The informative value of emotional expressions: ‘social referencing’ in mother–child pretense


Address for correspondence: Tracy K. Nishida, Department of Psychology, PO Box 400400, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22904-4400, USA; e-mail:


Mothers begin to pretend with their children during the second year, when children still have much to learn about the real world. Although it would be easy to confuse what is pretend with what is real, children at this young age often demonstrate comprehension during pretense situations. It is plausible that social referencing, in which the child uses the mother's emotional expression as a guide to behavior, might facilitate this emerging knowledge by signaling to the child not to take the pretend situation seriously. Data from 32 pairs of mothers and their 18-month-olds who had engaged in pretend and real snack behaviors were subjected to a sequential analysis to investigate a social referencing interpretation. Consistent with our hypothesis, behaviors suggestive of a baby's understanding pretense were more likely to follow a specific combination of behaviors consistent with social referencing than other combinations of behaviors. These results provide support for the possibility that children use information obtained through social referencing to assist understanding during pretense interactions.