Infant-Caregiver Affect Attunement

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Infant-caregiver affect attunement is the sharing of emotional experiences through the matching of expressions during dyadic face-to-face interaction between infants and caregivers. This is a human-unique strategy for social engagement, yet it is mediated by culture and is therefore shows variability across human populations. There are very few reports of mutual gaze in mother-infant dyads among our closest primate relatives. Though human-reared chimpanzees exhibit extended eye contact with their caregivers, there is no evidence for infant-caregiver affect attunement among mother-reared nonhuman primates as it is currently defined. However, this does not mean the capacity is not there because it may just be a reflection of different modalities used for social engagement, given that mother-reared chimpanzees interact with infants primarily through cradling and physical contact, which is inversely correlated with time spent in mutual eye contact and face-to-face interaction.

Infant-caregiver affect attunement is a precursor to other important social cognitive capacities of humans such as joint attention, cultural learning, and theory of mind. It is likely to have emerged in homo erectus along the same trajectory as similar social cognitive capacities thought to be present in the homo line. As humans navigated an increasingly complex social environment, the need to understand the emotions of conspecifics became an important selection pressure. In addition, the biological and behavioral neoteny of human infants elicited increased attention and care from adults, thus increasing opportunities for infant-caregiver interaction. For example, the extended duration of breastfeeding associated with a prolonged period of early development and brain growth in humans provides increased opportunities for maternal-infant face-to-face interaction. Another potential biological mechanism for infant-caregiver affect attunement is the release of oxytocin that occurs during maternal-infant touch and mutual eye gaze, reinforcing the social bond that is facilitated by infant-caregiver interaction.

Culture plays a large role in mediating the occurrence of infant-caregiver affect attunement, as the evidence for this behavior in modern humans varies with cross-cultural differences in parenting goals, infant carrying style, subsistence demands, etc. Infant-caregiver affect attunement is seen most often in Western, educated, industrialized populations where face-to-face interaction is the normative pattern of social engagement and communication. The lack of occurrence in many other cultures could be attributed to less emphasis on face-to-face contact (in comparison with Western parent-infant dyads), rather than to a lack of ability.


Timing of appearance of the difference in the Hominin Lineage as a defined date or a lineage separation event. The point in time associated with lineage separation events may change in the future as the scientific community agrees upon better time estimates. Lineage separation events are defined in 2017 as:

  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and old world monkeys was 25,000 - 30,000 thousand (25 - 30 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and chimpanzees was 6,000 - 8,000 thousand (6 - 8 million) years ago
  • the emergence of the genus Homo was 2,000 thousand (2 million) years ago
  • the Last Common Ancestor (LCA) of humans and neanderthals was 500 thousand years ago
  • the common ancestor of modern humans was 100 - 300 thousand years ago

Probable Appearance (Lineage Separation Event): 
Definite Appearance: 
2 thousand years ago
Background Information: 

 Infant-caregiver affect attunement is widely emphasized in the developmental psychology literature as being a key precursor to other important social cognitive capacities, such as joint attention, cultural learning, and theory of mind. Primary intersubjectivity is one term given to describe the period in early infancy – some argue right from birth – during which infants demonstrate sensitivity to the affect of social partners during reciprocal, dyadic exchanges of emotional information with caregivers. Affect attunement – via gazing at the caregiver’s face, monitoring their gaze, and matching their facial expressions – shows infants’ early ability and desire to share emotional experiences.

The Human Difference: 

 There are reports of infant-caregiver affect attunement in chimpanzees, but only in those who were raised by humans. There is currently no empirical support for infant-caregiver affect attunement in captive or wild mother-reared nonhuman primates.

Universality in Human Populations: 

 Infant-caregiver affect attunement is not a universal feature of human culture. Many factors influence the occurrence of infant-caregiver affect attunement, such as norms for communication and parenting goals, and cultures are known to vary widely in these regards. For example, rural, small-scale societies outside of Western culture often possess beliefs about infancy that emphasize the importance of having quiet, calm infants that do not actively display emotions. Rather than stimulating expressiveness through mirroring affect and participating in facial imitation, caregivers in these cultures interact with infants through sustained physical contact, nursing on demand, and co-sleeping to minimize infant distress and decrease the likelihood of displays of negative emotion.

Mechanisms Responsible for the Difference: 

 The biological and behavioral neoteny of infants elicits attention and care from adults. Further biological mechanisms include the hormones associated with such intimate social interactions, including the release of oxytocin during touch and mutual eye gaze which facilitates social reward systems and attachment. Cultural factors play a large role in the occurrence and manifestation of infant-caregiver affect attunement, as the evidence for this behavior varies cross-culturally with variation in parenting style.

Possible Selection Processes Responsible for the Difference: 

 Infant-caregiver affect attunement helps foster early emotional and social competence. As humans were dealing with the selective pressures of an increasingly complex social environment, the need to be an expert in the emotions and thoughts of other people became increasingly important. Having an attentive and responsive caregiver who encourages affect mirroring may have given infants an advantage because infant-caregiver affect attunement fosters early emotional and social competence.

Implications for Understanding Modern Humans: 

 Infant-caregiver affect attunement is seen most often in Western, educated, industrialized populations. Comparing the occurrence of this infant-focused attention across cultures reveals a pattern that may be reflective of the evolutionary history of this capacity. For example, parents in cultures that have mastered all other possible sources of selection pressure (i.e., Western, middle/upper class cultures where parents do not have to worry about ecological, financial, or subsistence challenges) have the resources to invest the most extra attention into facilitating the development of social competence of their young infant, whereas parents that are primary concerned with subsistence labor and dealing with the challenges of relying on the environment for food and resources have less time for direct one-on-one attention with infants.

Occurrence in Other Animals: 

 No evidence of occurrence in other animals.

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