2012. Vol.3, No.12, 1059-1066
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1059
Optimal Performance in Means-Ends Activities: On the
Emergence of Self-Other/World Differentiation in Infancy
Despina Stam a t op oulou
University of Crete, Department of Philosophy and Social Studies, Rethymno, Greece.
Received October 1st, 2012; revised October 31st, 2012; accept ed November 30th, 2012
We know little about the role of background positive affectivity and flow experiences in early develop-
ment concerning means-ends activities and their possible contribution regarding symbolic functioning and
the consolidation of the self as agent. The theoretical argument presented here is that a deeper apprecia-
tion of the benefits and challenges of optimal experience may help built a more unified account of optimal
functioning in development. That is, the paradox of control in flow, and its relational/mirroring structure,
wherein the demands of the structure (means) are entities in themselves (ends), mark possibilities for the
temporal organization of experience when fine motor tuning and gross motor intention overlap. When
means-focused action/temporal regulation (I) and ends-focused action (Me) become synchronized in an
integrated embodied system, the system shifts experience to the experiential gear. Means-ends dynamics,
then, via mirroring processes organized in turn-taking flow structures between formative action (means)
and production, push the child’s primary reactive space to be converted into the child’s interactive expe-
riential space and in turn mapped on and gradually transformed to the “secondary”, communicative/ex-
pressive space, which also controls its manifestation, initiating in line conscious control and self-referen-
tial intentionality.
Keywords: “Means-Ends” Dynamics; Optimal Experience; Background Positive Affectivity;
Self-Referential Intentionality; Symbol Formation
Csikszentmihalyi (1975) introduced the concept of flow to
designate the subjective experience that accompanies perform-
ance in a situation where challenges are matched with the per-
son’s skills. Flow is an optimal psychological state described at
length by Csikszentmihalyi (e.g., 1975, 1988, 1993) and sub-
stantiated in a variety of settings (see Csikszentmihalyi, 1997;
Jackson, 1992; Kerr, 1997). The original account of flow has
proven remarkably robust confirmed through studies of art and
science (Chiskentmihalyi, 1998). Throughout 80s and 90s the
concept was embraced by researchers studying optimal experi-
ence (e.g., sports and leisure) (Jackson, 1992) or peak experi-
ence (e.g., aesthetic experience) (Chiskentmihalyi & Robinson,
1990; Stamatopoulou, 2004) and more recently by researchers
working in contexts fostering positive experience. Flow re-
search and theory had their origin in a desire to understand this
phenomenon of intrinsically motivated or autotelic experience
which is intrinsically rewarding (activity rewarding in and of
itself quite apart from any extrinsic goals).
Chiskentmihalyi, adopting an experiential perspective, inves-
tigated the nature and conditions of flow experience forming a
picture of the characteristic qualities of optimal experience.
When in flow, a person becomes totally involved being ab-
sorbed in the activity and undergoes a number of positive ex-
periences, including freedom from self-consciousness/loss of
ego, great enjoyments of the process, clarity of goals and
knowledge of performance, complete concentration, feelings of
control, and a sense of being totally in tune with the perform-
ance. Theoretically, flow as an optimal mental state, would be
expected to be associated with optimal performance as well as
providing an optimal experience. More specifically, at the indi-
vidual level optimal experience has to be contextualized in the
theoretical frame of daily psychological selection (Csikszent-
mihalyi & Massimini, 1985). Psychological selection results
from the individual’s differential investment of attention and
resources on the information available in their environment
which also controls its manifestation.
Owing to its positive psychological features, optimal experi-
ence has been sometimes misunderstood as a state which auto-
matically brings about well-being and development. Several
studies have disconfirmed this assumption, showing that the
outcomes of optimal experience are not automatically positive
(Delle Fave, 2007). Rather, they vary according to the features
of the associated activities; to the developmental level of skills
and their potential goodness of fit, and to the value system of
the cultural environment (see for an extended review see: Delle
Fave, 2007). A large number of studies conducted in the last
twenty years shows that flow is a multifaceted experiential state,
in which cognitive, motivational and emotional components
coexist in a coherent and complex reciprocal integration (Della
Fave, 2007; Delle Fave & Massimini, 2005; Delle Fave, Bassi,
& Massimini, 2008). Thus, we cannot assume a direct relation
between flow, positive experience and development.
