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Toddlers seem to grasp social pecking order

Even toddlers as young as 17 months old can perceive social dominance, say researchers, and also anticipate that dominant people will receive more rewards.

“This tells us that babies are sorting through things at a higher level than we thought. They’re attending to and taking into consideration fairly sophisticated concepts,” says study co-leader Jessica Sommerville, a psychology professor at the University of Washington.

“If, early on, you see that someone who is more dominant gets more stuff, and as adults, we see that and say that’s how the world is, it might be because these links are present early in development.”

The study, published in the journal Cognition, evaluated the reactions of 80 toddlers, each of whom watched three short videos of puppets in simple social situations. Researchers measured the length of time the children focused on the outcome of each video in an effort to determine what they noticed.

In this video, a toddler observes the puppets:

Measuring a baby’s “looking time” is a common metric used in studies of cognition and comprehension in infants, explain Sommerville and study co-leader Elizabeth Enright, a graduate student.

“Really young babies can’t talk to us, so we have to use other measures such as how long they attend to events, to gauge their understanding of these events,” says Enright. “Babies will look longer at things they find unexpected.”

The same is true of adults, she points out. Adults will focus on the result of a magic trick, for instance, or on a car accident on the side of the road. Both events defy expectations about what normally happens.

While other research has found that infants and young children expect equal distributions and react positively toward sharing, the study is one of the first to explore the impact of a personality trait, such as social dominance, on those expectations.

For the study, each toddler watched an introductory video at least six times; this brief clip aimed to establish the “dominant” puppet in the scene—the one who appeared to win a minor competition with a second puppet over a special chair.

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Then each child watched a second set of videos so that researchers could compare how the toddler reacted to various outcomes. The researchers employed puppets, rather than people, for the videos because the puppets look essentially the same, offer no facial or other emotional reaction, and don’t draw an infant’s attention the way that differences among humans might, says Sommerville.

In this video, a 17-month-old child watches as an actor doles out the same number of Legos to two puppets. At the end of the clip, the actor’s face is blacked out to allow the child to focus on the Legos:

The researchers set up three narrative scenarios using the puppets. In one scenario, a clip showed the dominant puppet receiving more Legos, while another clip showed both puppets receiving the same number. In the other scenario, a clip again showed the puppets receiving the same number of Legos, while a different clip showed the submissive puppet receiving more.

The study found that toddlers looked an average of 7 seconds longer at the videos in which the weaker puppet received more Legos, or when the two puppets received the same number, versus when the dominant puppet received more Legos. This indicates that the children didn’t expect those outcomes, Sommerville says, because their lingering gaze suggests their brains were continuing to process the information on the screen.

The results appear to demonstrate toddlers’ expectation that a dominant individual receives more resources and that toddlers are able to adjust their thinking about resource distribution based on their perceptions of social status of the recipients, the researchers says.

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However, the experiment suggests other questions, which Enright is exploring now in a new study: What other traits could inform infants’ and young children’s expectations about resources? Using a similar approach with puppets, researchers will show toddlers a series of videos that aims to portray competence—a puppet who does a better job at completing a goal than another puppet—and test expectations about which puppet receives the reward.

“Is the issue dominance? From the videos, it could be that the dominant one was perceived as more persistent or competent,” Enright says. “This could be the very start of finding out what infants know about social status.”

Funding came from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the John Templeton Foundation. Hyowon Gweon of Stanford University is also an author.

Source: University of Washington

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