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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.


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