The social biofeedback theory of parental affect-mirroring: The development of emotional self-awareness and self-control in infancy

G. Gergely, J. S. Watson

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439 Citations (Scopus)


The authors present a new theory of parental affect-mirroring and its role in the development of emotional self-awareness and control in infancy. It is proposedthat infants first become sensitised to their categorical emotion-states through a natural social biofeedback process provided by the parent's 'marked' reflections of the baby's emotion displays during affect-regulative interactions. They argue that this sensitisatiorz process is mediated (similarly to that of adult biofeedback training) by the mechanism of contingency-detection and maximising. Apart from sensitisation, affect-mirroring serves three further developmental functions: (1) it contributes to the infant's stateregulation; (2) it leads to the establishment ofsecondary representations that become associated with the infant's primary procedural affect-states providing the cognitive meansfor accessing and attributing emotions to the self; (3) it results in the development of a generalised communicative code of 'marked' expressions characterised by the representational functions of referential decoupling, anchoring and suspension of realistic consequences. They consider the clinical implications of our theory, relating it to current psychodynamic approaches to the functions ofparental affect-mirroring. Using their model they identify various types of deviant mirroring styles and speculate about their developmental consequences. Finally, they discuss what role their social biofeedback model may play as a mediating mechanism in the therapeutic process.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1181-1212
Number of pages32
JournalInternational Journal of Psycho-Analysis
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 1 1996


ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Psychology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health

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