Summary: Early social interactions allow children to quickly learn to coordinate with each other’s behavior.
What do building pyramids, going to the moon, paddling in a canoe for two or dancing a waltz have in common? All these actions are the result of a common objective between several partners and lead to a feeling of reciprocal obligation, called “joint commitment”. This ability to cooperate is universal in humans and in certain species of animals, such as the great apes.
However, humans seem to have a unique predisposition and strong desire for social interaction that may be one of the components of language emergence, according to the study authors.
How do our social interactions differ from other species? And why?
To answer these questions, an international team analyzed the interactions of 31 children aged 2 to 4 in four preschools in the United States (10 hours per child).
“There have been few quantitative analyzes of the spontaneous social interactions of 2- and 4-year-old children interacting with their peers, despite this being a critical age for the development of children’s sociocognitive abilities. And the ones that do exist aren’t based on extensive video recordings following individual children over several days or simply don’t allow easy comparison with the social interactions of great apes,” adds Federico Rossano, the study’s first author and professor. assistant at the University. of California, San Diego.
They then compared their results with similar interactions in adults and great apes.
Multiplication of social partners
The researchers analyzed the environmental factors (number of partners, types of activities, etc.) surrounding the children.
They found that children have more frequent (an average of 13 separate social interactions per hour) and shorter (an average of 28 seconds) social interactions with their peers than great apes in comparable studies.
Adrian Bangerter, co-author of the study and professor at the University of Neuchâtel explains why: “By being exposed to many partners, children quickly learn the need to coordinate with each other. The figures confirm this rapid learning: 4- 1-year-olds already participate in cooperative social interactions more often than 2-year-olds and fight less than 2-year-olds.
“Learning to coordinate with others and communicate to engage in joint activities goes hand in hand with learning to minimize conflict,” adds Rossano.
Social interactions are typically marked by an entry phase and an exit phase (when one begins a conversation with eye contact and a “hello” and then signals that it is over by repeating “Okay, agreement” or with a “goodbye”). These signals are also present in 90% of social engagements in bonobos and 69% in chimpanzees.
It seems that young children only use these signals 66-69% of the time, less frequently than bonobos and adults.
“On the one hand, it could be due to the appreciation that they will again interact with the same children throughout the day, like two passengers sitting next to each other on a plane starting and stopping quick conversations throughout a flight without using greetings each time they resume speaking.
“On the other hand, it could reflect that not all social interactions are based on a shared commitment to each other, i.e. sometimes young children can bulldoze their way and assuming other kids will just adapt to them rather than coordinate,” Rossano explains.
More empirical research will be needed to confirm these behaviors, but this study is a first step in understanding the role of joint engagement in human social interaction and its impact on language evolution.
Cooperation among Swiss children
A similar study is currently being carried out within the framework of the NCCR Evolving Language, a Swiss research center which aims to unravel the biological foundations of language, its evolutionary past and the challenges imposed by new technologies.
A team including the co-authors from the University of Neuchâtel works with the extracurricular reception structures of Neuchâtel and aims to understand the development of joint action in children by observing how their use of so-called contrarian words (uh, okay) changes over time when they play a LEGO® cooperative game.
Adrian Bangerter explains why these terms are important to analyze: “We use ‘small’ words like okay, uh-huh, yeah, or just all the time to synchronize our behavior with our partners. Yet so little is known about how young children acquire their use.
Social interactions facilitated the evolution of language
The article was published as part of a special issue devoted to the “interaction engine” hypothesis. This hypothesis posits that social abilities and motivations in humans have been determining factors in the evolution of human language, the origins of which remain unknown.
In a series of 14 papers edited by Raphaela Heesen of Durham University and Marlen Fröhlich of Tübingen University, researchers investigate the socio-cognitive abilities that paved the way for the emergence of language by offering a multidisciplinary approach and comparative. The NCCR Evolving Language is part of this special issue with seven of its researchers co-authoring 4 papers.
About this social neuroscience research news
Author: Emilie Wyss
Contact: Emilie Wyss – PRN
Image: Image is in public domain
Original research: Free access.
“How 2- and 4-year-olds coordinate social interactions with their peers” by Federico Rossano et al. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences
How 2- and 4-year-olds coordinate social interactions with their peers
The interaction engine hypothesis posits that humans have a unique capacity and motivation for social interaction. A crucial time in the ontogeny of the interaction motor could be around 2–4 years of age, but observational studies of children in natural settings are limited. These data also seem essential for comparison with non-human primates.
Here, we report focal observations of 31 children aged 2 and 4 years in four preschools (10 h per child). Children interact with a wide range of partners, often rarely, but with one or two close friends.
Four-year-olds engage in cooperative social interactions more often than 2-year-olds and fight less than 2-year-olds. Conversation and play with objects are the most frequent types of social interaction in both age groups.
Children engage in social interactions with their peers frequently (on average 13 distinct social interactions per hour) and briefly (28 s on average) and shorter than those of great apes in comparable studies. Their social interactions feature in-and-out phases about two-thirds of the time, less frequently than great apes.
The results support the interaction motor hypothesis, as young children show remarkable motivation and capacity for rapid interactions with multiple partners.