How do kids start to connect with others?

In her PhD, Stefania Vacaru studied when children start to connect with other people through social mimicry and the factors that influence this.

Pay attention next time you are with someone that you like. Do you repeat some of his or her gestures? Or the way this person sits or speaks? Did you synchronize your steps with him or her? Well, you are not alone. The action of imitating someone, social mimicry, is an important tool that connects people. By copying what others do, we not only learn how to do certain things and express emotions, but we also show affinity and closeness to someone. And this plays a great role in bringing people together and promoting affiliation. But questions like how early this starts to happen or what influences this still don’t have a clear answer. And they were what intrigued the scientist Stefania Vacaru.

The Romanian researcher wasn’t always interested in science. Her Master’s thesis project was what convinced her to pursue an academic career in the social sciences. At that time, as part of her study, she went to live in an orphanage in South Africa. There, she studied how the orphan kids perceived themselves, and how this correlated with their behaviors and interactions with others. And this experience triggered more and more fundamental questions about her work. Later, they led her to do a Ph.D. at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior, in the Netherlands.

Drawing from Stefania Vacaru’s thesis, done by Maaike Borsboom.

One of the questions that intrigued her was how early young children start mimicking actions and facial expressions to show their desire to connect with others. “I expected that, from very early on, children are already skilled social actors and mimic others. Or, in other words, imitate other’s gestures, postures, facial expressions, to affiliate with others”, explains Stefania. And based on her study, 3 to 5-year-old children already display such behaviors.

But does the social mimicry of three-to-five-year-olds depend on other factors on top of age? This was the second question Stefania and colleagues investigated. And they decided to focus on a crucial aspect of a child’s development: the pattern of relationship with his or her parents. For that, they based their evaluation on the attachment styles described in a theory by John Bowlby. In the attachment theory, the psychologist proposed that the way we interact and bond with our caregivers during our childhood is critical to our development and future relationships.

In a nutshell, there are three categories of attachment styles. And they differ in their motivation to relate with others. Securely attached people have a strong bond with their caregivers. They feel safer exploring the world and form better connections with others in the future. Insecurely attached ones likely had parents who were inconsistent or insensitive. As a result, the person can become resistant, when one longs for intimacy but is continuously scared of being left alone. Or he or she can become avoidant, when one doesn’t seek closeness and rejects comforting behaviors from others. In these last two patterns, the individuals have difficulties in forming and keeping relationships.

The different attachment styles. Drawing from Stefania Vacaru’s thesis, done by Maaike Borsboom.

To study how these attachment styles make the child more or less willing to connect with others, Stefania did two experiments. In one, she and her colleagues based their hypothesis on the fact that social mimicry is important for bonding with peers. In this experiment, they studied if the attachment tendencies explained above influenced facial mimicry in 3-to-5-year olds. For this, Stefania showed pictures or videos of facial expressions to the children while she recorded the electrical activity of the face muscles with a non-invasive technique called electromyography. Surprisingly, the scientists indeed saw differences in the pattern of facial muscle activity. And “children that are more anxious and clinging, so also with higher intrinsic motivation to affiliate with others, have shown more facial mimicry,” explains her. Thus, suggesting that the way children relate to the parents may affect how they mimic facial expressions and connect with others.

In this experiment of Stefania’s thesis, facial mimicry was recorded with electromiography while pictures or videos of facial expressions were shown to the child. Drawing from Stefania Vacaru’s thesis, done by Maaike Borsboom.

In their other experiment, they also studied the children’s facial mimicry while they were playing a virtual game that assess social exclusion. In this ball-tossing game, the child plays with two peers: one includer and one excluder. The includer peer fairly plays the ball to him or her, i.e. the child and the peer throw the ball to each other the same amount of times. On the other side, the excluder peer doesn’t throw the ball equally to the child. After playing the game, the peer’s happy or sad facial expression was shown on the screen and the child’s facial muscle activity was measured with EMG. In this study, Stefania and her colleagues “found that when children are excluded from a peer during a game, they tend to mimic more the unkind peer rather than the kind”. And according to the author’s interpretation, this likely happens because the child wants to affiliate with the excluder peer, as the affiliation with the includer peer has already been established. “And once again, the parent-child attachment relationship influenced whether children will show mimicry to achieve affiliation or not, such that those with an insecure attachment (a relationship in which the needs of the child are not properly met) do not show any reactions, like a freezing response,” completes Stefania.

In this experiment of Stefania’s thesis, first, the child played a virtual game with an excluder and an includer peer, that assessed social exclusion and fair play. After the game, facial mimicry was recorded with electromiography when the child saw the peers’ happy or sad facial expressions. Drawing from Stefania Vacaru’s thesis, done by Maaike Borsboom.

It is important to highlight, though, that Stefania’s studies were conducted with a group of European children living in a western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic (WEIRD) country, the Netherlands, and were mostly white. Thus, care should be taken in generalizing her results to other populations. Likewise, the studies were conducted in a laboratory setting, to have more control of aspects that may influence the results. Thus, not necessarily what was observed by them represents what happens outside of the lab. And, finally, the kids’ attachment patterns were assessed based on their parents’ reports, which may be misleading and not very objective.

Stefania during an experiment with a participant. The picture was authorized by the child’s parents.

However, studies like Stefania’s emphasize how much social information children absorb already at an early age. And how what they learn shapes how keen they are to interact with others, how they interpret social interactions, as well as how they display their affection through facial expressions or other behaviors. “It is important to raise awareness among parents and teachers regarding the importance of early social games and stimulation. The baby is an active agent of their environment and their learning capacities are striking.” And this also has clinical relevance, as such studies can help formulate “possible interventions for children with social-emotional deficits, such as autism, or children with neglect that may suffer from attachment disorders,” explains Stefania.

It is important to raise awareness among parents and teachers regarding the importance of early social games and stimulation. The baby is an active agent of their environment and their learning capacities are striking”

When not doing her research, Stefania still dedicates a lot of her time to improving children’s education and wellbeing. For example, she leads a book club to motivate children to read, and also teaches English to kids. She strongly believes that all children should have the same opportunities and she tries her best to help with this as much as she can. On top of that, she also enjoys playing tennis and cooking.

Thank you very much for sharing your story with us, Stefania! May you continue inspiring not only your pupils but also all of us with your dedication to your research.

You can continue following Stefania’s career here and here.

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