Infants expect leaders to intervene by 17 months

By Ava Traverso, Technograph Editor

A facet of our society that has been around as long as recorded history can remember is the organization of hierarchal systems. Where did this organization first begin? Was it learned, or was it hardwired into the human DNA? A stepping-stone to the answer of these questions may lay with younger generations, more specifically, babies. According to a study that recently took place at the University psychology department, babies are able to expect authority figures to right wrongs and take the lead by as young as 17 months. I spoke with the two minds behind this finding in order to get a better look into what the study entailed and what it could mean for the future of child psychology.

With the study piloted by the likes of Alumni Distinguished Professor Renée Baillargeon, who has over 30 years of experience working with the University psychology department, and Dr. Maayan Stavans, a former University graduate student who worked in Baillargeon’s lab, there was an extremely potent amount of expertise behind the experiments. The way the experiment was conducted was adorable and fun through the use of bright colors, stuffed animals and puppet shows. Stavans handcrafted the costumes used to distinguish the regular bears from the leaders.

“Together with her (Baillargeon), we designed exactly the scenarios. I built all the bears… Each hat took me an hour to prepare.” Stavans said. The way they distinguished the ‘leader’ bear from the regular bears was with one of two routes. One of them was giving the leader a larger coat, and the other one was having the leader give orders while the other bears follow them. The babies were able to understand both bear types were leaders, even though there were two separate indicators.

Currently working on post-doctoral research in Budapest, Hungary, Stavans developed her original interest in psychology during her undergrad.

“In Israel, we have to do military service after High School, so I was part of a hierarchal system. I found it very interesting, how the hierarchal social system really determines the behaviors of individuals within it, so that was my personal inclination.”

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This inclination eventually would end up leading her to work with the likes of Baillargeon at the University during her graduate studies.

The thinking behind this study came from years of change within child psychological research. Baillargeon shined some light on the matter through her experience.

“So, then the field moved on again and said, ‘Okay. What happens when you’re not just focusing on one agent… but you’re looking at two or three or four agents who interact with each other? Do they have any ideas on how they should act towards each other? Do they have a sense of fairness, a sense of in-group support? This is the new frontier of early cognition research. It’s early morality.”

This interest in the infant sense of mortality is a pillar into the reasoning behind their study on authority and leaders. It was also a thought process that allowed them to do work into how much babies can understand at such a young age, which turned out to be quite a lot. This study is just one of the many projects that they are working on at the lab.

A large part of the finding was in relation to a discovery that has long been known in the psychology community, which is the fact that babies (as well as adults) typically stare longer when situations do not go according to their expectations.

“We relied on looking times, not facial reactions. It’s hard to tell from a baby’s face what they might be thinking… they might not be very good at expressing everything. Like when a baby is crying, they could be upset or sad, but they could also be hungry… The reasoning behind this is that babies, just like adults, will look longer at events they find unexpected or inconsistent with how they think events should unfold.” Through the method of measuring the looking times of the babies as the plays unfolded, they were able to form a correlation between authority and infant understanding.

They also had an experimental model where one of the bears did not want his piece of candy, so the other bear took both pieces. The leader did not intervene in this scenario, and this also is telling.

“We were able to say with a certain degree of confidence that this is what they might be expecting when the leader intervenes to rectify a transgression, they look shorter than when the leader does not intervene and ignores what had occurred,” Stavans said. This is a monumental difference within itself, showing that not only can babies expect their leaders to rectify injustices, but also, they can tell when a leader is being overbearing towards their followers, as shown with that specific experimental run. They had an understanding because one of the bears said no, it was okay for the other bear to take both.

Baillargeon also made a point to thank those who helped her make these findings in the first place.

“Our moms, they are so important. We have a booth set up at things like The Farmer’s Market or stuff like that, and we try to encourage moms to take part in our studies. We would not be able to do the work we do without our parental community, so we are very grateful for them.”

Because their work relies largely on volunteers, they are always looking for parents and children to aid them with their research. If you are a parent and you would be interested in volunteering your baby for the lab, you can contact Professor Baillargeon and her lab at [email protected] or 217-333-5988, and more information about their work can be found at

The study has a definite influence on how the future of psychology could progress. With a stronger foundation of how humans communicate and understand the society and world around them during their adolescence, we can better understand how we grow and change with cultural influences over time. The work that these psychologists are doing is helping us understand how we came to be, both in our minds and in our world.

Ava is a junior in ACES.

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