Your little ones are still clueless about everything else in the world, like the wonders of eating pizza or the struggle between the Light and the Dark side of the Force. They still drool on you ceaselessly and wake you up with their loud wailings at 2 a.m., and it's like they purposefully prevent you from getting a good night's sleep.

But something you have yet to know is that babies as young as 6 months old may actually be aware of social dominance in relationships. They may seem so harmless and tiny, but a new study revealed they're conscious enough to infer differences between small and large social groups.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) found that babies can understand that individuals who are part of larger social groups are socially dominant to those in smaller groups. This indicates that they may be able to reason about social concepts during the earliest stages of life.

Lead author Anthea Pun, a graduate student in UBC's developmental psychology program, said they observed a preference towards being in larger groups among lions, chimpanzees, hyenas and insects when they need to be protected.

"We really were motivated by this evolutionary history to explore whether babies are born into the world with some sort of concept of number and whether they are able to use that information to understand that being part of a larger group may be advantageous to you," said Pun.

The research team tested whether babies from families in the local community can observe the dominance between two social groups that differ in size.

The babies in the study were shown two different social groups that they were not familiar with. Each group was distinguished by color and how many members there were in the group. Each also had one goal: cross a platform.

Because the two groups were coming from opposite directions, one group had to submit to the other by backing away. Researchers said this meant this group was the submissive one while the group that crossed the platform was dominant.

The babies watched two scenarios: the first scenario involved one person from the larger group getting his way and crossing the platform, while the person from the smaller group had to give way. The second scenario showed the opposite.

Pun said that because babies cannot express themselves verbally yet, the team relied on the young ones' looking times, or how long they engaged with the stimulus in front of them.

"When babies see something that is unexpected or surprising to them, they stay engaged for a longer amount of time, resulting in a discrepancy if they are noticing differences between an expected and unexpected trial," she said.

In the end, the team found that babies' attention lingered longer when someone from a smaller group had to complete their goal at the expense of the larger group. This meant babies expect people from larger groups to get their way and be more dominant than the smaller groups.

Pun said what was fascinating is that babies as young as 6 months old, who are usually taken in only by their families, already have some idea about social alliances. The idea that babies seem to think about better advantages from larger social groups means they are forming a link between the number of people that are there and the support you'll have in a group.

Meanwhile, Pun hopes to further her research and explore the behaviors of babies, particularly their choices in social situations. She said they are interested to see whether babies will choose larger social groups because they see the benefit in joining them.

The findings are featured in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Photo: Quinn Dombrowski | Flickr

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