Building Blocks

I am not a psychologist. I am really not an infant behavior specialist.

I am not a psychologist. I am really not an infant behavior specialist. I have never been a parent, although I have been a child (as I am a male, I probably still am one). On the other hand, it only takes a modicum of observational insight to notice that humans establish, almost insist on, dominance and submissive roles in many of or interactions. No, not THAT kind, although that is certainly a clear example of the phenomenon (and whatever… not my boat; if it floats go ahead and paddle forth (that’s probably a bad pun)).

Parents with two or more infants, particularly twins, or who host play dates with children of near-identical ages have probably seen dominance behaviors in simple interactions. Imagine two infants with a set of blocks positioned between them. It is likely that one of the two children will start dominating block play fairly soon, either by gathering them disproportionally to themselves, building something, or even exhibiting aggressive behavior towards their peer. They are peers, after all. Just a couple of infants who are supposed to be playing. For some reason, one is likely to develop an advantage of some sort with the blocks. The other child may be unmoved and unimpressed or see the behavior and attempt to gain block parity with the dominant child. This may lead to new dominance or to an increase in aggressive behavior—new attempts by the initially dominant child to have more blocks, throwing blocks, vocalizations by one or the other or both, banging blocks together, etc. It is probable that most of these interactions will be interrupted by adults. If they are not, it is likely that one child will dominate.

Dr. Anthea Pun et al., Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, published a study earlier this year in which 48 infants between 9 and 12 months of age were shown to exhibit submissive behavior to infants from numerically larger groups or to smaller groups that included larger infants—numerical and size-dominance. The following is a summary of the study’s significance:

The ability to detect dominance relationships is essential for survival because it helps individuals weigh the potential costs and benefits of engaging in a physical competition. Here we show that infants as young as 6 mo of age are capable of detecting dominance relations when provided with an ecologically relevant cue such as social group size. Furthermore, infants can infer the social dominance relationship between two competing individuals based on the size of the group to which they belong, and expect individuals from a numerically larger group to get their way. These findings reveal that infants may have an evolutionarily ancient cognitive capacity to represent social dominance relations that is shared with other species within the animal kingdom.

In the body of the paper, the study states that it seems that numerical size of a group is a more significant determinant than individual size. They cite several examples in chimpanzee and bird species wherein a single individual within a group does not gain dominance without the support of a group, regardless of the individual’s size. Interestingly, they also indicate that adults process social status indicators (e.g. military rank) in the same region of the brain in which group size (i.e. “numerical ratio discrimination”) is processed—the inferior parietal cortex (IPC).


Of course, like all studies, this is dependent on many studies on similar questions. But it is the last sentence in the quoted paragraph that concerns me today:

These findings reveal that infants may have an evolutionarily ancient cognitive capacity to represent social dominance relations that is shared with other species within the animal kingdom.

This is elaborated on as follows:

Competition for valuable resources such as mates, food, and territory (1) is commonplace across the animal kingdom. To minimize the cost of fighting (e.g., energy spent and personal injury or death), natural selection appears to have favored the emergence of cognitive adaptations that help individuals predict whether they stand a chance against an opponent (25).

Okay. This seems like a set of behaviors that is well understood in our world, so well understood that infants “understand” that larger groups and/or groups with larger infants may have a dominance advantage over them, although it is an abstract concept to them at the time (i.e. they are probably not competing for mates, food, or territory unless their parents have abandoned them entirely).

This is the problem, though. Social cues that serve various fauna populations well to this day do not do our species much good at all. I would argue, in fact, that these behaviors set up domination/submission conflicts that have sometimes laughable, sometimes mortally serious implications for how we all live together. The behavior reveals itself everywhere!

Families in the same neighborhood compete to “keep up with the Joneses.” Who has the nicest driveway? Who has the best grille? In less suburban settings, the metrics may change but the game is the same. Who has painted their house, rethatched it, most recently? Who has the most wives and/or children (probably a correlation therein)? Who herds the most goats? It’s all about numerical (or value) domination and all is arbitrated right there in the IPC. If families do this, then the towns and cities in which they live also vie for superlatives. Who has the best sports teams? How many sports teams? Who won the season most recently and how often? From there, we go to national competitions, typically for resources of one type or another, which confer status and likelihood of dominance. Why? Wouldn’t it be better if competition was treated as a method of entertainment it is intended to be rather than a measure of self—and therefore group—worth? Wouldn’t each nation, each continent, the whole freakin’ planet gain a mutual advantage if those infant minds were not sorting out who to push about and who to fear… at the incredibly tender age of 9 to 12 months?

Let me put aside a notion really quickly. I am not talking about the benefits of “communism,” “socialism,” or any other imaginary sociopolitical construct. Any movement initiated in the name of Marx (wait, that’s not the one I meant!) quickly became an authoritarian state, with the most powerful enjoying luxuries the least powerful could not imagine. Just like infants sorting out who gets the most blocks.


What I am discussing is the potentially vestigial nature of infantile power-grabs, by which I mean that it is possible that our species has outgrown its need for this constant balance of power game. We have a vestigial tail—the coccyx—a bump that is located precisely where tails are located in other species and which we share with other tailless great apes. It is an important attachment point for a number of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Those of you who have angered it by sitting on it too carelessly will probably sit with greater care forever more. The coccyx isn’t the only example of items in human anatomy that are vestigial but it will do for the purposes of our metaphor.