However, what do we know about the relationship between
optimal experience, symbol formation, meaning making, goal
setting and pursuit? Within the framework of psychological
selection, and taking into account the dynamic features of the
meaning-making process, optimal experience can be considered
both an antecedent and an outcome (Delle Fave , 2007). Due to
psychological rewards provided by this condition, the associ-
ated activities will be preferentially replicated and cultivated in
the long run, thus affecting the developmental trajectory of the
individuals and their social participation and integration. How,
then, could we approach the emergence of optimal experience
in the very early years of the individual’s developmental tra-
jectory? The paradox here is that flow, although relational in
structure, is considered a private experience. To put it simply,
how objectivity can be based in intense subjectivity? Further-
more, how from the immedia te mean-ends experience could we
move towards the symbolic mind—do we need a differentiation
mechanism that originates this passage?
The argument presented proposes that probably a deeper ap-
preciation of the benefits and inherent challenges (e.g., the ex-
periential perspective and its embodied/perspectival nature) of
the optimal experience may help built a more unified approach
to the possible linkage of flow to the emergence of the embod-
ied/experiential self and its centrality in the definition of inten-
tionality and agency that function as cornerstones in symbolic
functioning across development. This early developmental
passage is rather missing from the flow framework, with the
exception of Fogel’s approach on developmental change in
interpersonal settings and that of Csikszentmihalyi’s theoretical
account on the origins of psychological complexity (1998).
Meanwhile, developmental researchers are quite reluctant to
use this framework. In fact, we are in need of more develop-
mental approaches to the emergence of flow, while reconsider-
ing the compatibility of flow literature to early development.
By implication many new methods should be developed that
bear more sensitivity to capturing lived experience of the very
young child. This article thus is a theoretical attempt to offer an
alternative reading of flow experience in relation to optimal
performance in means-ends activities in infancy, illustratively
using some relevant piece of work that deals with flow in early
Previous Attempts to Link Immediate Flow
Experience and Symbolic Meaning in
In a more theoretical manner, besides James’ early accounts
on the linkage of immediate experience to symbolic mind,
Csikszentmihalyi (1998) subscribes to the view that evolution
proceeds in the direction of increasing complexity; that is, to-
ward continuous differentiation and integration. The realization
of complexity is the benchmark for measuring evolutionary
success (but see also Werner & Kaplan, 1963). “Differentia-
tion” refers to the degree to which a system is composed of
parts that differ in structure or function from one another. “In-
tegration” refers to the extent to which the different parts be-
come hierarchically integrated and qualitatively transformed as
to communicate and enhance one another’s goals. A system that
is more differentiated and integrated than another is said to be
more complex. Both these tendencies are evident in optimal
experience according to Csikszentmihalyi (1998). Finding new
challenges, developing new skills, opening one to novel ex-
periences—these are all differentiating functions. The incorpo-
ration of skills and experiences into the wholeness of one's
being brings order to consciousness and harmony to actions;
that is, it enhances integration. The motivation to persist in or
return to the activity arises out of the activity itself. In this way,
the enjoyment that flow brings is the manifestation of our evo-
lutionary predilection for complexity. The movement toward
complexity is not inevitable, however. “The course of evolu-
tion”, Csikszentmihalyi writes (1998), “appears to be exceed-
ingly erratic, full of false starts and temporary reversals”. The
development of complex structures, whether biological, psy-
chological or social, takes place against the backdrop of en-
tropy—the tendency of systems to decay and dissolve into ran-
An other important exception in this context is the work of
Fogel and colleagues (Messinger, Fogel, & Dicson, 1997; Lav-
elly & Fogel, 2005). Their work addressed micro-level assess-
ment of infant smiles and positive communication so as to
reach synchrony (defined as a continuous “dance” between two
partners and evolved on the basis of the newborn’s capacity for
contingency detection), wherein both partners maintain a pat-
terned relationships throughout play, that could also serve as a
predictor of developmental outcomes. In Fogel’s approach an
understanding of dialogical processes may help one to appreci-
ate how the dialogical self develops. All dialogues, real or
imagined, in infants and adults, form regularly recurring rou-
tines, or frames, for coordinated mutual action. Frames are
stable patterns of mutually coordinated activity related to the
topic, setting and scope of the dialogue (Fogel, 1993). Frames,
thus, are interaction rituals such as greeting and leave-taking,
plots or themes of narratives, social games and patterned con-
flicts. They can be verbal or non-verbal. They require mainte-
nance by participants to remain alive and rejuvenation or letting
go when they begin to fall apart (Fogel, 1993). Rigid frames
limit the opportunities for growth. Creative (flow) frames en-
hance self development. During participation in creative frames,
the self is not an experience of being but an experience of be-
coming, a process of improvisational co-activity with poten-
tially infinite possibilities for self discovery (e.g., Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1990, 1993; Dewey, 1934; Lavelly & Fogel, 2005). Crea-
tive frames, therefore, are the locus of self developmental
