By age three, children are already adept at figuring out who’s boss

Young boy, counting money and taking notesBy Christian Jarrett

Social power may be an abstract concept, but it has serious, concrete consequences. 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, as the boss is often the person controlling the distribution of food and other resources.

It’s already known that even infants expect smaller characters to give way to larger ones – in effect, social power based on physical dominance. A new paper in Child Development has explored the related question of when and how young children are able to discern social power from more subtle social dynamics between two parties, finding that already by age three children can interpret various forms of social power – resource control, goal achievement, and permission giving – to identify who’s in charge. The setting of social norms (such as what clothing ought to be worn) is recognised as a sign of social power at age 5-6, while perhaps surprisingly, actually giving orders was not recognised as marking social power until age 7–9. 

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’s an example of one of the vignettes, in this case involving “goal achievement”, which 3-year-old’s recognised as a mark of social power, in this case correctly identifying Flip as the boss:

Flip and Blip wanted to get dessert. Flip wanted to get ice cream, while Blip wanted to get candy. They could only go to one place. Flip and Blip went to the ice cream store and got ice cream.

And here’s a vignette depicting the setting of social norms by one character over the other (in this case Dizz is the boss), which was identified as a form of social power at age 5-6:

“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.’”

And finally, a vignette featuring the giving of orders, not recognised as social power until age 7-9:

“Rafyy and Zaffy were playing with blocks. Raffy was telling Zaffy what to build. Raffy told Zaffy to build a house, and Zaffy built a house.”

Overall the results from this first study showed that the ability to identity social power begins extremely early in life – at least as early as three years of age – but that it also matures through childhood, taking in new manifestations.

The researchers explained that “giving orders” and “norm setting” may take longer to recognise as expressions of social power because they require an understanding of deontic logic – abstract rules of obligations and permissions – in contrast to goal attainment and resource allocation, which are more concrete expressions of power. The fact that three-year-olds recognised “permission giving” as social power seems to defy this explanation, but the researchers explained that their vignettes may have confounded permission with resource allocation by describing one character giving permission in relation to toys or other resources.

A feature of all the vignettes used in the first study was that social power was used to some extent malevolently, with the powerful person exercising control over their subordinate. In a follow-up study, the researchers tested whether young children also understand social power when used benevolently, for example with one character choosing to give up their own goal to allow the other character to reach theirs. The results showed that children could also recognise benevolent social power, although they found it more difficult than recognising malevolent power (testing of adults on the same vignettes showed that they too found it easier to recognise instances of malevolent power).

Gülgöz and Gelman concluded that “children have an early-emerging and complex understanding of social power across various possible manifestations”. They noted that the children they tested were from middle class backgrounds, and that it would be interesting to see whether and how children’s early life experiences, and the culture in which they are raised, affects the way they identify and process different expressions of social power.

Who’s the Boss? Concepts of Social Power Across Development

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest