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Even babies understand power
January 27th, 2011
02:00 PM ET

Even babies understand power

Whether it's a physical fight or a power struggle, intuition tells us that size matters. Babies may agree, a new study suggests.

Even as early as 10 months old, children seem to have concepts of social dominance and hierarchy, Danish researchers say in a study published in the journal Science.

"What we are arguing is that we have an innate concept of social dominance," said Lotte Thomsen, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Copenhagen and lead author of the study. "It’s hard to see how they [infants] could have learned to understand social hierarchies from scratch."

Of course, you can't ask an infant what he or she thinks about winners and losers. But psychologists say that if babies find something surprising, they will look at it longer. In that way, you can tell what they expect, and what goes against their intuitions.

One of the most important things that all children have to learn is what the social structure of the world is like, Thomsen says. And it's apparent that even before 1 year old, they may already know that relative size difference matters in a conflict.

Researchers did five studies with a total of 144 infants. They presented to the children  a minimalistic portrayal of a power struggle through cartoons of block-shaped people of varying sizes. The goal of each block-person is to walk across the stage, but sometimes the cartoon characters will bump into each other. Babies 10 to 13 months old tended to look the longest when the big block-person retreats and lets the small one go ahead, indicating surprise. They did not show the same effect when the small block-person lets the big one go ahead.

But maybe the children are just mesmerized by the big block-person falling over, you say. The scientists looked at that possibility in a separate experiment, and found that babies do not differentiate between watching a small block-person fall down and a big block-person fall down if there is no conflict.

The 8-month-olds in Thomsen's study did not tend to show the effect of surprise when small block-people prevailed in conflict with big block-people. These findings make sense in light of previous research that babies around 9 or 10 months old seem to understand when individuals have goals, Thomsen said.

"It makes sense that they can’t make good predictions before they understand what it means to have a goal in the first place," she said.

The babies are too young to participate themselves in conflicts, and it is unlikely that they learned this out of the blue, Thomsen said.

Why might this happen? The scientists point to elsewhere in the animal kingdom where creatures live in groups among scarce resources. In those cases, there is usually a hierarchy of dominance to set priorities for  access to resources. This reduces fighting, because individuals don't go for conflicts in which they won't prevail.

"You need to know when to stand tall and stand your ground, and when to give in and not fight a battle you can’t win," Thomsen said.

Even slightly older children seem to understand this before they can talk, Thomsen said. Separate research has shown that toddlers use aggression strategically, and will take toys from other children only if they think they can win the fight.

Thomsen's research does not prove that these concepts are innate, nor does it discount the role of learning in early childhood development. But the researchers do believe that, instead of starting from scratch, children have the ability to pick up on the social cues in their particular environments and cultures.


soundoff (47 Responses)
  1. Valerie

    I am a 5'11" long legged female.

    The ALPHA female. I shall kick your azz.....ready to knock over a few shorties here..................come to mama....come to mama....................LOL!

    January 27, 2011 at 16:06 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Not Valerie

      Valerie, in no way was that funny.

      January 27, 2011 at 18:57 | Report abuse |
    • HAHA Valerie

      You just admitted that you are bigger than most females. Look out IT'S A WHALE!!!

      January 27, 2011 at 18:58 | Report abuse |
    • Floris

      I'm a 4'11" short-legged female. I learned long ago how to take out b!ches like this. Unless you think your going to knock over a few little kids, grown women know all to well how to handle "women" like you.

      January 27, 2011 at 23:41 | Report abuse |
    • Kregg

      I'm a tall guy, but I prefer short females. 🙂

      shorty = hottie.

      January 27, 2011 at 23:55 | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      I'm into her.

      January 28, 2011 at 02:21 | Report abuse |
    • Kevin

      Let's chat, you seem pretty attractive.

      January 28, 2011 at 04:00 | Report abuse |
  2. Vera

    Don't forget to read Dr. Ruddy's blog! It includes excellent information regarding the Pink Virus and breast cancer vaccine as well as other breast cancer prevention methods. http://breastcancerbydrruddy.com/

    January 27, 2011 at 16:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. eric

    It's not innate. The children they "studied" have had 10 months of life experience to learn how the world works. In that ten month period, they have learned who they can push around, and who can push them around. The only thing that IS innate is their ability to adapt to their environment via trial and error.

