Toddlers Like Winners, But How They Win Matters

Aug 27, 2018
Originally published on September 4, 2018 8:50 am

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 disdain 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."

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OK, people are attracted to those who have power - who are winners. A new study shows that's true from a very young age. Even toddlers seem to prefer winners - at least, a certain kind of winner. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: We live in a world where some people have more power, more prestige. Ashley Thomas is a researcher at MIT and Harvard. She wondered if very young children were tuned into all that.

ASHLEY THOMAS: Recognizing social rank - and then also using it to sort of inform how you interact with people - is an important thing for any individual in a social species.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: To see if toddlers could do it, she and some colleagues got little kids to watch a puppet show.

THOMAS: Up goes the curtain.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The show had just two puppets.

THOMAS: And they're just shapes with googly eyes. So one of them is a square, and one of them is an oval.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One's red, and one's yellow.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's one of the toddlers watching the puppets. They cross the stage from opposite sides and bump into each other.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: The kid says, oh, no.


GREENFIELDBOYCE: This little social conflict ends in one of two ways.

THOMAS: Either one of the puppets kind of bows down and moves out of the way, allowing the other puppet to pass, or one of the puppets pushes the other guy out of the way and passes in front of him.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then the researcher would show the kids the puppets and ask...

THOMAS: Which one do you like?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: They liked the winner - specifically the puppet who won because the other puppet bowed down and yielded. They did not like the puppet who won the conflict through force. After that version of the puppet show, they chose the loser.

THOMAS: So it seems like toddlers care about who wins, but they also care about how they win.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The finding appears in the journal Nature Human Behavior, And it intrigues Kiley Hamlin. She's a researcher at the University of British Columbia. She says it's the first to show that babies prefer those with high status.

KILEY HAMLIN: I think it's really compelling in how similar it is to what adults do - how much we tend to like celebrities and, you know, rich people and those who are granted status for various reasons.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She notes that humans do seem to differ from their close primate cousins - apes called bonobos.

HAMLIN: Bonobos actually do prefer those who sort of win by beating somebody else off. So they prefer dominant individuals no matter how they achieve their dominance.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: For human toddlers, it's not enough to have high status. Little kids know it means nothing if you got it for the wrong reasons. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJANGO REINHARDT'S "BRAZIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.