Transmission of social anxiety from mother to infant: an experimental study using a social referencing paradigm

Behav Res Ther. 2006 Aug;44(8):1165-75. doi: 10.1016/j.brat.2005.09.003. Epub 2005 Nov 10.


In this experiment we investigated the impact of indirect expressions of maternal social anxiety on infant interactions with a stranger. A social referencing paradigm was used in which infants first observed their mothers interacting with a stranger and then interacted with the stranger themselves. Mothers made no direct communicative gestures to the infant concerning the stranger throughout the procedure. There were two experimental conditions experienced by all mother-infant pairs (N = 24; 12 boys)-non-anxious and socially anxious-and there were two male strangers. Infants were between 12 and 14 months (M = 12.8, SD = .76). Order of condition and stranger presentation were counter-balanced. Before testing, mothers, none of whom were significantly socially anxious, were trained to behave in a non-anxious and a socially anxious manner on the basis of clinical and empirical descriptions of social phobia. The results showed that, compared to their responses following their mothers interacting normally with a stranger, following a socially anxious mother-stranger interaction, infants were significantly more fearful and avoidant with the stranger. Infant-stranger avoidance was further modified by infant temperament; high fear infants were more avoidant in the socially anxious condition than low-fear infants. We discuss these findings in light of the possible mechanisms underpinning infant affective and behavioral responsiveness.

MeSH terms

  • Affect
  • Avoidance Learning
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior / psychology*
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Male
  • Mother-Child Relations*
  • Mothers / psychology
  • Phobic Disorders / psychology*