Babies and dominance

I have a reader chock full of articles from this week’s Science. One that I found interesting may not get a lot of attention: “Big and Mighty: Preverbal Infants Mentally Represent Social Dominance” Thomsen:dominance:2011. It’s one of those experiments where they put things in front of babies to see how long they look at them. In this instance, they put on a little animation in which bouncing figures were moving across a stage, and then running into each other to show a conflict. Then, they showed one of the bouncing figures “scooting” sideways to let the other one pass. Not as engaging as SpongeBob, but cute.

Anyway, one of the figures was big and the other small. And when the big figure let the small one pass, the babies looked longer – like they expected the opposite outcome.

Our finding that preverbal infants mentally represent conflicting goals and social dominance between two agents suggests that just as infants possess early-developing mechanisms for learning about the physical world and the world of individual intentional agents (3), they also have early-developing representational resources tailored to understanding the social world, allowing infants to understand and learn the dominance structures that surround them.

The authors make a point about the fact that body size is a strong predictor of position in a dominance hierarchy across most social species, and that humans typically use metaphorical references to body size (big, strong) to refer to dominance position. That social baggage is interesting, but probably incidental to what the babies were doing. I would guess even a six-to-nine month-old baby has seen enough social interactions to have a fairly developed expectation about outcomes, especially when older children are in the house. But it’s interesting to demonstrate an attentiveness to size as a correlate of such interactions.