Anyone who’s been to elementary school soon learns that larger children tend to hold the social power — or at least hold a physically dominant position. Now, though, it appears that lesson may be learned even earlier.
Researchers at Harvard and UCLA, led by an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Copenhagen, made that discovery after showing 144 infants (aged between 8 and 16 months) a series of videos of cartoon block figures attempting to walk across a screen in opposite directions, with the two characters blocking each other’s path midway through.
It turned out that in situations where a larger figure “backed down”, the children were more likely to keep watching for a longer period than if the smaller figure gave way, suggesting that they expected the larger figure to prevail and thus considered that less notable.
The researchers then repeated the experiment with the eyes and mouths removed from the figures, simply leaving block shapes. This time there was no difference between the attention paid to different outcomes, suggesting that in the original experiment the infants’ expectations were based on human behavior.
By breaking down the results among different ages, the researchers also discovered that the youngest children didn’t display a strong pattern, suggesting that the mental link associating physical size to social dominance develops around the age of 10 months.
Personally, I’d like to show the babies some early incarnations of the Ultimate Fighting Championship when 175 pounder Royce Gracie overcame larger but less-skilled opponents. I’m not sure if that would fly with a university ethics committee though.