Our social interactions begin at a young age

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

Source: NCCR

What do building pyramids, flying to the moon, paddling a two-person canoe or dancing the waltz do together? All of these actions are the result of a common goal of multiple partners and result in a mutual sense of obligation known as “shared commitment”. This ability to work together is universal in humans and certain species of animals such as the great apes.

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

How do our social interactions differ from those of 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 is little quantitative analysis of the spontaneous social interactions of 2- and 4-year-olds while interacting with their peers, although it is a critical age for the development of children’s socio-cognitive skills. And the ones that do exist are either not based on extensive video recordings that follow individual children over several days, or simply do not allow easy comparison to the social interactions of great apes,” adds Federico Rossano, first author of the study and assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego.

They then compared their findings to similar interactions in adults and great apes

increase in social partners
The researchers analyzed the environmental factors (number of partners, type of activities, etc.) surrounding the children.

They found that children have more frequent (average 13 different social interactions per hour) and shorter (average 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: “Through contact with many partners, children quickly learn how important it is to coordinate the behavior of others.” The numbers support this rapid learning: 4 – As early as 2-year-olds, they engage in cooperative social interactions more often than 2-year-olds and fight under 2-year-olds.

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

Social interactions are typically characterized by an entry and exit phase (when you start a conversation with eye contact and say “hello,” then signal that it’s ending with a repeated “okay, fine” or a “goodbye”) . These signals are also present in 90% of social interactions in bonobos and 69% in chimpanzees.

It appears that young children use these signals only 66-69% of the time, less frequently than bonobos and adults.

“On the one hand, this could be due to the appreciation that they will again be interacting with the same children throughout the day, like two passengers sitting next to each other on an airplane, starting and ending quick conversations during a flight without using greetings each time, if they continue talking.

“On the other hand, it might reflect the fact that not all social interaction is based on a shared commitment to one another, ie sometimes small children will crowd in and assume that other children are just conforming to them rather than coordinating,” Rossano explains.

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

Cooperation with Swiss children
A similar study is currently being carried out as part of The NCCR Evolving Language, a Swiss research center aiming to unravel the biological basis of language, its evolutionary past and the challenges posed by new technologies.

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

A team, which includes the co-authors from the University of Neuchâtel, is working with the Neuchâtel Horten and aims to understand the development of joint action in children by observing how they use so-called back-channel words (um, okay) changes over time when playing a cooperative LEGO® game.

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

Social interactions facilitated language development
The paper appeared as part of a special issue dealing with the “Interaction Engine” hypothesis. This hypothesis posits that human social skills and motivations were determinants in the evolution of human language, the origins of which remain 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 examine the social-cognitive skills that paved the way for the emergence of language by proposing a multidisciplinary and comparative approach . The NCCR Evolving Language is part of this special issue with seven of its researchers co-authoring 4 articles.

About this news from social neuroscientific research

Author: Emily Wyss
Source: NCCR
Contact: 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 their peers“From Federico Rossano et al. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences


How 2- and 4-year-old children coordinate social interactions with their peers

The interaction engine hypothesis posits that humans have a unique ability and motivation for social interaction. A crucial point in the ontogenesis of the interaction machine might occur around the age of 2–4 years, but observational studies of children in natural contexts are limited. These data also appear critical for comparison with non-human primates.

Here we report focal observations on 31 children aged 2 and 4 years in four kindergartens (10 h per child). Children interact with a variety of partners, many infrequently, but with a close friend or two.

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

Children engage in social interactions with their peers frequently (mean 13 different social interactions per hour) and briefly (mean 28 s) and shorter than 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 engine hypothesis, as young children show remarkable motivation and ability for rapid interactions with multiple partners.

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