Children’s Understanding of Dominance and Prestige in China and the UK

Children’s Understanding of Dominance and Prestige in China and the UK

By: Anni Kajanus*, Narges Afshordi*, & Felix Warneken

*joint first authors


Children recognize social rank differences between individuals from early on, for instance associating bigger physical size with dominance. However, dominance—gaining high rank through force or threat of force—is only one mechanism of social rank in human societies. Prestige – merit and respect in the eyes of others – is another important strategy to gain rank. While dominant individuals bully their way to the top, others follow prestigious individuals willingly. In this paper, we set out to test whether children might be able to distinguish dominance and prestige from each other based on a number of cues. We were also interested in how children’s understanding of dominance and prestige develops in different cultural contexts. More specifically, we compared children’s expectations about who would win a desired resource in a conflict between a low-ranking individual and a high-ranking one. This second question was inspired by Kajanus’ ethnographic studies in Nanjing, China, and London, UK. In Chinese culture, yielding to elders and those in positions of authority is valued. As a result, yielding to others can be a signal of lower social rank, as it is in many Western cultural contexts. In addition to this, however, people sometimes also yield to those in lower positions, for example to demonstrate their ability to control emotional impulses, or to skillfully stop conflict situations from escalating. In these situations, yielding is a sign of higher, rather than lower, social rank. Chinese children learn this value from early on, although the complexities of applying it successfully in social situations may take many years to master (Kajanus, forthcoming). In sum, yielding can be a sign of either lower or higher status in China, but generally only of lower status in the UK.

When given the choice between the dominant and prestigious individuals, older children inferred that the subordinate would approach the prestigious character and like them, but fear the dominant character.

With this in mind, we tested children in the UK and China (5-7 years, and 9-12 years, n=40 for each age in each country). Experiment 1 examined the age at which children distinguish dominance and prestige. Children watched simple animations involving three characters that established the central character as subordinate to both a dominant and a prestigious character. In the animations, we used different cues to demonstrate some typical features of dominant and prestigious individuals. For instance, the dominant character imposed her will on the subordinate without ever being asked to intervene, while the prestigious character shared an opinion in a friendly way only after being consulted. We found that both age groups of children in both countries easily recognized the social rank differences between the high-ranking (i.e. dominant or prestigious) characters and the low-ranking one. Further, when given the choice between the dominant and prestigious individuals, older children inferred that the subordinate would approach the prestigious character and like them, but fear the dominant character. Younger children also made similar inferences, but were less successful than their older counterparts. In addition to finding that children differentiate dominance and prestige, this experiment provided empirical confirmation that our animations depicted dominance and prestige in ways that were interpretable to children in both places. This gave us the opportunity to use the same animations in order to ask if children in China and the UK have similar or different expectations about who would win a conflict. Before testing children, however, we first wanted to know whether there were differences in adults’ expectations. We tested 40 adults from each country online. We established the roles of subordinate, dominant, and prestigious using the same cartoons as before. We then presented two cases of conflict over resources (subordinate vs. dominant, and subordinate vs. prestigious), and asked who would win. Even though adults in both countries predicted that the dominant and prestigious individuals would overcome the subordinate, Chinese adults were less likely than British adults to do so in the prestige case. That is, Chinese adults were less likely than British ones to think that the prestigious person would win the resource. Thus, we found some evidence of differences between the two populations in their views on conflicts between people of differing social rank.

Finally, we explored how cultural models of hierarchy and conflict influence children’s inferences about the outcome of conflicts between high- and low-ranking parties. Testing new samples of children (n=40 in each age in each country) in this task, we found that younger children in both countries failed to make systematic inferences about who would win. While six-year-old children were able to infer dominance and prestige from their associated cues, they apparently did not insert social rank into their reasoning about other inferences such as who would win a conflict. Older children in the two countries, however, responded differently from each other. Those in the UK, like adults, thought that high-status characters would win. In contrast, older children in China made no consistent prediction in favor of the high-status parties. Chinese children’s responses and importantly their justifications indicate that they are still grappling with the complex norms about who should yield and when. Overall, these experiments provide strong evidence for a culturally-influenced aspect of hierarchical relationship understanding across two populations, as well as pointing to potentially universal aspects of rank-reasoning.


Read the research article here.