change. Fogel (1993) sets that within individual experience;
there are moments when being and becoming are present in a
fruitful and self-sustaining balance. One remains open to
change while at the same time has a sense of stability and
uniqueness. In an open conversation, for example, the partici-
pants begin with a frame of mind, a loosely defined set of ori-
entations that partake of their individuality. Via co-regulation,
each person opens to change but that change is integrated into
their prior orientations, thus preserving their individuality and
at the same time changing it. In this case, there is an intimate
and directly perceived connection between self and other that
has the special quality of being co-creative. One is aware of the
self, one is aware that the other is a self, and one is aware that
the emergence of those selves (as events) depends upon the
co-creative process (as mutual orientations) and the self-events
are always “orientational”. Co-being arises from and flows into
Alternatively, in a developmental study of the microgenesis
of form in scribbling (Stamatopoulou, 2011), “flow” has been
revealed as an emergent “background” experience that gradu-
ally forms a motivational intermediate frame (fragile) that
comes forward when motor-affective synchrony is reached in
the activity (synchrony/interactive mirroring between action
and production). Repeated instances of well coordinated drawn
traces evolve in regulatory “flow experiences” that mark the
organization of arousal and affects into positively flavored pat-
tern durations that push the child’s primary reactive space to be
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
converted, through co-articulation, into the child’s interactive
space which has perspectival and expressive/communicative
potential. Thus, the origin of positivity is inherently dyadic
[(e.g., synchrony reached between the child and another human
being, or between means-focused action/temporal regulation (I)
and production/ends-focused action (Me)] and evolve in time—
thus, positivity is linked to background emotions and to tempo-
ral sequence that can be synchronized when fine motor tuning
and gross motor intention overlap (see optimal performance)
(Stamatopoulou, 2011). Reflecting on the impact of self-in-
volvement in the production and recognition of drawings, re-
cent findings suggest that visuo-motor coordination, indicating
fluent mark-making, was the single most influential factor in
the children’s own drawing recognition (Ross, 2008). In scrib-
bling then, motor-affective regulation originated an emerging
relational organization in the experience that reciprocally
grounded deeper engagement which generated an urge for for-
mation/meaningfulness that resulted in the emergence of sym-
bolic representations (Stamatopoulou, 2011). Optimal experi-
ence, thus, functions as a force for expansion when the child
reaches an ordered state of consciousness, once becomes pro-
gressively absorbed (initially momentary) by the activity. Flow
experience then, might provide an overall framework for the
organization/schematization of the self, forming a (self)-regu-
latory background that fosters and sustains the child’s coordi-
nated attunement to the world/object (repetitive coordination of
action and perception, or of the actor as subject (I) and as pos-
sible object (Me), while initiating a differentiation between
formative-action (means) and production (ends). That is,
founding the emergence of self-recursive consciousness, self-
referential intentionality and reflection that results in the emer-
gence of embodied experiential/perspectival self, originating
symbolic expression/communication. Yet, this landscape is
complex and dynamic assuming a transformational change and
systematic novelty, not confined within some original base
level (Stamatopoulou, 2011; Overton, 1999). Meanwhile, as far
as further experimental evidence is rather lacking, we need
further research to be undertaken to unravel many of these issues.
Besides that, some developmental researchers consider that
the use of Csikzentmihalyi’s concept of flow to refer to mo-
ments of the 1 year 7 month old’s concentration and engage-
ment is not a robust criterion. Their main objection derives
from their credence that the imputation of adult states that are
meant to characterize moments of extreme or out-of-the ordi-
nary creative engagement, to the infant is not convincing, (and
particularly when there is still considerable brain development
that will occur). Still, the first arisen reservation towards the
above objection concerns whether flow is strictly an adul t st ate.
Although it could be reasonable to consider that adults could
experience a fully fledged flow experience, the conceptualiza-
tion of flow as a situation where challenges are matched with
the person’s skills does not preclude flow instances for very
young children, at the level they access some sort of coordina-
tion with significant others or music. At this point we possibly
realize that our methodologies may need to become more sensi-
tive to the child’s live experience in means-ends activities.
A second question pertains to whether such an experience is
an extreme one out of the realm of everyday life. If someone is
familiar with the flow framework, he/she could probably easier
tackle this. However there might be some points in the flow
literature that have been misunderstood or need to be reconsid-
ered, since when in flow we undergo an experience with multi-
faceted qualities or complementary opposites. That is, the as-
pect of emergent control, or that of the full attunement of the
subject to the world (a kind of coordinated motor-affective
fusion with the activity and its attentional object) which also
implies an experiential turn (immediate and embodied experi-
ence). At this point a paradox can be discerned, we speak about
the phenomenology of a subjective experience while the ex-
perience is world/object focused having a turn-taking interact-
tive structure that allows coordination with the world/object.
