As every teacher knows (and hates), people start forming social hierarchies in preschool. But the dominant children aren’t just steamrolling the subordinate kids into giving up their toys, they may also be sentencing them to a life time of poor health.
University of British Columbia Neurologist and Child Development Special, Dr. Thomas Boyce, spoke about the “biology of misfortune” at the Harvard School of Public Health yesterday afternoon. Dr. Boyce began studying social hierarchies in children to try and explain why some children have medical charts with just a few pages, while others have charts as thick as phone books.
Socioeconomic status is frequently singled out as the biggest predictor of future health. It’s more influential than age, height, social support, and even smoking habits. On top of that, health isn’t just related to objective social status, but also subjective social status— where people places themselves in the hierarchy. Suspecting that perceived social status started in childhood, Dr. Boyce decided to dig a little deeper.
Playing short video clips of children playing with one another, Dr. Boyce described the different kinds of hierarchy-establishing behaviour he found, including imitation, displacement, directing behavior, and good old-fashion physical attack.
In one clip, two small children are shown digging, with a third child, a little brown haired girl, first attempting to displace one child digging next to a tree before successfully displacing the second from his digging spot. After she tires of digging and moves on to something else, the child she originally tried to displace, a boy with a head full of blond curls, chases after her, grabbing her around the waist and trying to drag her back to the tree.
Dr. Boyce described this as “another demonstration of nuanced male behavior,” to laughs from the audience. The boy eventually figured out he could get the little girl to keep digging with him if he just asked her.