Everybody loves a winner — even toddlers, according to a study published Monday. But even though kiddos tend to like high-status individuals, they don't like those who win conflicts by using force.
"It seems like toddlers care about who wins, but they also care about how they win," says Ashley Thomas, now a researcher in cognitive development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard.
In recent years, scientists have devised experiments to show that babies and young toddlers not only notice the social interactions happening around them, but also actively evaluate them.
Thomas, who was then a graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, wondered if toddlers understood the concept of social status. After all, adults constantly have to navigate situations that involve people of different rank and prestige, and it can be helpful to have friends in high places.
To try to find out what toddlers think of this, Thomas and some colleagues had children ages 21 months to 31 months watch a series of puppet shows. First, one googly-eyed puppet crossed the stage repeatedly, from right to left. Then, another puppet crossed the stage from left to right. After that came a conflict: The two puppets bumped in the middle, blocking each other's way.
"One of two things happened," Thomas explains. "Either one of the puppets kind of bows down and moves out of the way, allowing the puppet to pass, or one of the puppets pushes the other away and passes in front of him."
After the show, she offered the two puppets to the toddlers and asked which one they liked.
Toddlers vastly preferred the puppet that "won" because the other yielded the way and bowed down. "The toddlers liked the winner. They liked the guy who reaches his goal," says Thomas, who did this work as part of her Ph.D. research at UCI.
But they didn't like it if the "winner" had pushed the other puppet out of the way. In that case, the toddlers switched their preference and reached for the loser, according to a report in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.
That's an intriguing finding, because a recent study in one of our close primate relatives, the bonobo, showed that bonobos always prefer a winner — even when that dominance comes from beating others up.
"They prefer dominant individuals, no matter how they achieve their dominance," notes Kiley Hamlin, an associate professor studying developmental psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. "Whereas human babies, in this case, are preferring only those who are dominant and not mean."
Previous work has shown that babies in the first year of life understand that certain individuals tend to win in social conflicts — such as individuals that are physically larger, or that come from larger social groups, Hamlin says. And some research done in day care centers in the 1970s showed that social hierarchies form among toddlers as young as 18 months old.
This new study offers convincing evidence that babies prefer those of high social rank.
"That's a totally unique finding in the literature and, I think, is really compelling to how similar it is to what adults do — how much we tend to like celebrities and rich people and those who are granted status for various reasons," says Hamlin. "It suggests that that kind of process is already starting by the end of the second year of life."
This study fits into a large body of work by her lab and others, Hamlin says, showing that human babies prefer helpers and distain bullies of all kinds.
"It's not enough to just have high status," she notes. "It seems like you have to have not gotten there for the wrong reasons."