate with a strong partner, a la Charles Darwin.)

    In this video the child is doing what is ingrained in our genes over millennia; she is practicing doing (a) and (b) with fun and enthusiasm … and is upset when it doesn’t work.

    Poker-faced Mom is practicing the (lack of) expression she will need when her toddler turns two and has a melt-down in the mall, and the expression that is essential for staying connected with her rebellious teenager who may by then be bigger and louder than herself.

    Now one could say that this mom is “vaccinating her baby” in preparation for the child’s inevitable exposure to still-/poker-faces at school and in life … We all know that adage; “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (or pig-headed!).”

    Sorry if I sound flippant, unappreciative of the finer points of scientific research … I’m just trying to reflect on what today’s busy distracted parents need and want; short bite-size pieces they can use here and now.

    Thanks for allowing me to vent!

    Enjoy the wonderfully warm spring (in Ontario).

    Montessori-AMI Parent Peter in Toronto, Canada.

  9. This is great and inspire a question: A very good friend of mine had her son while she was young and into an emotionally abusive relationship and ended up with severe PPD (she also had depression during pregnancy) I remember her one year old reacting in a panic and confusion when she would sit there and cry and be so consumed by her own feelings that she would ignore him. He would get agitated, trying to get her to connect with him, but nothing. I also remember him at 3 while at the restaurant, he was touching his mother gently and she never looked at him, he poked her in a friendly way, nothing again, he poked her harder out of determination to get her attention, nothing again so he decided to hitting her hard in desperation, so she turned angrily and scolded him for his bad behaviour. My heart was broken, all he wanted was acknowledgement from the mother he loved.

    Today he is almost 10 years old and he is medicated for his bad behaviours. They diagnosed him with adhd, oppositional defiant disorder and they are desperately trying to fix this bad disorder when all I feel like it is, is the result of his early childhood. He always had to misbehave to get the attention. The good ones and the gentle touches were always unnoticed. What I have issues with is mommy guilt, I need her to understand that he is really simply the result of his pass and needs help to learn how to cope with these feelings and new tools and skills to manage his own choices so he can find pride in good behaviours. but due to mommy guilt, I do not know how to approach this situation without her shutting down or getting angry at me. I did write her a little about it while leaving the pass alone and told her that none of it his her fault as I do believe nothing productive would come from blaming anyone, she was just ill. Does it make sense that his behaviour today comes having a completely disconnected mother and an absent father?

    I’m very bothered by medicating a young child when it’s obvious there is a true issue that needs to be dealt with. I know she loves her 2 children, but love alone doesn’t fix everything. Any tips or advice?? Do you have a post about PPD and being an AP parent?

    Thank you!!

  10. A comment I can’t help make to this post is how imperative it is to gently voice opinions at the time. Noticing that an infant is trying desperately to get a mother’s attention while she is too consumed by her own pain is a desperate situation. Why not intervene in the moment? I was holding my infant daughter once while talking with my mom on the phone. At one point the conversation was tense and only compounded by my crying daughter on my lap. When I hung up my friend told my how intriguing it was to watch the situation. I had stiffened in response to a difference of opinion with my mom, my baby girl noticed my non verbal tension, and cried in her response to my stress. It was enlightening for my friend to point this out to me. That’s what friends are for. .. Let the above excerpt be a learning experience for us all.

  11. Brilliant, Randa! How old was the baby? Research shows the empathy begins almost birth. My experience teaches me that the development of empathy is a lifelong project. Self-awareness is at least as important as awareness of others, and putting words to feelings–ours and others–helps so much.
    Our culture seems to think that the most fundamental need after food is attention. I propose that we hold this hypothesis lightly and look for other explanations for behavior. For instance, crying in response to mother’s stress is different from crying for attention.
    Also, in the video maybe the baby’s need isn’t so much for attachment–maybe that is what the mother feels. Maybe (hypothesis B) the child wants to make a difference in the world.

  12. I work in the high conflict divorce arena and run groups in Brisbane Australia ( and moving to set them up in Alberta) on what is supposed to be communicating with the other parent, but is more often relationship education, as most people are effective communicators as long as it remains task oriented.

