Who’s the Boss? Ask the Baby, Says Study

Baby with bowl of food looking

In the animal kingdom, species often interact and behave according to a social hierarchy. Within the group, social messages are communicated in a wide variety of subtle ways. Dominant animals often exhibit aggressive or overly assertive behavior. They typically hunt and eat first, and they eat more. Less dominant animals wait to eat, eat less, and often show other signs of submission.

Humans are not so different. We also operate according to a social hierarchy in which there are dominant and nondominant members. The next time you’re wondering who’s who, just ask the wee one in the bunch. According to new research published in “Cognition”, babies as young as 17 months can identify the dominant individuals in social situations.

“I think these results are really interesting and provocative,” says Kristin Shutts, associate professor of psychology and member of the Social Kids Lab at the University of Wisconsin. “There is a growing body of evidence suggesting that very young children – even infants – can attend to and understand cues regarding which individuals are more dominant or powerful than others.”

The research, led by University of Washington psychology professor Jessica Sommerville and graduate student Elizabeth Enright, built on previous evidence that infants have an understanding of dominance, as well as evidence that infants expect equal distribution of resources.

It was unknown, however, whether infants would combine this information. After learning that someone was dominant, would infants still expect equality or would they expect the dominant person to receive more?

To test this question, the researches ran five studies with 80 children between 17 and 18 months old (16 toddlers per study). In each study, they measured toddlers’ looking time. Participants were shown one video repeatedly until they habituated (became bored and looked less than they initially had been looking) and then they were shown new test videos. In these paradigms, infants and toddlers typically look longer at what they find unexpected or out of…

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