Our social interactions begin at a young age

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Summary: Early social interactions allow children to quickly learn how to coordinate with the behavior of others.

font: NCCR

What do building pyramids, going to the moon, rowing a two-person canoe, or dancing a waltz have in common? All of these actions are the result of a common goal among multiple partners and lead to a sense of mutual obligation, known as “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 the emergence of language, according to the study authors.

How are our social interactions different from those of other species? And because?

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 few quantitative analyzes of the spontaneous social interactions of 2- and 4-year-olds as they interact with their peers, even though this is a critical age for the development of children’s sociocognitive skills. And those that do exist are not based on extensive video recordings that follow individual children over several days or simply do not allow easy comparison with the social interactions of great apes,” adds Federico Rossano, first author of the study and assistant professor at the University. from Calif., San Diego.

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

Multiplication of social partners
The researchers looked at the environmental factors (number of partners, types of activities, etc.) surrounding the children.

They found that children have more frequent (an average of 13 different 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 about the need to coordinate the behavior of others.” The numbers support this rapid learning: 4- 2-year-olds already engage in cooperative social interactions more often than 2-year-olds and fight less than 2-year-olds.

“Learning 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 often 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 ends by repeating “good, good” or with a “goodbye”). These cues are also present in 90% of social interactions 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 could be due to the appreciation that they will re-engage with the same children throughout the day, like two passengers sitting next to each other on a plane starting and ending quick conversations during a flight without using greetings. every time they resume. talking.

“On the other hand, it could reflect the fact that not all social interactions are based on joint engagement with one another, i.e. sometimes young children can push their way and assume that other children will simply adapt to them rather than coordinate. Rossano explains.

More empirical research will be needed to confirm these behaviors, however this study is a first step in understanding the role of joint engagement for human social interaction and how it impacted the evolution of language.

Cooperation in Swiss children
A similar study is currently underway at The NCCR Evolving Language, a Swiss research center that aims to unravel the biological underpinnings of language, its evolutionary past, and the challenges posed by new technologies.

This shows two girls playing
However, humans seem to have a unique predisposition and strong desire for social interaction that may be one of the components of the emergence of language, according to the study authors. The image is in the public domain

A team including co-authors from the University of Neuchâtel is working with Neuchâtel after-school care facilities and aims to understand the development of joint action in children by looking at how they use so-called secondary words (aha, ok) changes over time when they play a cooperative LEGO® game.

Adrian Bangerter explains why it’s important to discuss those terms: “We use ‘little’ words like okay, uh-huh, yes, or right all the time to synchronize our behavior with that of our partners. However, very little is known about how young children acquire the use of them.”

Social interactions facilitated the evolution of language
The article was published in the context of a special issue focusing on the “interaction engine” hypothesis. This hypothesis postulates that social skills and motivations in humans were determining factors in the evolution of human language, whose origins are still unknown.

See also

This shows a drawing of a fetus in the womb.

In a series of 14 articles edited by Raphaela Heesen of the University of Durham and Marlen Fröhlich of the University of Tübingen, researchers of sociocognitive abilities who paved the way for the rise of language by proposing a multidisciplinary and comparative approach. NCCR’s Evolving Language is part of this special issue with seven of its researchers co-authoring 4 articles.

About this research news in social neuroscience

Author: Emily Wyss
font: NCCR
Contact: Emilie Wyss-NCCR
Image: The image is in the public domain.

original research: open access.
How 2- and 4-year-olds coordinate social interactions with their peersby 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 ability and motivation for social interaction. A crucial time in interaction motor ontogeny might be around 2 to 4 years of age, but observational studies of children in natural settings are limited. These data seem critical also for comparison with non-human primates.

Here, we report on focal observations in 31 children aged 2 and 4 years in four preschools (10 h per child). Children interact with a wide range of peers, many infrequently, 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 games 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 (on average 28 s) and shorter than those of great apes in comparable studies. Their social interactions are 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 display remarkable motivation and capacity for rapid interactions with multiple peers.

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