You are on page 1of 12

THE ROLE OF PARENTAL AFFECT-MIRRORING IN

THE EARLY DEVELOPMENT OF EMOTION


REGULATION, ATTACHMENT SECURITY,
AND REPRESENTATIONAL THOUGHT (PRETENCE
AND FANTASY)
George Gergely & Orsolya Kos

Summary
Aims
1. To identify early individual differences among infants in using contingency detection, control
seeking, maternal contingent reactivity, and affect-mirroring in emotional self-regulation at 6 months;
2. To test whether such differential patterns of affective self-regulation predict attachment security at
12 months with the specific aim of identifying characteristic patterns predicting Disorganized
attachment;
3. To test how a) patterns of affect-regulative interactions at 6 months, and b) quality of infant
attachment at 12 month correlate with the quality of cognitive-representational and affect-regulative
use of pretence, imagination, and empathic competence during the 2nd year.
Methods
There were two studies with similar designs. In the first study (SEE COMPONENT 1), infants were
assessed in a mirror interaction task (see below) at 6 months and attachment security and attachment
disorganization were tested in the strange situation at 12 months. In the second study (SEE
COMPONENT 2) the strange situation and mirror interaction were both assessed at 12 months. The
pretence-empathy test battery was only done for the first study (see below). Data for this battery was
also collected for the second study but has not yet been scored.
Results
1. Our most significant finding is that Disorganized attachment at 12 months is predicted by a specific
pattern of seeking out and maximizing high contingent control in 6-month-olds. These infants show
differential success in affect-regulation by generating high contingent control over (both social and
non-social) stimulus sources in the mirror following the stressful contingency deprivation still-face
period of the MIS.
A) they spend more time exploring their perfectly contingent self-movements in the mirror following
the stress invoked by the contingency deprivation of the 2nd period (Still-face) compared to infants
who will become securely attached at 12 months (click here to see a graph),
B) they initiate more mirroring of their mother during episodes of high maternal contingent reactivity,
and C) they show a higher proportion of successful affect-regulation both when exploring their self-
movement and when engaging contingent maternal reactivity compared to infants who will become
securely attached at 12 months (click here to see a graph).
2. A) We found that amount of maternal references to infant mental and affective states during the
affect-regulative Phase 3 of the MIS at 6 months showed strong correlations with measures of
advanced cognitive-representational pretence and empathic competence in the 2-year-olds.
B) Measures of maternal affect-attunement and mother-initiated mirroring interactions during the MIS
at 6 months showed strong positive correlations with cognitive-representational understanding of
pretence as well as negative correlations with measures of pretence-reality confusion during the 2nd
year.
C) Amount of exploration of the perfectly contingent self-movements, especially during Phase 3 of
the MIS at 6 months (that predicted Disorganized attachment at 12 months), showed intriguing
negative correlations with (i) measures of using pretence to cope with negative affect, (ii) measures of
empathy, and (iii) measures of cognitive-representational understanding of pretence.
D) Amount of infant-initiated mirroring during maternal contingent reactivity in the MIS (a factor
also correlated with Disorganization at 12 months) showed negative correlations with (i) measures of
using pretence to cope with negative affect, (ii) measures of empathy, and (iii) measures of cognitive-
representational understanding of pretence.

