WINNERS, LOSERS, BULLIES AND LEADERS: Projects about how infants, toddlers and children think about social hierarchy

To play, press and hold the enter key. To stop, release the enter key.

Everybody loves a winner? 

In this study, we showed toddlers a puppet show that is a lot like the Dr. Suess story, The Zax—one puppet tried to cross from left to right across the stage, and one tried to cross from right to left across the stage. However, unlike in The Zax, in our puppet show the conflict is resolved—one of the puppets bows down and moves out of the way allowing the other puppet to reach its goal. Then, we presented the two puppets to the toddlers and said, “Which one do you like?” and recorded which puppet the toddlers reached for.  Toddlers were much more likely to reach for the 'winners' than for the puppet who deferred. But toddlers preference had a limit: when the puppet used force to win, toddlers were much more likely to choose the victim than the 'winner'. Click on the title to see the preprint.

In another study, we asked whether infants (10 to 16 month olds) prefer those who defer or 'win' a conflict. Unlike toddlers, infants were more likely to reach for the ones who deferred. Preprint here

Collaborators: Lotte Thomsen, Angela Lukowski, Melenia Abrayams, Barbara Sarnecka

To play, press and hold the enter key. To stop, release the enter key.

Children's Understanding of how groups make decisions

From an early age, children recognize that people belong to social groups. However, not all groups are structured in the same way. The current study asked whether children recognize different social structures based on how power is distributed. If so, do they prefer some social structures over others? In two studies, 6-to-8-year old children in the United States inferred a group’s structure from decision-making patterns: Children were told stories about two groups that went camping.  In the hierarchical group, one character made all the decisions; in the egalitarian group, each group member made one decision. Children recognized that the two groups had different social structures, inferred that the egalitarian group shared more resources, and preferred to interact with the egalitarian group. Thus from an early age, children’s social reasoning includes the ability to compare social structures, which may be foundational for more complex political and moral reasoning.

Collaborators : Vivian Mitchelle, Brandon Terrizzi, Paul Piff, Barbara W. Sarnecka

To play, press and hold the enter key. To stop, release the enter key.

With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility?

Humans in every society find themselves in social hierarchies. Recent research has shown that children can say, “who is in charge” given various cues. In the present studies we ask, given that someone is in charge, how do children think they will treat subordinates. In Studies 1 and 2 (n = 344), children heard stories about social groups that consisted of a leader (a character wearing a crown and sitting on a throne in Study 1 and only wearing a crown in Study 2) and three subordinates. The children were told about an action, and they guessed who had done it—the leader or a subordinate. When asked who pushed someone down, most older children guessed that a subordinate had done the pushing, while younger children seemed to consider leaders and subordinates equally likely to push someone.  When asked who kicked out a hostile intruder, children of all ages chose the leader more often than a subordinate.  Study 3 (n = 216) tested whether children expect leaders to put themselves in harm’s way to protect subordinates and be actively prosocial. Here, children in both age groups did not think leaders would put themselves in harm’s way to protect subordinates and thought the leader was less likely than a subordinate to perform prosocial actions such as helping someone up or sharing a cookie.  Thus, children expect that leaders will provide specific benefits (such as expelling hostile intruders), but they don’t expect leaders to be more prosocial than other people overall.

Collaborators: Emily Sumner & Barbara W. Sarnecka

Projects about how infants think about affiliation

To play, press and hold the enter key. To stop, release the enter key.

Early representations of social intimacy: Infants, toddlers, and children use saliva sharing as a cue of social closeness.

In all human societies, people form ‘thick’ relationships, which are characterized by strong and enduring attachments and specific moral obligations. While thick relationships often occur between genetic relatives, not all thick relationships are between genetic relatives and not all genetic relatives form thick relationships. How do young children identify thick relationships in their social environments? One possible cue is the sharing of bodily fluids, which occurs within thick relationships across many cultural settings. Here we provide evidence that children (N=113), toddlers (N=84), and infants (N=81) infer that individuals who act in ways which suggest saliva-sharing have a different kind of relationship with one another than do other social partners. Children expect saliva sharing to happen within nuclear families, and infants and toddlers expect these behaviors to occur between individuals who respond to one another in states of distress. Survey data from parents (N=129) confirm that saliva sharing interactions are a valid cue of relationship thickness in these populations. The ability to use specific cues to infer categories of social relationships therefore emerges early in life and may be independent of explicit teaching. We suggest that this ability supports early learning about culturally variable relationships between people who are closest to one another, both within and beyond families.

Collaborators: Brandon Woo, Daniel Nettle, Rebecca Saxe & Elizabeth Spelke

To play, press and hold the enter key. To stop, release the enter key.

Do infants prefer those who are affiliated with their caregivers?

Infants are born into social networks that they depend on for survival. Therefore, infants are faced with the challenge of learning how they connect with new individuals. In the current studies, we find that infants use interactions between known lold infants observed a primary caregiver interacting with unknown individuals. Infants reached for and expected to engage socially with the targets of their caregivers’ affiliative acts. In Study 4, infants made the reverse inference: After an unknown individual engaged with them, calling them by name, the infants expected that same individual to respond to their caregivers’ distress. In these studies, infants’ inferences were specific to social interactions involving their own caregivers. Thus, infants infer how individuals are related to one another (who is connected to whom), not just which social traits a new individual possesses (who is cooperative or helpful). Together, these findings provide evidence that infants learn about their own social networks both by observing their caregiver’s interactions with unknown others and by experiencing their own social interactions with others who appear to know them.

Collaborators: Rebecca Saxe & Elizabeth Spelke


To play, press and hold the enter key. To stop, release the enter key.

No Child Left Alone: Moral Judgments about Parents Affect Estimates of Risk to Children

In recent decades, Americans have adopted a parenting norm in which every child is expected to be under constant direct adult supervision. Parents who violate this norm by allowing their children to be alone, even for short periods of time, often face harsh criticism and even legal action. This is true despite the fact that children are much more likely to be hurt, for example, in car accidents. Why then do bystanders call 911 when they see children playing in parks, but not when they see children riding in cars? Here, we present results from six studies indicating that moral judgments play a role: The less morally acceptable a parent’s reason for leaving a child alone, the more danger people think the child is in. This suggests that people’s estimates of danger to unsupervised children are affected by an intuition that parents who leave their children alone have done something morally wrong. Click title for link to article.

Collaborators: P. Kyle Stanford & Barbara W. Sarnecka

To play, press and hold the enter key. To stop, release the enter key.

Theories of Intelligence, Essentialism, and People's Ideas about the Brain

People who believe intelligence is fixed (called entity theorists) attribute failure to traits (i.e., “I failed the test because I’m not smart.”) and tend to be less motivated in school; those who believe intelligence is malleable (called incremental theorists) tend to attribute failure to behavior (i.e., “I failed the test because I didn’t study.”) and are more motivated in school. In previous studies, researchers have characterized participants as either entity or incremental theorists based on their agreement or disagreement with three statements. In this study, we further explored the theories-of-intelligence (TOI) construct in two ways: first, we asked whether these theories are coherent, in the sense that they show up not only in participants’ responses to the three standard assessment items, but on a broad range of questions about intelligence and the brain. Second, we asked whether these theories are discrete or continuous. In other words, we asked whether people believe one thing or the other (i.e., that intelligence is malleable or fixed), or if there is a continuous range of beliefs (i.e., people believe in malleability to a greater or lesser degree).  Click title for link to article.

Collaborator: Barbara W. Sarnecka