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It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game

A September article in Nature Human Behaviour featured a study by Ashley J. Thomas of UC Irvine that showed some remarkable early preferences by toddlers surrounding success and manners.

In the study, toddlers were shown a puppet show in which two characters approached each other from opposite directions. The path was too narrow for the puppets to go around one another, and thus, one puppet would have to yield the way. When given the choice to play with either of the two puppets after the show, the toddlers more often chose to play with the puppet that was able to pass through – the one deemed more successful or of higher status, as opposed to the puppet that yielded out of the way.

However, when toddlers were shown a similar puppet show in which two characters approached from different directions and puppet shoved the other out of the way, a much different result occurred. In this case, the children overwhelmingly chose to play with the puppet that was shoved out of the way instead of the puppet that achieved its success and status in an anti-social way.

This study provides evidence that early on, we enjoy the company of successful, high-status individuals, but only if that success was achieved in acceptable, pro-social ways. So even toddlers know, “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”

Thomas, A.J., Thomsen L., Lukowski, A.F., Abramyan, M., & Sarnecka, B.W. Toddlers prefer those who win, but not when the win by force. Nature Human Behaviour. 2, 662-669 (2018).


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