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Babies are far smarter than thought at analysing people around them, researchers have found.

They discovered that toddlers as young as 17 months old can work out who the dominant person in the room is.

They were also able to anticipate that the dominant person will receive more rewards.

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Who's in charge? Toddlers as young as 17 months old can work out who the dominant person in the room is.

Who’s in charge? Toddlers as young as 17 months old can work out who the dominant person in the room is.

‘This tells us that babies are sorting through things at a higher level than we thought. They’re attending to and taking into consideration fairly sophisticated concepts,’ UW psychology professor Jessica Sommerville said.

‘If, early on, you see that someone who is more dominant gets more stuff, and as adults, we see that and say that’s how the world is, it might be because these links are present early in development.’  

The research, led by UW psychology professor Jessica Sommerville and graduate student Elizabeth Enright, appears in the July issue of the journal Cognition.

HOW THEY DID THE TEST 

For the study, each toddler watched an introductory video at least six times; this brief clip aimed to establish the ‘dominant’ puppet in the scene – the one who appeared to win a minor competition with a second puppet over a special chair.

 Then each child watched a second set of videos so that researchers could compare how the toddler reacted to various outcomes. 

The researchers employed puppets, rather than people, for the videos because the puppets look essentially the same, offer no facial or other emotional reaction, and don’t draw an infant’s attention the way that differences among humans might, said Sommerville.

In this video, a 17-month-old child watches as an actor doles out the same number of Legos to two puppets. At the end of the clip, the actor’s face is blacked out to allow the child to focus on the Legos.

 

 

The study evaluated the reactions of 80 toddlers, each of whom watched three short videos of puppets in simple social situations. 

Researchers measured the length of time the children focused on the outcome of each video in an effort to determine what they noticed.

Measuring a baby’s ‘looking time’ is a common metric used in studies of cognition and comprehension in infants, the researchers explained.

‘Really young babies can’t talk to us, so we have to use other measures such as how long they attend to events, to gauge their understanding of these events,’ said Enright. 

‘Babies will look longer at things they find unexpected.’

The same is true of adults, she pointed out.  

The study found that toddlers looked an average of 7 seconds longer at the videos in which the weaker puppet received more Legos, or when the two puppets received the same number, versus when the dominant puppet received more Legos. 

This indicates that the children didn’t expect those outcomes, Sommerville said, because their lingering gaze suggests their brains were continuing to process the information on the screen. 

‘Is the issue dominance? From the videos, it could be that the dominant one was perceived as more persistent or competent,’ Enright said. 

‘This could be the very start of finding out what infants know about social status.’ 

 



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