    Based on the logic of their "findings", the English language is innate, as my child was starting to speak English words at that same age. Apparently the "researchers" believe that infants are incapable of learning anything, so all their behaviors at that age must be innate.

    For the record, innate behavior and knowledge is something you have when your born. Not something that manifests at 10 months of age.

    January 27, 2011 at 16:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Laura

      The article doesn't claim that this understanding of power is innate. The article merely claims that the understanding begins quite early, earlier than the researchers expected. Any parent could have told them this of course. I wish I could have gotten millions in gov't grants to publish studies of the behavior skills of my children.....

      January 27, 2011 at 19:04 | Report abuse |
    • KDW

      Actually learning language is innate (whatever language the child happens to be exposed to). Language acquisition has been shown to be similar across many different languages. Infants who are just a few days old have been shown to be able to tell the differences between various phonemes. They initially can tell the differences between all phonemes that the human voice can produce as they age they lose the ability to hear sounds that don't exist in their own language. With young infants they use sucking on a pacifier as a sign that they find something novel. The child will stop sucking and listen when they hear the new stimuli.

      January 27, 2011 at 23:22 | Report abuse |
    • Floris

      Yes, Laura, it does state her explicitly that the knowledge is innate and evolved to keep animals form fighting too often. What I think, though, is that the relationship between the baby and parents may have something to do with it. babies may learn early how powerless they are against the adults around them.

      January 27, 2011 at 23:42 | Report abuse |
  4. Jorge

    Oh great, let's justify threat-based social validation through an obsolete primeval gut reaction still prevalent in infants, we might as well all pack razor-sharp k-bars and MAC-10s with armor-piercing rounds everywhere we go. Power-based social tiering has made more of us go to war than any other cause in the world. I prefer democracy and education. (Some folks, the more they go to school, the less common sense they have).

    January 27, 2011 at 16:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Valerie

      "Attractive people" are overall more successful in life. As are taller people. These are FACTS whether you choose to admit it or not. Take a look at realityland and prove different. The taller, the stronger, the more attractive=BETTER in society. Always has, always will.

      January 27, 2011 at 16:24 | Report abuse |
    • KDW

      Just because something is innate does not mean it is good, moral, or is used in day to day life. That said are you saying that it is somehow a detriment to a child that they understand that if they take a toy from a bigger kid it might not end well for them? Having an understanding of power dynamics would have been very beneficial to early man when force was used settle disputes and strength would help you get more food for your tribe. We can't separate ourselves from our evolutionary history.

      January 27, 2011 at 23:28 | Report abuse |
  5. Valerie

    I guess "someone" doesn't like the truth. It got deleted. But talking about touting guns? That's alright!

    January 27, 2011 at 16:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Catie

    If society really thought that looks and size actually didnt matter, then we wouldnt be bothering with engineering the cells in an embryo to produce, a specific color hair, color eyes, no defects...... Do you see how low we have gotten as humans. Without differences and imperfections we wouldnt be taught compassion and tolerence

    January 27, 2011 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jayman419

      Michelangelo believed that his stones held within them a fully-formed statue, and his only job as a sculptor was to reveal it. In much the same way, some people believe that there is a "perfect" formulation of our genome, one which would make all significant differences meaningless.

      Tolerance is obsolete when everyone is the same (aside from arbitrary social constructs). Compassion is a given when everyone is the same, as it requires no stretch of the imagination to put yourself in the shoes of someone very similar to yourself. The closer we get to a more pure genome, the more likely we will finally see ourselves as one single force of life, allied against entropy and decay.

      January 28, 2011 at 11:53 | Report abuse |
  7. ed

    Unless the child is old enough to speak, I think these studies are all speculation.

    January 27, 2011 at 20:15 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Henny

      Well said, Ed. Speculations that are confirmed by using faulty "scientific method"

      January 27, 2011 at 21:11 | Report abuse |
    • thor

      Small and weak huh? They did lay out the methods used and their interpretation of the results. present your alternative theory.

