AILSA CHANG, HOST:
OK, people are attracted to those who have power - who are winners. A new study shows that's true from a very young age. Even toddlers seem to prefer winners - at least, a certain kind of winner. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce explains.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: We live in a world where some people have more power, more prestige. Ashley Thomas is a researcher at MIT and Harvard. She wondered if very young children were tuned into all that.
ASHLEY THOMAS: Recognizing social rank - and then also using it to sort of inform how you interact with people - is an important thing for any individual in a social species.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: To see if toddlers could do it, she and some colleagues got little kids to watch a puppet show.
THOMAS: Up goes the curtain.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The show had just two puppets.
THOMAS: And they're just shapes with googly eyes. So one of them is a square, and one of them is an oval.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: One's red, and one's yellow.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yellow.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's one of the toddlers watching the puppets. They cross the stage from opposite sides and bump into each other.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Oh, no.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The kid says, oh, no.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Uh-oh. Woah.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This little social conflict ends in one of two ways.
THOMAS: Either one of the puppets kind of bows down and moves out of the way, allowing the other puppet to pass, or one of the puppets pushes the other guy out of the way and passes in front of him.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then the researcher would show the kids the puppets and ask...
THOMAS: Which one do you like?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They liked the winner - specifically the puppet who won because the other puppet bowed down and yielded. They did not like the puppet who won the conflict through force. After that version of the puppet show, they chose the loser.
THOMAS: So it seems like toddlers care about who wins, but they also care about how they win.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The finding appears in the journal Nature Human Behavior, And it intrigues Kiley Hamlin. She's a researcher at the University of British Columbia. She says it's the first to show that babies prefer those with high status.
KILEY HAMLIN: I think it's really compelling in how similar it is to what adults do - how much we tend to like celebrities and, you know, rich people and those who are granted status for various reasons.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She notes that humans do seem to differ from their close primate cousins - apes called bonobos.
HAMLIN: Bonobos actually do prefer those who sort of win by beating somebody else off. So they prefer dominant individuals no matter how they achieve their dominance.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: For human toddlers, it's not enough to have high status. Little kids know it means nothing if you got it for the wrong reasons. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF DJANGO REINHARDT'S "BRAZIL")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.