If you’re bummed at the thought of your freak-flag-flying toddler eventually learning to compare everything from their hair to their lunchbox with their school’s “cool” kids, prepare to get more bummed: A new study finds that kids not only understand social exclusion way earlier than previously thought — they start imitating their peers in an effort to fit in earlier, too.
Researchers at the University Of Texas Austin watched 176 5 and 6-year-old kids play a virtual ball-tossing game in which certain kids got the ball more times than others, and certain kids didn’t get the ball at all. Those kids — the “out-group” — showed significant anxiety and, in a follow up exercise, they mimicked with gusto the body gestures of one member of the “in-group.” Meanwhile, the behavior of the in-group kids didn’t change at all. You can be forgiven if your response to this is that ball tossing is stupid and the in-group kids are smug little jerks (just try not to imitate their gestures while you’re at it).
For years, it’s been understood that teens and adults use imitation to fit into potentially awkward social contexts, but these researchers were genuinely surprised to see the behavior used at such a young age. Still, like all social science, you can make yourself feel better about depressing results by citing another study — in this case, the one that suggests all those in-group kids are doomed to become burnouts with serious maturity problems.