Study on how children and monkeys gain control over scarce resources

That’s what I want!

Educationalist Marjolijn Vermande was looking for a biologist. Why? Because animals and humans display many behavioural similarities. ‘I was triggered by a study on preschoolers in which I read that the most dominant girls in a group are not necessarily also the most aggressive ones. The same was found in Indian elephants.’ Vermande eventually found biologist Liesbeth Sterck (Elisabeth Sterck) who conducts research on macaque monkeys.

Marjolijn Vermande and Liesbeth Sterck in this project work together with Albert Reijntjes (Educational Sciences) and Han de Vries (Biology)
Marjolijn Vermande and Liesbeth Sterck in this project work together with Albert Reijntjes (Educational Sciences) and Han de Vries (Biology). Photo: Ed van Rijswijk.

Good relationships in order to survive

Humans and monkeys both live in groups. This provides advantages through cooperation, but also leads to competition with others in the same group. Not everyone is equally adept at combining cooperation and competition, which creates differences in status. One way of measuring someone’s position in a group is to look at the extent they have coveted resources at their disposal (i.e. ‘resource control’). For children, these may be toys, the most popular friend or the best position at the playground; for monkeys, this concerns food, sex or grooming. For a long time, it was thought that humans and animals used aggression to gain such resource control. However, new insights indicate that other strategies are effective too.

Sterck: ‘Monkey studies show that having good relationships help monkeys survive themselves and improves survival of their offspring. In addition to being dominant in groups, it is also important to have good relationships in order to get things done. Where dominance is associated with aggression, good relationships are acquired via socially accepted strategies and even via pro-social behaviour, such as grooming. Vermande: ‘In children, too, we observe the simultaneous application of aggressive and socially accepted strategies. Of all children, children who combine both types of strategies are the ones that are the most successful in obtaining the coveted resources.’

Both researchers focus in their studies on social skills, either in children or in macaques. Coveted resources are easily obtained when you have good social skills and are able to manipulate group members. Sterck: ‘Perhaps I should explain that aggression is not necessarily just a negative quality. Excessive aggression is negative. Assertiveness, however, as in not having others ride roughshod over you, is also a form of aggression.’

Continue reading below the photograph.

A group of crab-eating macaques.
'The question is which strategies children apply in order to obtain a good position when the group has only just been formed.'

A bully or not?

Bullying is a subcategory of aggressive behaviour that is found when one or more individuals repeatedly attack, humiliate and/or exclude someone who is relatively powerless. American researchers argue that children who apply both aggression and socially accepted strategies (and have at their disposal most of the resources) do not need to bully. They rather aim their aggression at peers with a similar status in order to increase their position. Vermande: ‘In the Netherlands, we studied this during a longitudinal research project. Unfortunately, what we found was less optimistic. We discovered that those children turned out to be the class’s biggest bullies.’

Vermande continues: ‘The question is which strategies children apply in order to obtain a good position when the group has only just been formed. Therefore, we study children in their first year at secondary school.’ One of the hypotheses in the literature is that children initially predominantly apply aggression in order to gain resource control. Once these children have acquired a dominant status, they then apply socially accepted strategies and pro-social behaviour in order to maintain their position. Vermande also focuses on how children can inspire others. How can they encourage others to aspire to an objective? This is a new perspective in the research on resource control in children.

What about the children who do not apply any of these strategies? ‘In the American study, ‘non-controllers’ (i.e. children who apply hardly any strategy) were depicted as losers. ‘We think it is not that negative. Many just have other interests. These children can be perfectly happy. They are content in their roles as these fit them’, according to Vermande.

Health benefits as a result of good relationships

Will the outcomes be put into practice? Dominant children have a high status in the group and, therefore, have access to valuable assets. The downside is that these children often demonstrate aggressive behaviour. ‘Imagine that you are able to teach children to get what they want in different ways. Once we better understand how these processes work, we will also be able, for instance, to offer teachers the information they need to provide guidance during such group processes.’

Sterck: ‘The monkey studies are important to zoos that keep wild animals. Animal caretakers often assume that everything is fine if the extent of the aggression decreases once new animals have been introduced into a group. However, for animal species that live in groups it is important that they start and maintain good relationships. In order to discover this, you have to know what to look for.’ For domestic and production animals, also social animals, these processes will also be important. ‘This also forms an aspect of the well-being of domestic animals and we should look into this much more. Having good relationships has a positive influence on the health of human beings. I don’t think this is much different in animals.’

We both look at behaviour; I study monkeys and Marjolijn studies children in their first year at secondary school.

What does dominance mean?

Looking at monkeys and children sounds like fun, but what is such a joint study really like in practice? Sterck: ‘We both look at behaviour; I study monkeys and Marjolijn studies children in their first year at secondary school.’ Both scientists study similar processes in children and monkeys. Sterck: ‘That was such an eye-opener! We know that dominance and being kind yields health benefits. However, we have no idea how they achieve this.’ We know more about these mechanisms in children. That’s why Liesbeth Sterck was very inspired by the child studies.

Sometimes, however, the researchers from the two different fields of research meant something completely different by the same term: ‘The main difference is that, in the social sciences, dominance refers to everything that makes you obtain the resources. It is a measure of outcomes, irrespective of behaviour. In monkey research, dominance means the direction of the aggressive behaviour. It is about behaviour that can lead to a certain outcome.’

Seed Money. Foto: Tax Credits

Each with their own jargon

It is obvious that both scientists enjoy working together. You see it in the way they react to each other. The question of whether it is tricky working with someone from such a different field of expertise makes them both laugh. Sterck: ‘It is not hard; it is just difficult at times. It is really very inspiring to work together and exchange ideas. It is difficult, however, to advance to the stage of fitting everything together. Just accepting any verbal confusion is part of this. You discuss it and then get on with it again.’

Both women agree that you should not stick too much to your own technical terms. Each field of research uses different words for similar things. You have to remain open to what the other one means. You have to be able to deal with that. If you cannot, you will not succeed in working together. And now what? Vermande: ‘Our study is not finished yet. The seed money supplied by Dynamics of Youth planted a seed and we can now continue by making use of an NWO grant.’

Dynamics of Youth

Dynamics of Youth is one of Utrecht University's four strategic themes. Within Dynamics of Youth, researchers from different disciplines integrate their expertise to answer crucial questions for future generations. How can we help our children develop into balanced individuals, that are able to function successfully in a rapidly changing environment? As one of Utrecht University's four strategic themes, Dynamics of Youth combines excellent child research from all seven faculties.