      January 28, 2011 at 04:14 | Report abuse |
  8. Masa D. Luffy

    People like Valerie are why I make it a point to put people in their place. When they let their natural physical features do the talking, instead of the strength of their self-confidence and character. I'm 5'11 too, and yet I've seen short women command a presence over people. It's all in how you carry yourself. You might talk a big talk Valerie, but it's all internet talk in the end.

    January 27, 2011 at 20:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Masa D. Luffy

    I'd also like to point out that height isn't the only factor in regards to size. 🙂

    January 27, 2011 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Henny

    This is just another hypothesis-testing, experimental junk in psychology! Just like those studies which suggested 5-month-old babies were more "attracted" by photos of persons that adults considered as beautiful.

    If a study showed there is no statistical difference between "big person bowing to little person" and "little person bowing to big person", it would be a meaningless study and would not get published.

    Just try to replicate this study by modifying slightly the dependant measure, and you might find that babies look longer–thus "more surprised"–when the little-block person let the big- block person go first! But because your result does not confirm the trendy evolution theory, it will not get published either.

    January 27, 2011 at 20:33 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KDW

      No if it showed no statistical difference they would have reported that they found no statistical difference. If you go and read any journal you will find that there are lots of studies published about various topics where the researches did not find differences in their populations. Also you will find lots studies in which results were or were not replicated. This would be a good experiment to try and replicate.
      So what are you wanting to change in the experiment exactly? Are you saying instead of showing a conflict and then the action of the block figures they just show the action of the block figures letting each other pass with no conflict? I'm sure that would be easy to test. Why are you postulating the children would be more surprised if the larger block lets the smaller block go first?

      January 27, 2011 at 23:39 | Report abuse |
  11. Henny

    "But psychologists say that if babies find something surprising, they will look at it longer".

    Right, but if babies like something, they also will look at it longer! Then this very study would suggest that babies have an innate preference for "Little Person dominating Big Person"!

    January 27, 2011 at 21:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Homer

    Those Cartoons Sound AWESOME!!!

    January 27, 2011 at 21:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Joe

    Valarie-- your comments might be true in this culture (America), where everyone wants to be on TV or famous; but in other parts of the world, your comments are very far from the truth. It is all about the environment you grow up in.

    January 27, 2011 at 23:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Captain_Awesome

    The baby on the right is going to grow up to be a fatty. A powerful fatty.

    January 28, 2011 at 00:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Deklats

    An Interesting article; However, there is one question I have about the experiment. How was the power algorithm quantified in a way that the babies could understand that the bigger one was meant to be the more powerful of the two? There are many factors that need to be calculated when measuring power surely the psychologist conducting this study didn't use such a primitive measurement when calculating power. Is it assumed that the babies "innate" power quantification is based on size? If this is the case and big is the indicator of power, then that would mean computers from the 1980s are more powerful than modern computers and that obese people are more powerful than healthy people. Also, if this is based on babies being able to understand social dominance rather than physical dominance another logical hole appears in modern society one who dominates a social setting is not necessarily the biggest physically. Babies comprehending social dominance is unsubstantiated based on the facts that this article has given.

    January 28, 2011 at 00:27 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DCT

      I agree completely. This experiment, at best, showed that babies are grasping PHYSICAL concepts, that big things tend to knock down smaller things, and not the other way around. This is consistent with their increased motor function during that time. The psuedoscientific evolutionary hypothesis was completely unfounded, IMO

      January 28, 2011 at 04:48 | Report abuse |
  16. Valerie

    I'm sorry to all whom I offended, as I had OD'ed on a couple strong tablets. Anywho I like feet-play and totally adore the "shorties". My jealousy stems from my 10 year old daughter bossing me around; she's not even my biological! Also I can suck and blow to your hearts content, and most of the time swallow. K thnx buhbye ❤

    January 28, 2011 at 00:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Valerie

      Nice tryint to impersonate me. The fact of the matter is, based on all the comments directed toward me, I can see how the threat of dominance really resinates with people. I am particularly laughing at the 4'11" "female"............LMAO! Amazing how people are so threatened. And to the loser that called me a whale, I am tall, not FAT and probably wear a smaller dress size than half these midget woman commenting. Have fun continuing your asine comments dwarfs......just showing your insecurities......in the end, I am STILL the Alpha female, and you all know it! Ever notice the most rich and powerful men in the world USUALLY have a wife taller than them? That is because the CHOOSE the ALPHA. Everyone else is just, well, the runts of the litter! Have a great day everyone! And God bless you all!

