Emotional infant-directed faces influence sensitivity to gaze cues in infancy
Making eye contact is one of the earliest, most important forms of communication. Newborns are sensitive to adults’ gaze direction (Farroni, Massaccesi, Pividori, & Johnson, 2004), and by 4 months infants learn more about an object that an adult has looked at (Reid & Striano, 2005). Emotional facial expressions influence infants’ scanning of adults’ eyes (Shepard & Spence, 2012), which may affect their sensitivity to eye gaze cues. In two experiments, we examined the effects of silent dynamic emotional messages on 6-month-old infants’ scanning of face features, as well as their sensitivity to and learning from eye gaze cues. In Experiment 1, infants completed a gaze cueing task in which speakers delivered silent approving, comforting, prohibition, and neutral messages and then shifted their eye gaze to a peripheral target. Although infants showed increased attention to the eyes during prohibition and comforting messages, all infants showed enhanced gaze cueing in the context of approving messages. Moreover, female infants showed trend-level gaze cueing following approving messages, whereas male infants showed trend-level gaze cueing following neutral messages. In Experiment 2, a separate group of infants completed a similar gaze cueing task that included a visual paired comparison test phase to examine learning of the gaze-cued and non-cued targets, based on the hypothesis that increased sensitivity to gaze cues would enhance learning of the cued targets. As in Experiment 1, infants showed increased attention to the eyes during comforting messages. However, we did not find any reliable gaze cueing effects. Infants spent more time looking at test targets following approving messages but did not show evidence of enhanced learning of cued targets. Overall, findings from both experiments suggest that 6-month-olds are more responsive to gaze cues in the context of approving messages, underscoring the significance of positive infant-directed interactions to the development of early joint attention. We conclude by discussing clinical implications, limitations (including a relevant error in Experiment 2), and future directions.