Implications for psychoanalysis
This research has aimed at operationalizing and empirically testing within an attachment theory
framework some of the most central psychoanalytic developmental concepts such as maternal affect-
mirroring, attunement and holding that psychoanalysts have for long suggested to play a central role
in early psychosocial development forming the core of functional self development, experiencing a
sense of self agency, the internalization of affective control structures, and the formation of symbolic
thought, mentalization, and social reality testing. These central constructs that capture the most
important causal aspects of the quality of functional and adaptive affect-regulative attachment
environments, can also direct our attention to the nature of those dysfunctional attachment contexts
and their interaction with individual temperamental factors of vulnerability that may establish
pathological developmental outcomes leading to developmental psychopathologies of the self such as
borderline personality disorder, or dissociative or narcissistic personality disorders. One of the most
important results of the current developmental research project that has attempted to empirically
identify such psychoanalytic developmental mechanisms and their functional consequences for
psychic development, is the identification of a possibly innate temperamental feature of contingent
control seeking and maximizing that seems to lie at the basis of a dominant affect-regulative style of
imposing perfect contingent control on the social and non-social environment in the face of
experiencing the trauma of unpredictable loss of contingent control over the attachment environment.
Such a control-dependent affect-regulative trait may function as a serious factor of vulnerability for
dysfunctional attachment contexts characterized by repeated experiences of unpredictable loss of
contingent control such as those experienced in parental abuse, neglect, maltreatment, and unresolved
loss. The interaction of these environmental and temperamental factors together may provide the
developmental background for the establishment of dissociative styles of defensive mentatalization
strategies, involving inhibition of mentalizing about the other's intentional mind states in a defensive
attempt to impose perfect control over the other's mind and actions through projection and projective
identification. Our results also provide evidence that early dependency on high contingent control is
detrimental to the development of representational abilities (as evidenced by a deficient ability for
understanding pretend play and for affect-regulative use of fantasy and imagination) that are
necessary both for the development of a functional ability to mentalize about other minds, and to
avoid teleological concretistic thinking that leads to acting out, lack of emotional self-awareness, and
deficits in reflective self function. Our research has also provided evidence that maternal affect
mirroring, contingent maternal reactivity, and maternal attention and references to the infant's internal
affective, intentional, and attentional states promote later representational functioning, mentalization
and self-reflective capacities, and emotional self-awareness and control in the young child. In sum,
our research has provided an important example of how empirical infancy research and clinically-
based psychoanalytic developmental theory can mutually and beneficially influence each other
leading to a much needed scientific grounding of often metaphoric clinical insights.
Keywords
Affect-mirroring, Control seeking, Attachment security, Attachment disorganization, Representational
functioning, Pretence, Imagination, Fantasy, Borderline Personality Disorder, Projective
Identification, Psychosocial origins of developmental psychopathologies of the self
Bibliography
Gergely, G., & Watson, J. S. (1996). The social biofeedback theory of parental-affect-mirroring: The
development of emotional self-awareness and self-control in infancy. The International Journal of
Psycho-Analysis, 77, 1-31.2.
Gergely, G. (1998). Naissance de la capacit de rgulation des affects. In: J. Sacrispeyre (Ed.),
Prendre soin d'un jeune enfant, (pp. 59-70), Toulouse: Societ d'Editions "Recherches et Syntheses"
rs.3.
Gergely, G. & Watson, J. S. (1999). Early social-emotional development: Contingency biofeedback
model. In P. Rochat (Ed.), Early Social Cognition (pp. 101-137). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.4.
Gergely, G. (2000). Mahler reapproached: New perspectives on normal autism, symbiosis, splitting
and libidinal object constancy from cognitive developmental theory. Journal of the American
Psychoanalytic Association, 48(4), 1197-1228.5.
Gergely, G. (2002). The development of understanding self and agency. In U. Goshwami (Ed.),
Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development. Oxford: Blackwell.6.
Gergely, G. (2002). Some confusion about pretence-reality confusions. Developmental Science,
5(4).7.
Gergely, G., Kos, O., & Watson, J. S. (2002). Perception causale et role des comportements
imitatifs des parents dans le dveloppement socio-motionnel prcoce. In J. Nadel & J. Decety (Eds.),
Imiter pour dcouvrir l'human: Psychologie, neurobiology, robotique et philosophie de l'esprit. Paris:
Press Universitaires de France.8.
Kos, O., & Gergely, G. (2001). The 'flickering switch' hypothesis: A contingency-based approach to
the etiology of disorganized attachment in infancy. Cognitive and interactional foundations of
attachment. Special Issue of the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 65(3), 397-410.9.
Gergely, G. (2000) The development of the representation of self and others. Journal of Infant, Child
and Adolescent Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis, Vol. 1., No. 3., 25-32. 10.
Fonagy, P. Target, M. & Gergely, G. (2000). Attachment and borderline Personality Disorder: A
theory and some evidence. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Vol. 23, No. 1. pp. 103-123.11.
Nichols, K., Gergely, G., & Fonagy, P. (2001). Experimental protocols forInvestigating relationships
among mother-infant interaction, affect regulation, physiological markers of stress responsiveness,
and attachment. In J. Allen, (Ed.) Cognitive and interactional foundations of attachment, Special Issue
of the Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic, 65(3), 371-379.12.
Gergely, G., Fonagy, P., & Target, M. (2002). Attachment, mentalization, and the etiology of
borderline personality disorder. Self Psychology, Vol. 7, No. 1, 61-72.
COMPONENT STUDY 1

Aims
1. To identify early individual differences among infants in using contingency detection, control
seeking, maternal contingent reactivity, and affect-mirroring in emotional self-regulation;
2. To test whether such differential patterns of affective self-regulation predict attachment security
with the specific aim of identifying characteristic patterns predicting Disorganized attachment;
3. To test how a) patterns of affect-regulative interactions at 6 months, and b) quality of infant
attachment at 12 month correlate with the quality of cognitive-representational and affect-regulative
use of pretence, imagination, and empathic competence during the 2nd year.
Methods
Infants were assessed in a mirror interaction task (see below) at 6 months and attachment security and
attachment disorganization were tested in the strange situation at 12 months. The pretence-empathy
test battery was also done for this study.