When approaching flow as a merging of the subject to the ob-
ject resulting into an interactive coordinated embodied system,
we possibly transcend the privacy of subjectivity and we
probably face an experience that has the structure and the fla-
vour of an intersubjective experience which is inherently a
social communicative/expressive experience (see more about
this later). If the above seems highly speculative, we may better
think of music or dance (and infants do go with the music) and
ask why? Of course music is a deeply socio-cultural resource,
but still music is not a significant other. Possibly there are some
ways to resolve such discrepancies, especially if we approach
activities as dynamic, evolving in time and formative/construc-
Infants’ early movements often seem to lack meaning. Yet
unlike covert mental events, motor behaviours are “out in the
open” and also “become shaped” (Adolph & Berger, 2006).
The problem with approaches arguing that “from an action you
will never get a symbol for it” is that they deny the possibility
of transformational change and systemic novelty (Overton,
Perceiving, acting, and knowing approaches (e.g., Shaw &
Bransford, 1977) sometimes miss the essentially qualitative
nature of movement, the fundamental nature of the “animate
form”. They approach movement as a change of position or
locomotion in the service of perception (Sheets-Johnstone,
1998). In contrast, experienced movement is folded into per-
ception while co-regulated and modified by a wide array of
coordinated emotional triggers1, such as our caregivers or mu-
sic/dance. This point emphasizes the pervasive dynamics of
movement and its cross-modal linkage to emotion, both of
which are crucial for the developing infant, given that they
establish a kind of primitive co-regulated space of intersubjec-
tive interaction among the infant, the caregiver, and the world
(e.g., Haviland-Jones & Kahlbaugh, 1993). Experienced/felt
movement is the hallmark of animacy (Adolph & Berger, 2006).
These cross-modal patterns in which motor/affective expres-
sions and regulation seem to be the first glue that holds the
interaction together2, form embodied, embedded, practices of
coordinated, co-regulated and co-articulated patterns of mutual
immediacy and shared meaning (e.g., gestures) (Camaioni,
Aureli, Bellagamba, & Fogel, 2003; Fogel et al., 2002). Em-
bodiment thus functions as a default social resonance mecha-
nism that also sets the ground for the infant’s expansion to in-
teractive, coordinated and co-articulated abilities as found in
any action-perception-production systems.
In any case, we call for more systematic empirical work to be
undertaken to clarify instances of flow in children, bearing in
1See also terms such as intersubjective attunement (Stern, 1993); joint
coordination with the other (Fogel & Thelen, 1987).
2Haviland-Jones & Kahlbaugh (1993) claim that emotion is the first-order
“glue” of identity that creates chunks of experience through the process o
emotional magnification (largely an intrapersonal process) and resonance
(largely an interpersonal process).
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1061
mind that, thought it is unlikely children at these ages to have
access to the subjective phenomenology of their experience, we
could investigate motor behaviors and attention modulation
when children are engaged in “doing”, “playing”, “dancing”,
“scribbling” ··· Probably these activities wherein children can
achieve some kind of “flow” are germinal to the differentiation
of the self—world/other, forming another complementary field
that some kind of co-regulation could arise.
Meanwhile, there might be some aspects in the framework of
optimal experience approach that might be reconsidered, as I
am going to suggest, which tackle on specific qualities of flow
experience that possibly function in a double faced manner.
First, I will roughly highlight some of these dimensions (e.g.,
regarding the interactive turn-taking structure of flow and the
paradox of control), which might function counter intuitively
when focusing on the developing person as especially related to
the emergence of self-referential intentionality in means-ends
activities that grounds symbolic functioning. In the last part of
this article, attempting to offer another reading, I will set the
frame wherein the first interpretative gap, in developmental
literature, can be discerned disengaging flow from its potential
contribution to the emergence of symbolic mind.
The Puzzle of Flow Experience
Goals and Skills and the Paradox of Control and
The ability to control the environment by limiting the stimu-
lus field, finding clear goals and norms, and developing appro-
priate skills—is one side of the flow experience. The other side
paradoxically, is a feeling which seems to make the sense of
control irrelevant. Many people interviewed (Csikzentmihalyi
& Csikzentmihalyi, 1988), especially those who most enjoy
whatever they are doing mentioned that at the height of their
involvement with the activity they lose a sense of themselves as
separate entities, and feel harmony and even a merging of iden-
tity with the environment. In such a state, thus, person and
world form an embodied system. Although as the authors state,
enjoyable activities that produce flow have a potential negative
effect of becoming addictive at which point the self becomes
captive of a certain kind of order and then unwilling to cope
with the ambiguities of life (see flow as a mood regulatory
mechanism; see also Delle Fave & Massimini, 2003).
