Our Social Interactions Start Young

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Summary: Early social interactions allow children to quickly learn how to coordinate with each other’s behavior.

Source: NCCR

What do you have in common to build a pyramid, go to the moon, row in a tandem canoe or waltz? All these actions are the result of a common purpose between multiple partners and lead to a sense of mutual obligation known as “joint commitment”. This cooperative ability is universal in humans and certain animal species such as the great apes.

However, according to the study’s authors, humans appear to have a unique predisposition and a strong desire for social interaction, which may be one of the components of the emergence of language.

How are our social interactions different from other types? And why?

To answer these questions, an international team analyzed the interactions of 31 children aged 2 to 4 (10 hours per child) in four kindergartens in the United States.

“Despite being a critical age for the development of children’s socio-cognitive abilities, there are only a few quantitative analyzes of the spontaneous social interactions of 2- and 4-year-olds when interacting with their peers. And what does exist is not based on extensive video recordings that either follow individual children for several days, or does not allow for easy comparison with the social interactions of monkeys,” adds Federico Rossano, first author of the study and Assistant Professor at the University of California, San Diego.

They then compared their results with similar interactions in adults and great apes.

Duplication of social partners
The researchers analyzed the environmental factors (number of partners, types of activities, etc.) surrounding the children.

In comparable studies, they found that children had more frequent (average of 13 different social interactions) and shorter (average of 28 seconds) social interactions with peers than with great apes.

Adrian Bangerter, co-author of the study and professor at the University of Neuchâtel explains why: “Children who are exposed to many partners quickly learn the need to coordinate with each other’s behavior.” The numbers support this rapid learning: 4-year-olds already engage in cooperative social interactions more often than 2-year-olds and fight less than 2-year-olds.

“Learning how to communicate with others to coordinate and engage in joint activities goes hand in hand with learning to minimize conflict,” adds Rossano.

Social interactions are often marked by an entry and an exit phase (when a conversation is started with eye contact and a “hello” followed by a repetitive “okay, fine” or “goodbye” signal that it ends). These signals are also present in 90% of social interactions in bonobos and 69% in chimpanzees.

Young children seem to use these signals only 66-69% of the time, less frequently than bonobos and adults.

“On the one hand, this may be because they appreciate that they will interact with the same children again throughout the day, just as two passengers sitting next to each other on an airplane start and stop quick conversations throughout the flight without using greetings and talking.

“On the other hand, it may reflect the fact that not every social interaction is based on shared commitment to one another, meaning that sometimes young children bulldoze their way in and assume that other children will adapt to them rather than coordinate,” explains Rossano.

More empirical research will be needed to confirm these behaviors, but this study is a first step in understanding the role of shared attachment in human social interaction and how it affects the evolution of language.

Collaboration with Swiss children
A similar study is currently being conducted within the framework of NCCR Evolving Language, a Swiss research center aiming to address the biological underpinnings of language, its evolutionary history, and the challenges posed by new technologies.

This shows two young girls playing
However, according to the study’s authors, humans appear to have a unique predisposition and a strong desire for social interaction, which may be one of the components of the emergence of language. image public domain

A team of co-authors from the University of Neuchâtel is working with Neuchâtel’s after-school care facilities and aiming to understand the development of collaborative action by observing how words called back canal are used in children.uh-huh okay) change over time as they play a shared LEGO® game.

Adrian Bangerter explains why it’s important to analyze these terms: “We always use “little” words like okay, uh-huh, yes, or right to synchronize our behavior with our partners. But little is known about how young children acquire them.”

Social interactions facilitated language development
The article was published in the context of a special issue focusing on the “Interaction Engine” Hypothesis. This hypothesis postulates that social abilities and motivations in humans are determining factors in the evolution of human language, whose origins are unknown.

see also

This shows a drawing of a fetus in the womb.

In a series of 14 articles edited by Raphaela Heesen of Durham University and Marlen Fröhlich of the University of Tübingen, researchers propose a multidisciplinary and comparative approach, exploring the social-cognitive capacities that paved the way for the emergence of language. NCCR Evolving Language is part of this special issue, where seven researchers co-authored 4 articles.

About this social neuroscience research news

Author: Emilie Wyss
Source: NCCR
Communication: Emilie Wyss-NCCR
Images: image public domain

Original research: Open Access.
How do 2 and 4 year olds coordinate social interactions with their peers?“Federico Rossano et al. Royal Society B Philosophical Operations of the Biological Sciences


How do 2 and 4 year olds coordinate social interactions with their peers?

The Interaction Engine Hypothesis assumes that people have a unique ability and motivation for social interaction. A crucial juncture in the individuation of the interaction motor may be around 2-4 years of age, but observational studies of children in natural contexts are limited. These data also appear critical for comparison with non-human primates.

Here we report focus observations on 31 children aged 2 and 4 in four kindergartens (10 hours per child). Children interact with a wide variety of partners, most of them rarely, but with one or two close friends.

Four-year-olds engage in cooperative social interactions more frequently than 2-year-olds and fight less than 2-year-olds. Talking and playing with objects are the most common types of social interaction in both age groups.

In similar studies, children engage in frequent (average of 13 different social interactions per hour) and shorter (average 28 s) social interactions with their peers and shorter than that of great apes. Their social interactions have entry and exit stages about two-thirds of the time, less frequently than great apes.

The results support the Interaction Engine Hypothesis because young children demonstrate a remarkable motivation and ability for fast-paced interactions with multiple partners.

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