Infants can distinguish between leaders and bullies, study finds

By The Daily Illini Staff Report

Renee Baillargeon, University psychology professor, found that 21-month-old infants can distinguish between respect-based power leaders have and fear-based power bullies have, in a recently published study.

The experiment consisted of 21-month-old infants who watched different animated scenarios, all with the same characters. The infants saw three red protagonists interact with a yellow character, Baillargeon said in an email.

In the first scenario, the three protagonists bowed to the yellow character, which represented the leader condition. In the second scenario, the character hit the protagonists and stole their toy. This represented the bully condition.

In the trials, the infants saw the yellow character, either as a bully or a leader, give orders to the protagonists, such as “time for bed!” Then the character would either stay or leave and the protagonists would either continue to obey or disobey the orders, depending on the scenario.

“We found that when the leader gave the order, infants expected the protagonists to continue to obey the absent leader,” she said.

The infants looked significantly longer at the scenario where the protagonists disobeyed than the scenario in which they obeyed, she said. This is the violation-of-expectation method, when the infants saw a scenario that contradicted their expectations, they stared at it longer.

Infants only expected the protagonists to obey the bully, in order to avoid harm, when the bully stayed in the scene, Baillargeon said.

Baillargeon said the infants detected a violation, meaning the infants stared at the scenario longer, when the protagonist disobeyed the leader but not when they disobeyed the bully.

When the bully gave the order and left, infants had no expectations of what the protagonists should do, Baillargeon said.

“At least by 21 months of age, infants already expect leaders to be obeyed,” Baillargeon said. “This does not mean, of course, that children themselves would always obey orders from a leader — they may not have sufficient self-control to do so.”

This research confirms earlier studies, which have shown infants detecting differences in power between individuals, she said.

“Our results call into question the common idea that young children have no understanding of authority and have to (be) taught to obey authority figures,” Baillargeon said.

[email protected]