Accordingly, the flow experience is typically described as
involving a sense of control—or, more precisely, as lacking the
sense of worry about loosing control that is typical to instru-
mental functioning (or telic mode in Reversal theory; see Apter,
1984) of every day life. The important thing to realize, here, is
that flow activities are so constructed as to allow the practitio-
ner to develop sufficient skills to reduce the margin of error
while at the same time what people enjoy is not the sense of
being in control, but the sense of exercising control as per-
ceived possibility of control (Csikzentmihalyi, 1993: p. 61). In
flow, thus, control is emergent than set a-priori, while recen-
tering self organization.
What should be emphasized here is that when children be-
come gradually engaged in the action, they progressively con-
centrate in a narrowed attentional space. Apparently, this
emergent flow dimension, qualifies a more stabilized expres-
sive-communicative than reactive frame. That is, children
manage to coordinate the means and the ends of the activity at a
psychological level of functioning forming an inclusive em-
bodied system—of which they became an integral part (Stama-
topoulou, 2011). This action, by itself rewarding, sustains con-
centration, which leads to further involvement, which in turn is
maintained by constant inputs of attention and implicit goal
organization (see flow; Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Thus, the
ability to control the environment by limiting attentive stimulus
while coordinating with the activity leads to the reduction of
errors in performance (e.g., overshooting) and induces a sense
of exercising control and the perceived possibility of prospec-
tive control. Engagement in action and attention modulation
gradually signals the possibility of having access to experiential
content (what it feels like from inside; Lambie & Marcel, 2002;
Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). Yet, the capacity for entering, expe-
riential states is characterised by marked cognitive restructuring
(Werner & Kaplan, 1963).
The Paradox of the Turn-Taking Structure of Flow
that Transcends Subjectivity and Implies
When focusing on the autotelic quality of flow isolating it
from its dynamic—temporal organization, we might end up
underestimating implications that might be related to its deeply
interactive turn-taking structure, wherein the experience is
world-focused/other-focused—that is, an open experience of
becoming rather than of being, constrained by its manifesta-
tion—an on-going co-articulation of action and production. As
stated above, this schema, although pertains to the development
of experiential subjectivity, holds a deeply relational structure.
In fact, flow forms this kind of experience when the person is
tuned to the word/object in its most open attitude to co-regulate
with the object—this is in fact an expressive-communicative
mode and not just a self-indulging mode characterized by its
privacy (see Werner & Kaplan, 1963).
At the same time, the aspect that is really not well high-
lighted is that the evolving in time, mirroring structure of flow
activities (the dynamic co-ordination and co-regulation of the
person and the world/object other wherein the demands of the
structure are entities in themselves—co-articulation when tem-
poral dynamics become schematized), initiate a reciprocal
feedback between action and production/perception (means-
ends system where the means are the ends) that facilitates an-
ticipatory control (proxy) and a proxy or background intention-
ality that imbues meaningfulness to the activity. Regulation
seems to be the first glue holding the interaction together (frag-
ile). Yet, this newly emergent mediated sense of agency (see
proxy control) originates meaningfulness to the activity (Sta-
matopoulou, 2011). It is thus, germinal for the differentiation of
means-ends, or contingencies from efficacies, or self from
other/object dissociated from the direct sensorimotor action and
from direct perception.
The Experiential and the Embodied Qualities:
Possible Implications for the Emergence of
Embodied/Perpectival Self and Self-Referential
In a more theoretical manner, any rhythmic coordinated
(flow) activity (even experienced in our immediate past) acts as
a coordinator or unifier, constructing consciousness as inte-
grated awareness (Churchland, 1986). Integrated awareness as
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
proprioceptive feedback about what movement was actually
made as “felt from inside” and anticipatory perceptual action
(that maintains position in the external space) makes a dynamic
match. It is suggested that this match ascribes to a “supramodal
representational system” the ability to become co-articulated as
a schematic form that is shared reciprocally by both sides of the
embodied system (action as felt from inside and production as
seen externally (Meltzoff & Gallagher, 1996). This aspect high-
lights the “for-me-ness” quality of our actions by providing a
“sense of ownership” for the body and its movements. Thus, it
is germinal to a primitive first-person experience of embodi-
ment, which is a basic part of the self/object distinction (Galla-
gher, 2003; Lambie & Marcel, 2002; Overton, 1999; Rochat,
2003). That is, flow/optimal performance where fine motor
tuning and gross motor intention overlap, intrinsically have
some implicit underlying influence on the contents of conscious
experience (Stamatopoulou, 2011). Consequently these rela-
tional structures, being still of a motor-affective deeply rooted
origin, hold a generative representational status (visual and
symbolic), upholding the emerging differentiation between the
symbol and the object (see also Baldwin, 1894).This entails a
shift from a relatively differentiated (implicit) sense of self
(body) developing from birth to a progressive differentiation
towards explicitness—between the self as an inner/experiencing
subject and as an outer/object (the emerging embodied self and
I-me relationships). This is the cornerstone for the reflective
thought processes (Rochat & Striano, 2002).
