How Little Kids Figure Out Who’s in Charge

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Photo: Wander Women Collective/Getty Images

It’s harder than you might expect to fool a baby: Past research has shown that by 13 months, they already have a pretty decent understanding of tense, complex social situations, making mental notes of who witnessed the offending incident and whether it was purposeful or accidental.

Kids are paying attention, in other words, and they’re soaking up all the complexities of life as a social human, basically from the beginning. A study published last month in the journal Child Development shed some more light on that process, examining how kids learn about power dynamics in social situations. Their discovery: The lessons are spread out over several different stages — and they don’t necessarily happen in the order we’d expect.

Here’s how Christian Jarrett summed up the study methods for BPS Research Digest:

[Study authors] Selin Gülgöz and Susan Gelman recruited most of the participating children at a science museum, and they tested them via illustrated vignettes that featured two characters, of equal size and shape, one exerting a form of social power over the other. It was made clear that these characters were the same age as each other, and that they were the same gender as the participant (to control for any assumptions about the social power attached to age and gender); and the characters’ names were chosen to be similar to each other and to convey little meaning. After listening to each story, the children (tested individually) were simply asked to say in each case which character was in charge, and to explain their reasons.

Here, for example, is a vignette the authors used to illustrate a character setting social norms:

Dizz was telling Fizz and their friends that red is the best color and that from now on everyone should wear red. The next day, Fizz came to school wearing a red t-shirt, just like the one Dizz had been wearing. Fizz told Dizz, “Look at my red t-shirt.”

Most of the time, kids could identify Dizz as the more powerful one by age 5 or 6. Other forms of power were understood even earlier: When two characters had conflicting desires, for instance, the 3-year-olds in the study were able to understand that the one who got what they wanted was the one with more authority; they also understood the dynamics when one character gave another permission to do something, or decided how to allocate resources.

Surprisingly, the form of power that kids recognize latest is perhaps the most obvious one: giving orders, which the study participants didn’t seem to grasp until age 7 at the earliest. But as Jarrett noted, it’s to their advantage to master the subtleties early: “Certainly for our ancestors, and also for many people today, the ability to identify who is in charge might literally be considered a survival skill,” he wrote, “as the boss is often the person controlling the distribution of food and other resources.” Even when that’s not literally the case, kids don’t waste much time developing the complicated skills they need to navigate a complicated world.