SEATTLE — Even as babies, humans have a keen ability to identify who’s boss in a relationship, a new study finds.
Researchers at the University of Washington recruited 80 toddlers to participate in a psychological experiment, in which three short videos, each of which depicted two puppets interacting in simple social situations, were watched.
The “looking time” of the infants — or the length of time that they focused on the interactions depicted — was examined by the researchers, as this has been shown to be an indicator of a baby’s ability to read a situation.
“Really young babies can’t talk to us, so we have to use other measures such as how long they attend to events, to gauge their understanding of these events,” explains lead researcher Elizabeth Enright in a news release. “Babies will look longer at things they find unexpected.”
The experiment started with an introduction video, which was replayed a handful of times, showing one of two puppets besting the other.
This clip was intended to cement the idea that the victor was the “dominant” puppet in the duo.
Additional videos were subsequently shown to measure how the toddler reacted to various other outcomes.
The most critical clips presented the children with one of three scenarios: the dominant puppet receiving more Legos than his counterpart, the submissive puppet receiving more Legos than his counterpart, and both puppets receiving equal shares of the blocks.
The researchers found that the toddlers stared an additional seven seconds at the video depicting the weaker puppet receiving additional Legos over the clips of the other two scenarios, suggesting that they didn’t expect the witnessed outcome.
Prolonged gazing, however, may not necessarily have meant that the infants believed in rewarding the puppet’s social dominance, the researchers warn.
“Is the issue dominance?” Enright wonders. “From the videos, it could be that the dominant one was perceived as more persistent or competent. This could be the very start of finding out what infants know about social status.”
All of the new questions that this inquiry presents will likely be addressed in future studies by Enright and her research team.
As an aside, adults also frequently avert their eyes— think of how often drivers rubberneck.
The study’s findings were published in the journal Cognition.