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Winners, Losers, Bullies and Leaders. How infants and children think and feel about social hierarchy.

Creative Commons 'BY' version 4.0 license

The social relationships that we create and maintain are essential to our wellbeing. These include hierarchical relationships which occur when people are ranked along some dimension such as authority, prestige, dominance, or wealth. This dissertation is about how infants and children think and feel about these relationships. First, I discuss how infants and toddlers evaluate novel individuals they see in zero-sum conflicts: while infants, ages 10 to 16-months, prefer those who yield in a conflict, toddlers, ages 21 to 31 months, prefer those who ‘win’. I consider whether this shift is due to a conceptual change or a change in priorities. Next, I provide evidence that children, ages 6 to 8 years old, can differentiate between hierarchical and egalitarian groups, and that 7 and 8 year-old children prefer egalitarian ones. Finally, I discuss children’s expectations of high and low ranking individuals. Contrary to accounts of dominance hierarchies found in other species, children, ages 4 to 8 years old, do not expect leaders to be more aggressive or antisocial than subordinates. In fact, they expect them to provide benefits such as protection. Thus, children seem to be attuned to the unique characteristics of human social hierarchy. Taken together, these studies show that social hierarchy is an important aspect of social cognition starting in infancy and throughout childhood. Children not only pay attention to ‘who is in charge’ they also use social rank to evaluate others, to evaluate groups, and to predict the behavior of others.

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