Einstein Science Reporting for Kids
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27-Jan-2011

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To babies, might makes right



An infant participates in the Big and Mighty Experiment. [Image courtesy of Dr. Lotte Thomsen]

A new scientific study reports something that probably makes sense to anyone with an older brother or sister: even babies understand that being brawny comes in handy during a conflict.

In human societies, it's common for large size to go along with power. For example, kings and queens sat on thrones, above their subjects. Or today, we may speak of a leader as the "big" man.

Lotte Thomsen of Harvard University and her colleagues figured that the ability to understand that a larger person was more powerful might have come in handy for young children through the ages. In fact the earlier that a kid figured this out, the better off he or she would probably be.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers showed infants a video which two cartoon characters, one large and one small, block each other's path. Then, one bows down to the other and moves away.

The researchers measured the amount of time the babies' spent watching variations of this cartoon. (Babies usually watch a scene just a little bit longer if shows something they weren't expecting.)

The results showed that 10- to 13-month-olds expected the larger characters to get their way and the smaller characters to give in. The scientists therefore think that we learn some of the basic rules of social hierarchies at a very young age.

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This research appears in the 28 January issue of the journal Science.