Still Face Experiment

What we can learn from a cute baby and her mom

Dr. Sue Johnson has devoted her career to applying the contributions of Attachment Theory to adults.  In this video, Dr. Edward Tronick, a developmental psychologist and researcher from the University of Massachusetts illustrates the “still face experiment”.  This is video is difficult to watch so make sure you watch through the end!

How Does The Still Face Experiment Apply to Adults?

Dr. Johnson made the argument that adults do the same thing as the baby in this film.

When we are not feeling seen by the person from whom we are expecting connection, first we become charming, cute, and interesting, and then we actively reach out.  If these attempts fail, we either turn away to protect ourselves or we throw a tantrum.

In the best of cases and in the film, there is a repair.  Both parties re-focus their attention on one another, which results in everyone happier and more relaxed.  If there is not a repair, over time the turning away can lead to emotional distancing increasing the risk of an affair.  The tantrum may lead to loud hurtful arguments, increasing the risk of violence.

How The Still Face Experiment Applies to Couples

It is not my intention to scare anyone, but more to increase awareness of how these things happen.  It is rarely just one event that transforms a relationship from flirty and fun to lonely and uninteresting.  One of the foundations of the Gottman Method is “turning toward”.  We have numerous opportunities throughout the day to connect with our partners.  It can be sending a text that says “good luck with your meeting”, or “love ya ;)”.  Even if you don’t have the smartest phone or the fastest fingers, it doesn’t take a large amount of time.  Other ways to turn toward are bringing someone coffee in bed, or telling them what’s happening in the book you’re reading.  All the mother in the film had to do was change the expression on her face to show her daughter that she was there with her.

The good news here is that we know that there are very easy things you can do to take care of your relationship.  If you do them often, it will make a huge difference in the level of connection you have.

I have seen this still face experiment video several times and it doesn’t get any easier to watch, but I try to remember that it has a happy ending.