Credit: Pixabay.

Toddlers as young as 1.5 years already use cues of social status to decide who they prefer having around or would rather avoid. The findings suggest that seeking out and associating with high social status individuals is a deeply ingrained human trait. However, if the status is acquired by force, the toddlers avoided such individuals. This is perhaps indicative of “fundamental social rules and motives that undergird core social relationships that may be inherent in human nature,” one of the authors of the new study said.

Fair status orientation

In 2015, researchers performed a meta-analysis of studies that looked at 33 non-industrial societies from around the globe, including hunter-gatherers, nomadic pastoralists, and agriculturalists. According to the findings, it didn’t matter whether a man is a better hunter, owns more land, or more livestock — men with high social status had more children compared to men with low status. One study remarkably found that 8 percent of men in populations spanning Asia shared nearly identical Y-chromosome sequences with Genghis Khan, the Mongolian ruler who died in 1227.

This directly challenges the egalitarian hypothesis, the idea that status was a relatively weak target of selection for modern humans, since most of that evolutionary period involved living as egalitarian hunter-gatherers.

More recent studies suggest that humans are status-orientated from a very early age. Even nine-month-old infants seem to grasp instances of simple conflict of interest, with one study showing that when two puppets block each other’s paths, the infants assumed that the largest individual will defeat the smallest.

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Ashley Thomas and colleagues at the University of California Irvine performed a different variation of this experiment. The authors changed the paradigm such that when the puppets met in the middle — all under the watchful gaze of 1.5-year-old toddlers — one of the puppets yielded to the other by moving aside, allowing the other puppets to continue unincumbered to reach its goal of crossing the stage.

When the children were presented with the two puppets and asked to choose their favorite, 20 out of 23 children reached for the puppet that had won the conflict. This was the high-status puppet that others voluntarily yielded to.

“The way you behave in a conflict of interest reveals something about your social status,” said Thoms.

“Across all social animal species, those with a lower social status will yield to those above them in the hierarchy. We wanted to explore whether small children also judge high and low status individuals differently.”

In another experiment, the researchers documented what happened when a puppet won the conflict by brute force. When the two puppets crossed paths, one of them was forcefully knocked off the stage. Now, 18 out of 22 children avoided the bullying winning puppet, reaching for the victim instead.

“Our research shows that it’s part of human nature to be aware of social status: Even nine-month-old babies assume that the largest person will win, and even 1 1/2 year-old toddlers seek out those whom other people yield to. However, in contrast to other primates, it’s crucial for even the youngest human beings that others also acknowledge someone’s social status or priority right. We’re generally repulsed by bullies who brutally steamroll others to get their own way,” Thomsen explains.

It makes sense for adults who have experience with good and bad leaders to account for such different status representations and motives. However, it’s not clear at all what motives guide infants who have minimal experience in such situations.

“Our results indicate that the fundamental social rules and motives that undergird core social relationships may be inherent in human nature, which itself developed during thousands of years of living together in cultural communities,” Thomsen concludes.

Scientific reference: Ashley J. Thomas et al, Toddlers prefer those who win but not when they win by force, Nature Human Behaviour (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0415-3.