The Modulation of Facial Mimicry by Attachment Tendencies and their Underlying Affiliation Motives in 3-year-olds: An EMG Study

Vacaru, V.S. (Stefania)
Johanna E. van Schaik
Hunnius, S. (Sabine)

From early in life, facial mimicry represents an important example of implicit non-verbal communication. Facial mimicry is conceived of as the automatic tendency to mimic another person’s facial expressions and is thought to serve as a social glue among interaction partners. Although in adults mimicry has been shown to be moderated by the social context and one’s needs to affiliate with others, evidence from behavioural mimicry studies suggest that 3-year-olds do not yet show sensitivity to social dynamics. Here, we examined whether attachment tendencies, as a proxy for interindividual differences in affiliation motivation, modulates facial mimicry in 3-year-olds. Resistant and avoidant insecure attachment tendencies are characterized by high and low affiliation motivation, respectively, and these were hypothesized to lead to either enhancement or suppression of mimicry. Additionally, we hypothesized that these effects will be moderated by inhibitory control skills. Facial mimicry of happy and sad expressions was recorded with electromyography (EMG), attachment tendencies were assessed with a parent-report questionnaire and inhibitory control with the gift delay task. The final sample consisted of 42 children, with overall scores suggesting secure attachment. Our findings revealed that 3-year-olds mimicked happy and sad facial expressions. Moreover, resistant tendencies predicted enhanced sad but not happy facial mimicry, whereas avoidant tendencies were not significantly related to mimicry. These effects were not moderated by inhibitory control skills. In conclusion, these findings provide the first evidence for the modulation of mimicry by attachment tendencies and their underlying motivation for affiliation in young children, specifically for negatively-valenced emotional expressions.