A) The 'Mirror Interaction Situation' (MIS) (a modified Still-face procedure in front of a one-way
mirror) at 6.5 months. Mother and infant are seated 2 ms next to each other facing a one-way mirror.
They are separated by an occlusion screen so that they cannot touch each other, but can interact by
facial and vocal gestures through the mirror (click here to see a diagram of the setup). Two cameras
placed facing (but invisible to) them on the other side of the one-way mirror records their facial and
vocal behaviours. These records are fed into a mixer that creates a synchronised time-coded split-
screen record for off-line analysis. The situation consists of 3 1-min episodes: Phase 1.: 'Free
interaction' in which mother can freely interact with the baby through the mirror; Phase 2.:
'Contingency deprivation' during which Mother puts on a neutral, motionless 'still-face'; and Phase 3.:
'Recovery period' in which Mother interacts freely again. (FOR DETAILS SEE: coding categories for
the mirror interaction situation).

B) Infant attachment security at 12 months: The Strange Situation Test (SST)The SST is a
standardized procedure for assessing quality of infant attachment at 12 months (Ainsworth et al.,
1978). It involves two brief separations and two reunions with the parent and/or a stranger in an
unfamiliar laboratory setting. Infant reactions to separation and reunion are coded by a standardized
coding system that measures individual differences in the strategies to cope with separation-induced
stress. It identifies four types of attachment patterns: Secure (B-type), Avoidant (A-type), Resistant
(C-type), and Disorganised/Disoriented (D-type).

C) The 'Pretence-Empathy' test battery: it measures a) the level of cognitive-representational
understanding of pretence, b) the quality of empathic competence and c) the quality of affect-
regulative use of imaginative play.This battery of pretend play and empathy induction tasks developed
by us is administered and videotaped in the family home. Different aspects of representational and
affect-regulative functioning have been operationalized in these tasks (production and comprehension
of pretend object-substitution, stipulation and extrapolation of make-belief identity, inferring make-
belief actions and their causal consequences, differentiating reality from pretence, ease of 'switching'
between these two representational modes, spontaneous empathic reactions, and elaboration,
enrichment and modification of pretend scenarios for affective self-regulative purposes). FOR
DETAILS SEE: the 'pretence-empathy' test battery

Results
See the summary of the research program for details.
CODING CATEGORIES FOR THE MIRROR
INTERACTION SITUATION (MIS)

