Science-- there's something for everyone

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Babies understand social dominance

Infants are constantly demonstrating surprising cognitive abilities. I’ve written previously about their math skills. Now researchers led by Lotte Thomsen from Harvard, UCLA and the University of Copenhagen have shown that babies as young as ten months old can understand social dominance.

The scientists noticed that in many human societies, people of greater status appear larger than those of lesser status. This is accomplished both by giving more important people large hats and robes, and by having lesser individuals scrape and bow. Could babies associate size with social dominance, and if so, at what age would this begin? It turns out that they could, starting at about ten months.

The researchers used the standard ‘how long does the baby stare’ test to determine whether the babies found an interaction mundane or surprising. For this test, the babies were shown a large and a small block with eyes and a mouth bouncing across a stage. When the blocks encountered each other, one or the other would bow and yield the right of way. If the larger block gave way to the smaller, babies 10 to 16 months old found this startling, whereas 8 month-old babies did not notice anything untoward.

I find this result interesting for two reasons. First, it’s obviously amazing how much more babies know and understand about their world than we thought they did. But second, I’m not sure I would find it unusual to see a large block bowing to a small block. Do I subconsciously translate size into dominance? I’ll have to think about that.

You can see the video used in the test below: