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Barbara W. Sarnecka Ph.D.
Barbara W. Sarnecka Ph.D.

Young Children Value Kindness Over Winning in a Conflict

For human toddlers, unlike other apes, the end does not justify the means.

Do you remember a Dr. Seuss story called The Zax? It’s about two creatures called Zax who meet while walking in opposite directions. The story describes how “It happened that both of them came to a place, where they bumped. There they stood. Foot to foot. Face to face.” In the story, neither Zax is willing to budge, so the two just stand there forever. But what if the story had ended differently? Imagine that instead of staying put, one Zax bows and moves aside, allowing the other Zax to pass. Now ask yourself two questions:

  1. Which Zax do you think has higher status?
  2. Which Zax do you like better?

Most people agree that the bowing Zax has lower status. Bowing (prostrating oneself, making oneself smaller) is a sign of deference, as is moving out of someone’s way. This is true not only for humans, but also for chimpanzees, wolves, and a range of other species. Among humans, even 10-month-old infants recognize bowing and moving aside in this context as a sign of lower status.

Now consider the second question: Which Zax do you like better? When we ask adults, most say they like the bowing Zax—the one who ends the conflict by being a little bit humble and going a little bit out of his way.

But what about toddlers?

If you haven’t spent time with a toddler recently, this is the age sometimes called the "terrible twos"—a time when many children have trouble managing their feelings and behavior. It is also the age when children begin to interact with peers, which means they experience for the first time conflicts not unlike those faced by the Zax—who gets a toy; who gets to sit in the best chair; who gets to pick a book to read; and always, always competition for the attention of caregivers.

In a recent series of experiments in my lab at the University of California, Irvine, we probed toddlers' thinking about winners and losers, bullies and victims. The work was published earlier this week in the journal Nature Human Behavior, but you can read it here for free. (Never pay to read a scientific paper.)

In these experiments, toddlers watched a scene in which two puppets had conflicting goals: One was crossing a stage from right to left, and the other from left to right. The puppets met in the middle, Zax-like, and stopped. Eventually one puppet bowed down and moved aside, letting the other one pass by. Then we offered both puppets to the toddlers and asked who they liked. The result: 20 out of 23 toddlers picked the higher-status puppet—the one that did not bow or move aside, but stayed upright and continued on its way. It seems that toddlers like winners better than losers.

But then we asked another question: Do toddlers like winners no matter how they win? Recent work with bonobos (Pan paniscus, also called pygmy chimpanzees) shows that bonobos tend to like the winner of a conflict even when the winner hinders someone else from reaching their goal, or pushes someone else out of a territory.

We wondered whether human toddlers feel the same way. So in another experiment, we showed toddlers a puppet show very similar to the one described above. But in this experiment, the conflict ended not because one puppet deferred to the other, but because one puppet knocked the other one down and out of the way. Now when we asked toddlers which one they liked, the results were different: Only 4 out of 22 children liked the winner. (A series of follow-up experiments ruled out alternative explanations for the findings.)

What do these studies suggest about human nature and psychology? Human social hierarchies are in many respects similar to the hierarchies of other species. But whereas most other species have hierarchies based on dominance (such that the biggest, strongest or fiercest individuals have the highest status), humans also form hierarchies based on prestige—where individuals can gain status not only for being big and fierce, but also by providing benefits (e.g., nurturing, knowledge or resources) to others.

An old saying goes that "Everyone loves a winner." These data suggest that children already love a winner by the age of 21-31 months. This does not necessarily mean that the preference is innate: 21 months is enough time to learn a lot of things. But if a preference for winners is something we learn, we appear to learn it quite early and without any explicit coaching.

Even more interesting, the preference for winners is not absolute. Children in our study (unlike bonobos) did not like a winner who knocked an opponent down. This suggests that already by the age of 21-31 months, children’s liking for winners is balanced with other social concerns, including perhaps a general preference for nice or helpful people over aggressive ones.

More studies will be needed in order specify exactly which aspects of a social scene toddlers pay attention to, and how they decide whom to approach and whom to avoid. But in a time when the news is full of stories of public figures who practice greed and self-dealing, who celebrate winning at all costs and kindness not at all, we find these results heartening. Human children are different from chimpanzees, wolves, or bonobos. Humans understand dominance, but we also expect strong individuals to guide, protect and nurture others. In 2018, this feels like good news.


Thomas, A.J., Thomsen, L., Lukowski, A.F., Abramyan, M., Sarnecka, B.W. (2018). Toddlers Prefer Those Who Win But Not When They Win by Force. Nature Human Behavior 2, 662–669

About the Author
Barbara W. Sarnecka Ph.D.

Barbara Sarnecka, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Cognitive Sciences at the University of California—Irvine.

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