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 a two-man canoe or dancing the waltz have in common? All these actions are the result of a common goal between several partners and lead to a mutual sense of obligation, known as “joint commitment”. This ability to cooperate is universal in humans and in certain animal species, such as the great apes.
However, it appears that humans have a unique disposition and a strong desire for social interaction that may be one of the components in the emergence of language, according to the authors of the study.
How do our social interactions differ from other species? And why?
To answer these questions, an international team analyzed the interactions of 31 children between the ages of 2 and 4 in four preschools in the United States (10 hours per child).
“There have been only a few quantitative analyzes of the spontaneous social interactions of 2- and 4-year-olds while interacting with peers, even though it is a critical age for the development of children’s socio-cognitive abilities. And those that do exist are either not based on extensive video recordings that follow individual children for several days, or they simply do not allow for easy comparison with apes’ social interactions, adds Federico Rossano, first author of the study and assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego .
They then compared the results with similar interactions in adults and great apes
Multiplication of the parties in working life
The researchers analyzed the environmental factors (number of partners, types of activities, etc.) around the children.
They found that children have more frequent (an average of 13 distinct social interactions per hour) and shorter (an average of 28 seconds) social interactions with 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’s behavior.” The numbers support this rapid learning: 4-year-olds already participate in social cooperation more often than 2-year-olds and fight less than 2-year-olds.
“Learning how to coordinate with others and how to communicate to participate in joint activities goes hand in hand with learning to minimize conflict,” adds Rossano.
Social interactions are usually characterized by an entry and exit phase (when one starts a conversation with eye contact and a “hello” and then signals the end by repeating “ok, fine” or with a “goodbye”). These signals are also present in 90% of social engagements in bonobos and 69% in chimpanzees.
It appears that young children use these cues only 66-69% of the time, less often than bonobos and adults.
“On the one hand, this may be due to the understanding that they will interact again with the same children during the day, like two passengers sitting next to each other on an airplane who start and stop quick conversations throughout a flight without using greetings each time they continue talking.
“On the other hand, it may reflect the fact that not all social interactions are based on shared commitment to one another, ie young children sometimes bulldoze in and assume that other children will only conform to them rather than coordinate. ” Rossano explains.
More empirical research will be needed to confirm this behavior, but this study is a first step in understanding the role of joint engagement in human social interaction and how it influenced the development of language.
Collaboration in Swiss children
A similar study is currently being carried out within the framework of The NCCR Evolving Language, a Swiss research center that aims to uncover the biological basis of language, its evolutionary past and the challenges imposed by new technologies.
A team including the co-authors of the University of Neuchâtel works with the kindergartens of Neuchâtel and aims to understand the development of joint action in children by observing how their use of so-called back channel words (uh-huh, okay) changes over time when playing a LEGO® cooperative game.
Adrian Bangerter explains why these terms are important to analyze: “We use ‘little’ words like ok, uh, yes, or right all the time to synchronize our behavior with our partners. Yet so little is known about how young children get to use them”.
Social interactions facilitated language evolution
The article was published in the context of a special issue focusing on the “Interaction Engine” hypothesis. This hypothesis postulates that the social abilities and motivations of humans were decisive factors in the development 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 the University of Tübingen, researchers examine the social-cognitive capacities that paved the way for the emergence of language by proposing an interdisciplinary and comparative approach. NCCR Evolving Language is part of this special issue with seven of the researchers co-authoring 4 articles.
About this social neuroscience research news
Author: Emilie Wyss
Consult: Emilie Wyss – NCCR
Picture: The image is in the public domain
Original research: Open access.
“How 2- and 4-year-old children coordinate social interactions with peers” by Federico Rossano et al. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences
How 2- and 4-year-old children coordinate social interactions with peers
The interaction motor hypothesis postulates that humans have a unique ability and motivation for social interaction. A decisive moment in the ontogeny of the interaction motor may be around 2–4 years of age, but observational studies of children in natural contexts are limited. These data seem critical also for comparison with non-human primates.
Here we report on focal observations of 31 children aged 2 and 4 years in four preschools (10 hours per child). Children interact with a wide range of partners, many 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. Conversations and playing with objects are the most frequent types of social interaction in both age groups.
Children engage in social interactions with peers frequently (an average of 13 distinct social interactions per hour) and for a short time (28 say on average) and shorter than the great apes in comparable studies. Their social interactions have entry and exit phases about two-thirds of the time, less often than great apes.
The results support the interaction motor hypothesis, as young children show a remarkable motivation and ability for rapid interactions with multiple partners.