    This method of communication and power based relating is the norm in this divorce relational world, and a stock question is “how do you kill someone in this culture” ,answer, “exclude or ignore them”. Its a way of getting what you want and a decision on how we do relationship, though often its so ingrained that there isn’t much choice about it. I use the video to point out one of the ways the conflict is continued, most people can handle/understand cruelty, but indifference is terrifying as it strips away the need to belong. Its a form of emotional blackmail at the extreme end by using the relationship as a lever, and often the children are part of that lever.

    It continues into adulthood in a whole raft of little ways and as a relationship counsellor I’m often confronting things like this to allow people to get closer rather than keep them at a distance. Interestingly its a seduction technique as well which makes it a very powerful tool in an arsenal of manipulative methods. I guess the question is what is ok relationally on how we get what we want and where does power sit in that equation. Thanks for your take on this Rick, makes a lot of sense and always interesting to see the international differences in how we perceive attachment.

  13. Ian, very insightful, and very helpful.
    Our own power in the world has to be a cross-cultural critical concern for each humans, don’t you think? A steady diet of still-facing, could do serious damage to another human, don’t you think?

  14. I think that your point about power and agency is very important, but power and attachment are not so distinct from one another. The infant derives much of its power from the caregiver. That is the evolutionary basis of attachment – that the infant needs the mother to survive. The word “attachment” covers many variables in the mother-infant interaction. The important thing clinically is what happens when the mother is repeatedly and consistently unresponsive. I think the long-term abandonment depression that we see suggests that there is an affiliative social component (love) to such interactions, not just power or effectiveness. But it is a very good point that power is a significant component of relatedness.

  15. Thank you, Vic. The focus has been on the negative effects of failure of attachment–the data from clinical experience. It seems to me inferences have been made about the active ingredient in attachment, which may not be the whole story.

  16. Great piece, Rick (which I just found as I was looking for some details of Tronick’s work) — and I will chime in with Vic in saying that power / agency…”the ability to have an effect on you”…is part of the multifaceted attachment dynamic. I often invite parents to consider a practical definition of attachment as “lessons embedded in relationship.” As I wrote in my 2012 book “Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers,”

    “The supposedly unremarkable, daily interactions between a mother and her baby—in the nursing chair, on the changing table, in the bath, in her arms—actually comprise an intricate and complicated learning process: over the course of repeated experiences, the right hemisphere of the infant’s brain—which is primarily nonverbal, noncognitive, outside conscious awareness—automatically extracts and remembers the constants that underlie those experiences. It is this kind of silent learning, taking place over the days, weeks, and months of a child’s life—certainly until the age of five—that engraves upon her psyche patterns of relating, via the unforgiving, all-encompassing encoding process of neural memory. These patterns accumulate over the early years of a child’s life into a suite of powerful—but unconscious—basic beliefs about herself, and models of and rules for expectations of others: *I am worthy of love. Others care for me. I can trust. My needs are attended to. Love feels good. Connection is safe. There is enough. All is pretty much right with the world.* Or not.”

    And yes, I might have included (and do on other pages) “I have the power to make Mama smile.”

  17. Thank you, Marcy, for this very thorough synopsis of what the profession makes of still face experiments. I think it is a significant that when human needs are considered in our culture, the need to make a difference, is not on the list. This includes Maslow’s list of needs.

  18. Thank you for writing this. I looked up the still face experiments because I was part of a therapist training program where much of the belief was that the therapist should be blank, as to not affect the client and so to uncover the truth of the client. I don’t believe in that, (I think it’s awful) and think that it is easy to see that being blank has a Huge effect on a person. I like your thoughts on it being about power and efficacy rather than attachment. I looked this up to try to explain how I felt while I was in the program and spoke to teachers who tried to be very Neutral all the time. It was the most frustrating and stressful experience I have ever gone through. I felt the way the babies in the experiment appeared. They were not my parents and I had no need for attachment to the teachers. But the lost of control and power was very very frustrating and stressful. Feeling like what you do does not have an effect is very difficult. I will look further, but I would be interested to see if there is anything about this in Adults. I had great, loving parents, but put in a situation with still face even as an adult had a huge impact.

  19. Kim, this is great. I think you are opening up new territory here, and hope you pursue it aggressively. You are on to something. There is something so artificial about the idea of simply being a blank faced listener. …and as you point out downright inhuman–and perhaps inhumane–unless perhaps it is just an exercise.

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