More, specifically, this process of “objectifying” the action
outcomes in overlapping means-ends activities pushes the pre-
reflective reference to the body as subject, or as existing within
the act of perception (body schema), to be transformed into the
reflectively aware body (body image). The actor, existing in the
action of his own body, becomes the agentive self who controls
his action by transforming the body-centered dynamic experi-
ence to an outlined, schematic unit/production. This objectified
form, shaped interactively by the ongoing activity, is anchored
both ways in the body while controlled deliberately. It will
apparently therefore become self-referential by anchoring both
poles of the “intentional arc” (self as subject and object; Galla-
gher, 2003; Tomasello, 1995; Zelazo, 2004). In this sense, an
integrative differentiation occurs between means-focused
(temporal regulation) and ends-focused action (e.g., fixing the
circle) that allows an altering of both extremes—which also
implies a sort of flexibility in accommodating both (Bandura,
1982). Thus, materials or configural forms are transformed into
potential communicative tools through dynamic schematization
processes (see de-differentiation and differentiation in Werner
& Kaplan, 1963).
Optima l Performance Calls for Variation
Optimal performance, standing as a “core” value (attractor)
for the dynamic system of means-ands activities, indicates co-
ordination of component processes and subsystems, so as to
form an integrated whole that goes beyond the component parts
by themselves (Fischer & Bidell, 1998). This suggests that the
“core” calls for differentiation, and gears children into the ex-
periential (expressive/communicative) flow mode that redirects
or sustains attention to the world. This is vital to any develop-
mental trajectory in which more complex values develop in
relation to core values (Thelen & Smith, 1998; Csikszentmiha-
lyi, 1998; see also de-differentiation and hierarchical integra-
An Interpretative Gap in Developmental
Two Motivational Mechanisms: Circular Reactions
and Positive Self-Attribution Bias
It is quite unclear from the recent developmental literature
how trivial-seeming activities, forming circular reactions, or
response-contingent activities, can contribute to the under-
standing of means-end and causal relations with respect to
symbolic functioning and communication (Stamatopoulou,
2011). Although we may be inclined to analyze response-con-
tingent reactions that gradually form means-ends activities (e.g.,
scribbling) solely in terms of the infants’ responsiveness to
“behaviour”, the extreme alternative is to suppose that such
young infants already have a sophisticated concept of self-
referential behaviour, or it could be that through such behaviour
infants come to understand self-referential intentional commu-
nication/expression (Tomasello, 1995).
Fischer and Connell (2003) argue that two kinds of motiva-
tion are key mechanisms that together drive and shape emo-
tional and cognitive development: “circular reactions” that
promote the development of skills and knowledge of the world
(epistemic motivation); and “positive self-attribution bias”
(self-organizing motivation), which promotes immediate con-
stant appraisals for detecting what is good/bad for self, creating
positive self-bias and leading to the construction of stable pat-
terns of activities based on long-term goals involving self and
others (representation of mental states). Response-contingent
activity (circular reactions) promotes positive emotions and
leads directly to growth of knowledge and skills (Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1997, 1998; Fischer & Connell, 2003; Schmuckler &
Jewell, 2006). Both forces operate through an underlying affec-
tively organized mechanism which detects interesting re-
sponse-contingent configurations or change/error that is imme-
diately appraised. Both organize a feedback process that con-
trols immediate behavior, since as infants grow they develop
through these activities the capacity to monitor their action
tendencies and often adjust them before carrying out an overt
act (co-articulation). This is basic for an implicit self-knowl-
edge (body sense) in very young infants and grows in parallel
to developing action systems that entail intermodal co-en-
gagement of proprioception plus other modalities, underpinning
the latterly developed conceptual self-awareness (Rochat &
Striano, 2000; Watson, 1984). This ability to transform reactive
or contingent behavior into positive, coordinated, interactive,
expressive scripts is also fundamental to the development of
social and emotional communication (Feldman, 2007; Csik-
szentmihalyi, 1997, as cited in Fischer & Connell, 2003; Fogel,
Koeyer, Ballagamba, & Bell, 2002).
