Natural Pedagogy and Emotions

Gergely and other psychologists (Gergely – Unoka 2008) advance the hypothesis of cooperation between the natural pedagogy and the social biofeedback models. Their proposal takes into account the infant’s internalisation process of contingently “marked” emotion-mirroring displays. Such affective mirroring manifestations involve the infant’s generation of second-order representations of primary non-conscious affective self-states. These basic affective states are initially perceived by infants as being either positive or negative. Instead, second-order representations become cognitively accessible and allow for the progressive achievement of the subject’s introspective awareness, making her able to discern, for example, anger from negative arousal.

In a few words, according to Gergely’s hypothesis, the grounding elements of natural pedagogy would also make possible the social construction of the infant’s inner emotional self. Such a claim entails that inner emotions, like cultural knowledge, are taught by adults to infants through social interactions based on the referential-expectation power of ostensive communication.

Despite agreeing with the hypothesis concerning the social construction of a subjective sense of self, in my book (chapter 7) I reject the idea that natural pedagogy should be involved with social biofeedback, and thus, with the construction of the child’s inner emotional Self (at least in the early developmental stages). The social biofeedback model (Gergely – Watson 1999) assumes that human infants initially show a primary bias to construct representations mainly based on exteroceptive stimulation and leads to the construction of discrete emotions». In this view, (discrete) emotions emerge from their raw precursors, i.e., the basic emotions delineated by Ekman (1992), which are «the most elemental among discrete emotions […] biologically based and pancultural packages of short-term, coordinated and automated responses to events in the environment» (Di Francesco et al. 2016, p. 120; Caruana – Viola 2018).

Gergely’s theoretical proposal is based on the equivalence between marked affect-mirroring displays and infant-directed cues of ostensive communication, intended as referential knowledge manifestations, where ‘knowledge’ stands for the variety of emotions.

By rejecting social biofeedback cooperation, I am not denying that infants learn to regulate and express their own emotions through continuous social interactions with attachment figures. However, in my opinion, this pragmatic form of learning does not go through explicit pedagogical teaching in the early developmental stages. The emotional parental mirroring does not need any pedagogical stance when children are very young and when the emotions to be discriminated and recognised are still basic and primitive. However, the presence of ostensive cues is not sufficient to establish pedagogical conditions. Even if we assume that the ‘marked’ character of emotional displays is a pragmatic form of ostensive communication, the automatic involvement of the pedagogical stance is not guaranteed or implied by the referential nature of these ostensive cues.

The pedagogical stance requires a high degree of intentionality: the intention of teaching. Such manifested intention is not so clear during parental affect mirroring, which rather consists in a dialogical negotiation (Grifftiths – Scarantino 2009) that is not established in name of an explicit teaching intention. Furthermore, the pedagogical transfer of cultural knowledge, compared with the transmission by testimony, implies propositional forms for the conveyed contents that cannot be applied to emotions sic et simpliciter. In fact, we should recognise that primary forms of emotions are not fully conceptual, while second-order representations contain or carry a propositional form only in force of a pretence strategy fostered by referential expectations.

The social manifestations of more complex emotions – e.g., shame, guilt, and pride – are subject to cultural variations and their forms are indeed transmitted through generations. In these cases, Natural Pedagogy features can be involved, but even if Social Biofeedback and Natural Pedagogy theories share social and motivational dimensions, the degree of explicit intentionality is different in the two cognitive systems. Social bio-feedback shapes more frequent, unconscious, fragile dialogic relations that are dependent on the caregiver’s subjective emotional dispositions, rather than on the natural tendency to teach explicit knowledge content about external social reality.

In natural pedagogy, instead, the attitude is more defined and the intentions are more explicit, although in both cases ostensive manifestations serve the same purpose. The manifestations of such intentionality are conveyed through ostensive signals that may be used flexibly in other contexts and do not always coincide with the aim of teaching. The cases of motherese and motionese constitute the best pieces of evidence. The infant-directed attention expressed by the adult through exaggerated and modified vocalisations, smiles and other friendly approaches does not always entail a particular communicative relation aimed at transferring knowledge. Natural pedagogy and social biofeedback, thus, do not share the same degree and form of intentionality.  

Back to Top