The response categories included the number, duration and quality of emotion expressions (positive,
negative, neutral) of both mother and infant, the frequency and duration of looking at self vs. other for
both mother and infant, the amount of imitative vs. nonimitative contingent facial and vocal
interactions, the relative frequency of mother- vs. infant-initiated contingent and imitative (attuned)
facial and/or vocal interactive episodes, etc. Below is the full list of behavioural categories used:
Maternal behavioral categories:
Gaze direction (duration, frequency);
o Infant's mirror image
o Other
Affect state (duration, frequency);
o Positive
o Negative
o Neutral
Maternal verbalisations (duration)
Content of maternal verbalisation (frequency)
o Reference to infant's behavioural, affective or mental state,
o Reference to mother's own presence, behavioural, affective or mental state,
o Reference to object of infant's attention
o Attention seeking, greeting verbal gestures
Mother initiated Interactive Episodes (frequency)
Mother initiated matching during Interactive Episodes (frequency)
Affect attunement that take place outside the Interactive Episodes (frequency)
o Verbal non-imitative but contingent acknowledgement of the baby's state,
o Mother imitates the infant
Non-attuned gestures (frequency);
o Body
o Vocal
o Facial
Attuned-gestures (frequency) during matching or affect attunement
o Body
o Vocal
o Facial
Infant's behavioral categories:
Gaze direction (duration, frequency);
o Mother's mirror image
o Own mirror image
o Own body
o Looking away
Contingency testing in the mirror (frequency)
Affect state (duration, frequency);
o Positive
o Negative
o Neutral
o Infant initiated Interactive Episodes (frequency)
Infant initiated matching during Interactive Episodes (frequency)
Affect attunement that takes place outside the Interactive Episodes (frequency):
o Infant imitates the mother
The MIS data were analyzed by the Observer (Noldus) Program. The statistical analyses of the MIS
data in relation to maternal and infant attachment groups were carried out using SPSS for Windows.
Parametric (Multivariate ANOVA; planned pair-wise comparisons by t-tests) and non-parametric
statistics (Wilcoxon, Mann-Whitney, binominal sign test, Chi-Square); Reggression and Corelation
analyses.
Return to Component 1
Return to Main Study
THE 'PRETENCE-EMPATHY' TEST BATTERY
This battery of pretend play and empathy induction tasks has been administered and videotaped in the
family home by a trained experimenter (with the (passive) presence of the mother). We have
developed the series of tasks have with consideration of comparability to previously used measures of
representational functioning in pretend play available in the literature (such as Harris and Kavanaugh's
(1993) representative study of the youngest age groups, Harris et al's (1991) procedure as modified by
Golomb and Galasso (1995) testing emotionally charged pretence, or Golomb and Kuersten's (1996)
paradigm to test 'switching' between reality vs. pretence modes of thinking). Different aspects of
representational functioning have been operationalized in these tasks (such as ability to engage in and
to interpret pretend object substitution, stipulation and extrapolation of make-belief identity, inferring
make-belief actions and their causal consequences, ability to differentiate between reality and
pretence, capacity to 'switch' between these two representational mode, and spontaneous elaboration,
enrichment and modification of stipulated pretend scenarios to adaptively deal with emotionally
charged pretence topics). In particular, the following five categories were tested by using several
pretend tasks or scenarios for each:
Task 1: Stipulation of make-belief identity (2 tasks);
Task 2: Extrapolation of make-belief identity (2 situations with 3 different episodes in each);
Task 3: Inferring make-belief actions and their imagined causal consequences (2 episodes);
Task 4: Elaborative spontaneous use of pretend play for affect-regulative purposes: the ability
to use make-belief to cope with negative affect induced in imagination (2 open-ended pretence
scenarios (evoking separation and physical injury, respectively) to be completed by the child);
Task 5: Evocation of empathic reactions towards the mother vs. towards a stranger (2 enacted
episodes in which either the mother or the experimenter (stranger) acts as if being in pain due to an
accidental injury).
The children's reactions were independently coded by two trained coders using an objective scoring
system developed by the Principal Investigator and the Co-investigator. Interrater reliability was high
(kappa= .96). Each child received a combined numerical score along the following response
categories:
Categories measuring high metarepresentational functioning:
1. A combined index of pretence comprehension: This overall score of metarepresentational
functioning was made up by the combination of three subscales measuring different representational
aspects of understanding make-belief:
1.1. Understanding stipulated pretend identity (Task 1)
1.2. Ability to transform pretend identity based on contextual cues (Task 2)
1.3. Understanding make-belief actions and inferring imagined causal consequences in a
pretend world (Task 3)
2. Spontaneous make-belief actions (This category measured the frequency of engaging in
spontaneous pretence actions that were additional to the requested make-belief responses tested for by
the different tasks)
3. Spontaneous use of imaginary objects (This category measured the frequency of using gestures
(instead of actual objects with stipulated pretend identity) to indicate the presence of imaginary
objects)
Categories measuring low metarepresentational functioning:
Reality-based interpretation (This measure consisted of the combined frequency score of the
following two subcategories of reality-based interpretations: a) Real person substitution; and b) Real
object use)
Real person substitution (Instead of the stipulated pretend figure (doll) the child performs
the pretend action on him/herself, on the experimenter, or on the mother)
Real object use (instead of the stipulated pretend object (e.g., straw as toothbrush) the child
uses a realistic object to perform the pretend action (e.g., brings his/her real toothbrush from
bathroom to wash teddy's teeth with)
Categories measuring the quality of coping with negative affect induced in imagination:
(a) Primitive coping reactions (This category included the following types of responses to the open-
ended scenarios depicting separation and physical injury: Refusal of continuing ('escape to reality');
freezing; denial; attempt to involve mother to resolve the situation)
(b) Advanced coping reactions (This category included the following types of responses to the open-
ended scenarios depicting separation and physical injury: the child him/herself acts as an active agent
to resolve the source of negative affect (e.g., active soothing); the child uses dolls to act to resolve the
source of negative affect)
Categories measuring the quality of empathic reactions induced:
(a) Nonempathic reactions (0) (This category included the following types of responses to apparent
injury and expressions of pain by mother or stranger: Doesn't orient toward or react to inducing event;
attends to inducing event, but shows no reaction; attends to event with expressing fearfulness)
(b) Slightly empathic reactions (1) (This category included the following types of responses to
apparent injury and expressions of pain by mother or stranger: Attention to event with empathic facial
expression; asks about injury; acts to soothe but only upon being instructed)
(c) Highly empathic reactions (2) (This category included the following types of responses to
apparent injury and expressions of pain by mother or stranger: Attention to event with empathic facial
expression accompanied by spontaneous and adequate act(s) to soothe the sufferer). (This new
procedure has been devised by Gyorgy Gergely and Orsolya Koos. The detailed coding procedure can
be obtained by contacting them.)
Questionnaire: A set of 17 open ended questions on transitional object use, imaginary companion,
play activities in the home, temperamental characteristics, emotional stability/instability of infant,
emotion-regulative practices in the family, etc. (This new questionnaire has been devised by Gyorgy
Gergely and Orsolya Koos. The detailed coding procedure can be obtained by contacting them)

