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Toddlers prefer those who win but not when they win by force


Social hierarchies occur across human societies, so all humans must navigate them. Infants can detect when one individual outranks another1,2,3, but it is unknown whether they approach others based on their social status. This paper presents a series of seven experiments investigating whether toddlers prefer high- or low-ranking individuals. Toddlers aged 21–31 months watched a zero-sum, right-of-way conflict between two puppets, in which one puppet ‘won’ because the other yielded the way. Of the 23 toddlers who participated, 20 reached for the puppet that ‘won’. However, when one puppet used force and knocked the other puppet down in order to win, 18 out of 22 toddlers reached for the puppet that ‘lost’. Five follow-up experiments ruled out alternative explanations for these results. The findings suggest that humans, from a very early age, not only recognize relative status but also incorporate status into their decisions about whether to approach or avoid others, in a way that differs from our nearest primate relatives4.

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Fig. 1: Diagrams depicting the ‘action phase’ of each puppet show used in experiments 1.0 to 1.4.
Fig. 2: Choice procedure used in all experiments.
Fig. 3
Fig. 4: Number of toddlers who chose each puppet in all experiments.


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The authors thank the staff of Pretend City Museum and the families who participated in this research. They also thank the research assistants G. Alabbas, E. Campello de Mello, P. Casian, G. Lomeli, A. Chavez, Y. Delavar, L. Donato, L. Elena, D. Giardina, M. Kastell, A. Lew, S. Samonte and J. Skaar for their assistance; K. Hamlin for sharing her protocol for the choice procedure; and A. Fiske for commenting on several different iterations of this manuscript. L.T. was funded by grant no. 0606-01839B from the Independent Research Fund Denmark and grant no. 231157/F10 from the Norwegian Research Council. Thanks go to the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program at UCI Irvine for supporting the research assistants working on these projects and to the Cognitive Sciences Department at UC Irvine that provided the first author with research funds through the Jean-Claude Falmagne Award and the Yellott Scholar award. The funders had no role in the study design, data collection and analysis, the decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

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Authors and Affiliations



A.J.T. designed the experiments, oversaw data collection, analysed the data and wrote the manuscript. L.T. contributed to the experimental design and writing the manuscript. M.A. assisted in data collection, experiment designs and entering data. A.F.L. helped in recruiting participants, designing experiments and writing the manuscript. B.W.S. contributed to the experimental design and writing the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ashley J. Thomas.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Methods

Reporting Summary

Demonstration of Choice Procedure

Video that demonstrates the choice procedure used in all experiments

Experiment 1.0 Demo

Video that demonstrates the puppet show used in Experiment 1.0

Experiment 1.1 Demo

Video that demonstrates the puppet show used in Experiment 1.1

Experiment 1.2B Demo

Video that demonstrates the puppet show used in Experiment 1.2

Experiment 1.3 Demo

Video that demonstrates the puppet show used in Experiment 1.3

Experiment 1.4 Demo

Video that demonstrates the puppet show used in Experiment 1.4

Experiment 2.0 Demo

Video that demonstrates the puppet show used in Experiment 2.0

Experiment 2.1 Demo

Video that demonstrates the puppet show used in Experiment 2.1


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Thomas, A.J., Thomsen, L., Lukowski, A.F. et al. Toddlers prefer those who win but not when they win by force. Nat Hum Behav 2, 662–669 (2018).

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