There is speculative evidence of how these two motivational
forces could be functionally linked to shape experience, inten-
tional action, selfhood, and symbolic function. Fischer’s pro-
posal, whereas brings them to the fore, implicitly entails a
folded dichotomy between “circular reactions” that lead to cog-
nitive development and the self-organizing motivation (“how I
or others act/should act”) that lead to socio-emotional commu-
nication. It appears that the option of circular reactions tied to
behavioral control, loses its ties with the affective background
that drives it. Thus, it loses its evaluative, regulatory/motivating
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. 1063
significance for oneself, and thus its potential contribution to
self-organizing biases toward the self/other and to symbolic
function (i.e., the consequences of self-control for the represen-
tation of mental states in later development). Yet the relation
between “self-imitative repetition” of a pleasurable response
and the emergence of a generative imitation that holds repre-
sentational potential is a key to circular reactions (cf. Baldwin,
Although the exact mechanism by which behavioral states
(i.e., scribbling) associated with positive affect produce goal-
directed motivational behavior is only partly understood, the
bottom line could be that positive shaping of these behavioral
states depends on those particular forms of caregiver interaction
during infancy that are required for the development of emo-
tion/behaviour regulation (Feldman, 2007). A residual issue
could be why children or adults are captured by captivating
contingencies (Watson, 1984). This option can either be seen as
an motivational force that sustains the mastering of skills
(Fischer & Connell, 2003), or as a background affective regu-
latory underlying mechanism that promotes positive affec-
tivity—seen as an emerging mediating motivational frame,
which consequently generates attunement to the world (redi-
recting attention in the world) and openness to becoming inter-
actively involved in world/other-centered experiences that do
not exclude objects or actions/events of interest (Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1998). This alternative, that allows new forms of self-
regulation to emerge, stresses the role of experience in the de-
velopment of selfhood while suggesting a bi-directional relation
between self control and the emergence of representational
insights. Thus, instead of behavior regulation, it stresses the
dynamic self-other/object relationship that creates chances for
positive self-regulation and emerging complexity as the child’s
index of taking on integrating and differentiating complex rela-
tionships, including (but not exclusively) relationships with
other people (Stamatopoulou, 2011). Counter intuitively, there
might be an underappreciated relation between circular reac-
tions and means-end behavior that promotes goal-directed in-
tentional action through self-monitoring, and self-other differ-
entiation which is germinal to symbolic communication
(Schmuckler & Jewell, 2006). By incorporating the impact of
the affective/motivational organization of “doing/making” (i.e.,
scribbling) on means-end understanding and on the representa-
tion of goals, we may reveal that the emergence of the flow
dimension in experience contributes to increasing insights into
the intentional nature of action, production and self, which all
support differentiation, self-referential intentionality, along
with the emergence of the embodied, and latterly, self-reflective
agentive self. The underlying key is the relation between action,
event, and production to temporal regulation that marks the
emergence of co-articulation/flow which in line stabilizes
background emotion (positivity) motivational frame. In this
case, flow can be seen both as an antecedent and an outcome—
a reciprocally differentiating and integrating mechanism to
means-ends, to selfhood. Yet, these upcoming relationships are
not direct but mediated by the emergence of the flow mode—
this is the difficulty to be realized in development (Stama-
topoulou, 2011).
Specifically, it is the interactive, “turn-taking” organization
of the system (i.e., scribbling as an interactive action-produc-
tion system), initially developed from birth in coordination with
a primary caregiver (Rochat & Striano, 2002), that creates a
shift from things-of-action (instrumental) to things-of-wonder
(contemplative stance), thus justifying active explorative be-
havior that has expressive/communicative potential, where
(gradual) engagement in action (amusement is of a medium
degree) functions as a self-regulatory experience (Stamatopou-
lou, 2011). Similarly, the pleasure initially experienced in the
process of experiencing contingencies by producing coordi-
nated undifferentiated means-end events functions as an affec-
tive force that sustains repetition, fostering re-engagement (ac-
tive/creative exploration) into the dynamic person-other/object
relationship, so as to form an integrated embodied system
(Csikszentmihalyi, 1997, 1998; for a discussion about imperfect
contingencies see Watson, 1984; Rochat & Striano, 2002;
Schmuckler & Jewell, 2006). Degrees of coordination with the
system constitute degrees of engagement into a “humanlike”
interactive dynamic system which, for this particular reason,
undergoes qualitative gradual changes in relation to selfhood.
This possibility, drawn from Csikszentmihalyi’s work on opti-
mal experience, complexity, and development and in some
conjunction with Rochat’s work on the development of
self-awareness, promotes anticipatory action and corrective
perceptual monitoring (flow, co-articulation and prospective
anticipatory control) by fostering attentional and intentional
focus. Thus, it facilitates the system’s adaptability, initiating
differentiation, so that a shift (decoupling) in a loop fashion
between the external and internal sides of the embodied system
is enabled, progressively permitting experiential-phenomenol-
ogical reflection and reflective awareness of “what it feels like”
from inside. This in turn allows the reflective valuation of out-
comes within the wider social context, while maintaining the
coherent organization and functional unity of the child and its
world (Csikszentmihalyi, 1998; Gallagher, 2003; Lambie &
Marcel, 2002; Rochat, 2003).
This residual option could be enhanced by arguing for the
inherently value-laden affective character of perceptual ex-
perience in infancy which, attuned to the world or others,
transforms reactive actions to interactive patterns that become
contemplative/realized events, structuring self-referential inten-
tionality that carries perspectival and thus expressive/commu-
nicative potential (Hobson, 1993; Werner, 1957). This implied
partial shift of function is enabled through means-ends imitative
acts that stabilize the differentiation between behavioral-in-
strumental and experiential functioning and foster experiential
learning—novel category formation, and the development of
protosymbolic abilities (Hobson, 1993). Thus, at least partly, an
individual’s potential for more detached forms of cognitive
appraisal, evaluation, and elaboration develops out of such
primary models of “cognitive-cum-affective” relatedness, not
inclusively restricted to persons (cf., Werner’s [1954] view on
physiognomic perception3). This ultimately implies an inter-
subjective dimension in any “flowing”, ongoing learning/doing
process. This stance neither denies the social origins of the
mind nor the child’s ability to have lived experiences; on the
contrary, it stresses the “affective attitude” of the child’s per-
ceptual experience in infancy (Werner, 1957). Accordingly,
self-imitative movement repetitions perceivable in means-ends
3Werner (1954), dealing with expressive symbolism, argued of two deferent
modes of perception: the physiognomic and the geometric/technical. The
hysiognomic mode, implicit in our everyday life (although quite explicit in
infancy) becomes strikingly explicit in the phenomena of empathic re-
sponses, and comes to the forefront in the spheres of myth, art, and religion.
It is ch ar act er i zed by its per v asive dynamics, the r el at i v e l a ck of differentia-
tion of self/world, the total organismic involvement, and the embeddedness
of the perceived object in a n atmospheric c ontext of feeling and action.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes.
activities could/should carry perspectival and symbolic poten-
It is still hard to reconcile cognitive, socio-emotional, visual,
and behavioral approaches to set a frame, but instead of assum-
ing that undifferentiated means-ends actions are just repeated
behavioral patterns seeking regulation, or at best “circular be-
haviors” for the child’s amusement, we could rather better look
at those “intermediate” activities that by experience unfolding
in time set a background (emerging flow mode) that contributes
to the emergence of intentionality in means-end activities. As
such, they facilitate the gradual emergence of the “becoming
fully embodied”, perspectival self, which is germinal to sym-
bolic/representational development (Hobson, 1993).
That is, mean-ends activities when reach optimal states (see
flow) function as a “morphosyntactic field that provides chil-
dren with self-coherence and the experience of the body as a
possible multimodal object—a coordinated but also gradually
differentiated outside and inside in a psychological sense (Sta-
matopoulou, 2011). It is this embodied/experiential quality of
the schematizing processes (form-building or schematized em-
bodiment) of flow that operate in a regulatory, directive manner
on both sides, which ultimately binds together the vehicular
form (production/symbol) to its embodied matrix (formative
action) and gives self-referential meaning to it (Werner & Kap-
lan, 1963). This also means an advanced abstraction of the body
schema signified by his intentional control of the interplay be-
tween these two tightly coupled facets (formative action-means
and production-ends), which initiates a distancing—a decoup-
ling between them. This act might model agentivity at a suffi-
cient and necessary level for initiating symbol formation, that
grounds the action’s significance and give rise to the “significa-
tion” of the production/form.
Thus, background positive affectivity that steams from flow
dynamic experiences could provide the backdrop against
which actions, perceptions, (inter)personal expressive/commu-
nicative acts, and symbols/mental products are formulated.
Prospective developmental research is required to understand
the nature of the background positive affectivity of flow ex-
periences and its transformation to this intermediate motiva-
tional mode that accommodates temporal dynamics of ongoing
activities. Yet, this is the bottom line that sets the base for the
emergence of this motivational frame that allows playfulness
through the flow mode which is also linked to the emergence of
consciousness in infancy (Fogel et al., 2002, call this “creative
frame” and refer to Csiksentmihalyi, 1990; Fischer & Connel,
2003, adopt the same approach). In fact, we are in need of fur-
ther developmental research on the reciprocal relationships of
the motivational, emotional and cognitive components of flow
experience, since we know little about its role regarding sym-
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