Babies Can Tell the Difference Between Bullies and Leaders


Sep 6, 2018


Infants as young as 21 months can differentiate between respect-based power asserted by leaders and fear-based power exerted by bullies, finds a new study.

Published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, the study analyzed babies’ eye-gazing behavior, a commonly used technique to determine intent and expectation in children who are too young to express their thoughts. This “violation-of-expectation” method is based on the observed principle that children stare longer in instances that contradict their expectations.

The finding builds on previous research that has shown babies can tell spot power imbalances between two or more characters.

“For example, infants will stare longer at scenarios where larger characters defer to smaller ones. They also take note when a character who normally wins a confrontation with another suddenly loses,” says Renee Baillargeon, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois in the US. “But little was known about infants’ ability to distinguish between different bases of power.”

The team developed a series of cartoons that depicted characters interacting with an individual portrayed as a leader, a bully, or a neutral and likeable person seemingly without power. Baillargeon measured infant participants’ eye-gazing behaviour, while showing them the animation.

“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 Baillargeon. “The character then left the scene, and the protagonists either continued to obey, or disobeyed.”

In this scenario, when the three characters disregarded the leader, the infants identified it as an expectation-violation — but not when the characters disobeyed the bully. This observation held true even when the scenarios played out similarly, but with the leader and bully sharing the same appearance.

“In general, when the leader left the scene, the infants expected the protagonists to continue to obey the leader,” explains 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.”

To determine that, when the  neutral, likeable character without power left the screen, the infants expected other characters to disobey, because they could spot the character’s lack of power, Baillargeon explained.

“Our results also provide evidence that infants in the second year of life can already distinguish between leaders and bullies,” she says. “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.”

This is the latest study to suggest crying waters run deep. Babies can understand reputation and judgment at as young as two years of age, suggesting an inherent capacity for social navigation. But really, the takeaway is that there’s a little rebel in all of us — even the tiniest of us — who doesn’t like to be pushed around. Power to the (toddler) people.


Written By Angelina Shah

Angelina Shah is a staff writer with The Swaddle. In her previous life she was a copywriter in advertising. She has a penchant for reading, singing, travelling and being obsessed with superheroes.


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