      January 28, 2011 at 09:31 | Report abuse |
    • Jackboot

      A true "Alpha Female" wouldn't feel the need to inform complete strangers on the internet of their dominance. That is what the rest of us like to call "needy" or "desperate for attention." Dominant people don’t have to tell people they are dominant. Those around them already know and they don’t require the validation of others, especially strangers.
      The very fact that you sadly felt the need to tell people on the internet you are so great proves that you are not.

      Don’t let it get you down. You make an awesome 5’11’ internet troll.

      January 28, 2011 at 15:40 | Report abuse |
  17. Limbaugh is a liberal

    Sure, bullies will get their way in childhood. But come adulthood, all those dumb bullies work for us nerds! Jobs, money, success inevitably go to those who exercised their brains more than their brawns! That even goes for pro sports, where the athlete works for someone smarter than them.
    If you want your child to have a successful adulthood, you'll make sure they study, not get into fist fights.

    January 28, 2011 at 01:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. GoldenGirl

    Could be their reaction is based more on what they have observed about the laws of physics– maybe they are surprised that the little block people knock over the big block people because in their experience with blocks, it's usually the big blocks that know over the little blocks. Scientists are reading WAY too much into this one . . .

    January 28, 2011 at 03:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DCT

      I agree completely. .. see below.

      January 28, 2011 at 05:04 | Report abuse |
  19. BabyPower

    I wonder at what point babies learned to look away from things they don't understand? Seems like they were looking naturally, but later in life a lot of people stop that. why?

    January 28, 2011 at 03:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. DCT

    Agreed. But I think its more a problem of reading too much in a useless (though en vouge) direction, rather than a direction that might actually provide useful information. I say that it would be far more satisfying and meaningful to hear their ruminations on what experiences might account for the shift in "surprise" at that age. At least that would lead to a testable hypotheses – rather than the free-for-all that most evolutionary psychology stands on today. But to be fair, I have not read the article, so some of these points may be addressed. My apologies if that is so.

    January 28, 2011 at 05:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • DCT

      This was in response to GoldenGirl, the second to previous post

      January 28, 2011 at 05:03 | Report abuse |
  21. Henny

    The researcher first had this hypothesis of "innate concept of social dominance" and then designed a study by tailoring the independent and dependant measures in order to obtain the results that would confirm their hypothesis. Thus the dependent variable "looking longer at something" was conveniently defined as an indication of "being surprised". The researchers would not have defined it as "being pleased", or "being attracted to", because that would have infirmed their hypothesis.

    By the way, in the studies which were meant to show that babies had an innate ability to appreciate beautiful faces, "looking longer at a picture " was conveniently defined as "being attracted to"

    It is this kind of hypothesis-confirming experimental junk that gives a bad name to psychology.

    January 28, 2011 at 08:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. Mike

    Valerie, you have no idea how wrong you are. Every person on the planet judges someone instantly based on their physical appearance. That is only natural. However, when push comes to shove, is when the real spirit of a man comes out. And if you really think that just because a man is more tall, that he is going to be able to protect you...I must say that you are very sadly mistaken. I say that because when a man like me (who is 5 6 and 135 lbs) has choked out a man that is over 200 lbs because I practice martial arts, and because I am confident in my ability to do it...that your entire view of what a man that is smaller can do to someone larger than him will be reshaped in its entirety. And you will have the same look of surprise that these babies do. Talk is cheap, and it has no value when spoken behind a keyboard anonymously.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  23. Anon

    It is amusing when people like Valerie believe that they are at the top of the chain. The very fact of spouting so loudly that they are at the top gives insight into the personal truth that they are in fact near the bottom, being taken advantage of and used only insofar as they amuse those with power that have no need to flout it in order to know they have it.

    January 28, 2011 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. Coaster

    10 months old is TOO OLD. They've already seen how the world works well enough to form preconceptions of how it should work in this basic setting. They even mimic it. Children of this age will boss other children, or will be the weaker ones that cry and cling to a parent. This study is invalid, the babies are too old.

    January 28, 2011 at 20:56 | Report abuse | Reply
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