New research shows infants understand social dominance

New research from the University of Copenhagen and Harvard University has found that infants less than one year old understand social dominance and use relative size to predict who will prevail when two individuals’ goals conflict. The findings are presented this week in the journal Science.

Lotte Thomsen, assistant professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Psychology and research fellow in Harvard’s Department of Psychology, is the lead author of the article “Big and Mighty: Preverbal Infants Mentally Represent Social Dominance”, which is being published in the well-respected scientific journal Science this week.

Thomsen’s work suggests we may be born with — or develop at a very early age — some understanding of social dominance and how it relates to relative size.

Big and mighty

“As we have tried to communicate with the title of our paper “Big & Mighty”, what we have shown is that even pre-verbal infants understand social dominance and use relative size as a cue for it. To put it simply, if a big and a small guy have goals that conflict, preverbal infants expect the big guy to win over the little guy,” Thomsen says.

According to Thomsen’s research, this potentially instinctive knowledge in infants could indicate that we are all born with an understanding of social hierarchy and how physical size relates to social dominance.

Interviewing infants

Thomsen and colleagues at Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the reactions of infants ranging from 8 to 16 months old as they watched videos of interactions between cartoon figures of various sizes.

“The trouble with working with pre-verbal infants is that you cannot just interview them and ask them what they think. So instead you have to look at what they do. And one of the things we know is that infants — like adults — tend to look longer at something that surprises them,” Thomsen explains.

To see if infants use size as a cue for social dominance, they were shown simple cartoons of a big and little block that meet in the middle of a stage and bump into each other, blocking each others way. In one of the cartoons the big block essentially defeats the smaller block, and in the second one the opposite occurs.

“If we’re right that infants expect the largest agent to have the right-of-way, then they should look at the screen longer when the opposite happens — that is when the big guy yields to the small guy. And that is exactly what we found,” Thomsen explains.

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