Scientists at the University of Copenhagen and Harvard University have found that infants less than one year old understand social dominance and use relative size to predict who will prevail when two individuals' goals conflict.
The work of Lotte Thomsen, of the University of Copenhagen's Department of Psychology, has suggested that we may be born with-or develop at a very early age-some understanding of social dominance and how it relates to relative size.
"As we have tried to communicate with the title of our paper "Big and Mighty", what we have shown is that even pre-verbal infants understand social dominance and use relative size as a cue for it. To put it simply, if a big and a small guy have goals that conflict, preverbal infants expect the big guy to win over the little guy," said Thomsen.
Thomsen and colleagues at Harvard University and the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the reactions of infants ranging from eight to 16 months old as they watched videos of interactions between cartoon figures of various sizes.
"The trouble with working with pre-verbal infants is that you cannot just interview them and ask them what they think. So instead you have to look at what they do. And one of the things we know is that infants-like adults-tend to look longer at something that surprises them," explained Thomsen.
To see if infants use size as a cue for social dominance, they were shown simple cartoons of a big and little block that meet in the middle of a stage and bump into each other, blocking each others way.
In one of the cartoons the big block essentially defeats the smaller block, and in the second one the opposite occurs.
"If we're right that infants expect the largest agent to have the right-of-way, then they should look at the screen longer when the opposite happens - that is when the big guy yields to the small guy. And that is exactly what we found," he added.
The findings have been published in the journal Science.