If our IPC insists on keeping score as we group up, which is going to happen—we are a gregarious species, although not all extrovertedly so—we are going to keep making intellectually unsupportable claims about our superiority over others in our family, community, etc. We are going to keep believing that “our team (whoever that is)” have better recruiting, better warm-up games, better coaches and management, better fill-in-the-blanks (I really don’t care) than other teams. “Our nation” is number one, whatever nation that is (at least the politicians in that nation are going to say so; you can tell them by the gravy of corruption dripping from their lips). As long as “our nation” is peddling its superiority over its neighbors—or more likely, nations with delicious resources—this power-grab business will continue. The following clip from HBO’s series Newsroom addresses the “number one” business fairly directly with respect to the U.S. but again it is not my intent to be negative about one country or another. I am after the foundational issue, which is why some of us, as infants, start grabbing power while others might not like it but go along to get along? It’s wired in and it is going to take a conscious, deliberate, and probably relatively slow process to stop us behaving in accord with vestigial processes—by-products even—of the inferior parietal cortex (an irony that this rank ordering business occurs in the inferior PC!).

The foulest blunders our IPCs do in the name of supporting notions of superiority and domination are in the name of genderist, racist, nationalist—in general, chauvinist—thinking. Millions of people have engaged in dominant behaviors characterizable in the simplest way as “murder” because they have come to believe that their beliefs about another group of humans are correct and that other group is fated by deities to die because of their imagined inferiority. I wish I were still talking about infants and blocks at this point. I am not. I am saying something that everyone—those who read this and the billions who don’t—understands at a fundamental level. When one group of people goes after another group of people (or, for that matter, when one person goes after another individual) and kills them, it is murder and the verdict is not changed by calling it war or serial killing or ethnic cleansing or forced emigration (which results in numerous unnecessary deaths) or any other thing.

Women—yup, about 50% of the population (although seeing difficult days at present) of our species—are still treated as property of the male or of their family in many countries. They do not have an unencumbered right to vote in some countries (the U.S. “granted” women the right to vote in 1920, 144 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed (by men, just a footnote here, folks)). They, on average, do not earn as much as men doing the same job. While women nominally have equal rights in many countries, their rights within cultural groups are often quite different than what the law dictates.

This is just plain odd, not to mention wrong. While women comprise 50% of the earth’s human population, they bear 100% of the earth’s human children. In many families, women are responsible, at least tacitly, for raising the children. This works as follows: “I am the breadwinner” said Bob “and your job is to stay home and raise the kids.” That’s the explicit version of the conversation. The implicit version doesn’t happen… it just “is.” And perhaps that is not entirely bad but isn’t it just another form of the play block problem? The dominant person, often the male, tells the less dominant person that he’ll play with the blocks and she will play with the dolls. It should be a conversation (and often is in some cultural segments) but it should ALWAYS be a conversation and dominant/submissive posturing should not be part of the outcome. If all else fails, the jobs should be based on competence, merit, capability.

The place in our culture that this conversation has really been a complete mess for centuries, at the least, is in matters of ethnicity or race, which are often confounded by geographical separation as well. In her work The History of White People, Dr. Nell Irvin Painter discusses how the notion of “whiteness” became a stand-in for superiority and for suppression of regional rivals at least as far back as the Greeks and the histories of  conflicts documented by Herodotus. This whole process of domination was executed in part through creating a characteristic that was a “god-given” right for one group to dominate another. That right was “whiteness” and it is also the false notion that empowered enslavement of Africans, Indians (particularly in Central and South America but also in the “sub-continent” of India and elsewhere).

American Progress, John Gast (1872) depicting Columbia, with telegraph wire and a book of knowledge, penetrating the “darkness” of the American West, driving the Native Americans and Bison before them (no kidding, this is how people thought! It was a popular engraving of the time)

The thing is we all have the capacity to be equal at the moment of our birth, absent very real differences in diet, cultural safety, exposure to environmental hazards (including drugs, lead, cigarette carcinogens, alcohol, plasticizers, etc.), and the like. As we grow older, the patterns of dominance emerge and submission kicks in. We have the intellectual capacity to understand that this is not the way we should live our lives.

Am I arguing against competition in products, in markets, in some people just doing some things better than others? Absolutely not! Differences among us will always exist. The differences that do not exist in the first place must go the way of our tails, though. I am white (actually sort of a weird, mottled pink as I have – or had – freckles and my skin is less uniformly “flesh” colored (is that even a color? really?)) than it once was. Do I care? No, I do not. I do not believe I am superior to anyone on earth. I do believe that to achieve this view, I have had to recognize this ancient dominance game that our IPCs play on us and I have to deny its sway. You can too. Every time your mind tells you that you or people that look like you or people from your family or neighborhood or state or nation or gender or race are better than someone else, find your voice and tell that idiot (your own internal, ancient idiot) NO!!!!!

That is a start. If we all do what I’ve described persistently for the next several decades, centuries, perhaps millennia (I sure hope not), we will become the species we should be, the species without that vestigial argument running around in our heads.

If we make it at all.

Featured image

Pun, A., Birch, S. A., & Baron, A. S. (2016, March 16). Infants use relative numerical group size to infer social dominance. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Proc Natl Acad Sci USA, 113(9), 2376-2381. doi:10.1073/pnas.1514879113

Author: makingsenseofcomplications

I have an academic background in literature and, separately, science. My career has been in industry in positions of increasing responsibility assisting in the drug development process - one of the most amazing intellectual pursuits of the human mind, among many other amazing intellectual pursuits. I am interested in films, philosophy, history, art, music, science (obviously), literature (also obviously), some video gaming, human behavior, and many other topics. I wish there was more time in every day because we have a world that is full of amazing phenomena that are considered too superficially by too many. Although my first and last names are fictional, I think I believe in all of the stuff you read here, although I retain the right in perpetuity of changing my thoughts about anything written herein.

3 thoughts on “Building Blocks”

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