Return to Component 1
Return to Main Study
COMPONENT STUDY 2

Aims
The aim of this study was to replicate the results of the previous study with a larger sample and also to
look at the significance of attachment security as a moderator for the self-contingent responses
induced by the still-face procedure in the mirror interaction situation. The design of this study was the
same as study 1 except that infants were tested at 12 months both in the Strange Situation test and the
mirror interaction situation (SEE COMPONENT 1)
Methods
See component study 1 for details of methods (SEE COMPONENT 1). The sample were 150 infants
and mothers from whom we have valid data for x infant-mother pairs. Mothers were recruited from
the community by advertisement.
Results
The results broadly replicated the findings of the previous study.

1. There were 92 secure and 47 insecure mother-infant pairs. There was a highly significant
interaction between attachment security and the proportion of time that the infant spent exploring
perfectly contingent self movements in the mirror during the stress invoked by contingency
deprivation in the still-face period (SEE FIGURE 1). There was no difference between groups in the
proportion of time spent in self-exploration in phase 1 of the procedure. There was a highly significant
increase (p=.0001) in the time spent exploring perfectly contingent self movements in the mirror in
the insecure group. Most of the insecurely attached infants returned to pre-stressor levels of self
exploration in the third phase of the procedure so that the difference between secure and insecure
infants in this phase was no longer statistically significant (p=.08)




2. There were 32 avoidant and 15 resistant infant-mother pairs in the insecure group. On the whole
there were no important differences between the two insecure groups although both clearly differed
from the secure infants (SEE FIGURE 2). Quite clearly there were differences between the 3 groups
in terms of the quadratic effect (the size of the elevation in self exploration in phase 2) (p=.001).
Avoidant infants were not quite so quick to return to baseline levels as resistant infants. Avoidant
infants spent somewhat more time in the final phase exploring self-contingent behaviour than secure
infants (p=.09). Both avoidant and resistant infants were highly significantly different from secure
infants in the second phase.





3. There were few disorganized infants in the sample. Only 11 infants had disorganization ratings of 5
or more and 20 infants 4 or more. When we contrasted these 20 infants with the remaining 119, we
found that the 2 groups differed substantially in terms of the amount of contingent mirror self-
exploration they engaged in (SEE FIGURE 3). Unlike the impact of attachment security, attachment
disorganization had particularly marked effects in the 3rd phase of the procedure. Both disorganized
and non-disorganized infants increased their self exploration in the second phase relative to the first
phase, but whereas non-disorganized infants returned to baseline levels, infants rated as disorganized
during separation & reunion continued self-exploration even after the mother started reacting
spontaneously to her infant. While for the disorganized infants there was a significant elevation (.03)
of this behaviour in the 3rd phase relative to the 2nd, for non-disorganized infants there was a highly
significant reduction (.0001)




4. Exploring the secure and insecure groups separately (SEE FIGURE 4), an interesting marginally
significant pattern emerges. (p<.057). It seems that while for securely attached infants who are
nevertheless rated as disorganized in their attachment the elevation of self-exploration occurs only in
the period following the still-face procedure, for insecurely attached disorganized infants the elevation
during the still-face procedure is considerably higher and remains high for the third phase of the
procedure. Thus in the third phase disorganized infants respond with self-exploration whether they are
secure or insecure, but only insecure disorganized infants appear to do so in the still-face procedure.



Return to Main Study