Study: Babies Know Difference Between Leaders, Bullies

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Babies can tell the difference between a power-hungry boss who bullies others, and a thoughtful leader who commands with respect to others, a new study finds.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne analyzed the eye-gazing behaviors of 21-month-old toddlers — one of the standard ways to measure expectations in children too young to communicate their feelings — while watching various cartoon characters. The so-called “violation-of-expectation” method is based on the observation that infants stare longer at events that contradict their expectations.

For their study, researchers created a series of animations that depicted cartoon characters interacting with an individual portrayed as a leader, a bully, or a normal, likeable person with no evident power. After testing how adults — in this case undergraduate students at UIUC — responded to the scenarios and found they identified the characters correctly, the researchers measured the eye-gazing behavior of toddlers while they watched the same animations.

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“In one experiment, the infants watched a scenario in which a character portrayed either as a leader or a bully gave an order (“Time for bed!”) to three protagonists, who initially obeyed,” says lead researcher Renee Baillargeon, a professor of psychology at the university, in a release. “The character then left the scene and the protagonists either continued to obey or disobeyed.”

The researchers detected a violation of the children’s expectations when the protagonists in the cartoon disobeyed an order given by the leader character, but not when an order given by the bully character was ignored. Results were consistent in a second experiment where differences in appearance between the leader and the bully were removed. In a third leg of the study, researchers tested whether the likeability of the other characters influenced the toddlers by having the leaders leave.

“In general, when the leader left the scene, the infants expected the protagonists to continue to obey the leader,” says Baillargeon. “However, when the bully left, the infants had no particular expectation: The protagonists might continue to obey out of fear, or they might disobey because the bully was gone. The infants expected obedience only when the bully remained in the scene and could harm them again if they disobeyed.

“Finally, when the likeable character left, the infants expected the protagonists to disobey, most likely because the character held no power over them,” she adds.

The authors say the study confirms previous research showing that infants can recognize power difference between two or more characters.

“Our results also provide evidence that infants in the second year of life can already distinguish between leaders and bullies,” says Baillargeon. “Infants understand that with leaders, you have to obey them even when they are not around; with bullies, though, you have to obey them only when they are around.”

The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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