Study: Infants Can Distinguish Between Leaders And Bullies, Respect-Based Power And Fear-Based Power

Twenty-one-month-old infants can, just like adults, distinguish between leaders and bullies, respect-based power, and fear-based power, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows.

In an effort to prove their main hypothesis, study authors, Francesco Margonia, Renée Baillargeon, and Luca Suriana, conducted a series of experiments. Since 21-month-old children are too young to coherently and verbally explain their thinking, researchers examined the infants’ eye-gazing behavior.

The research is based on the so-called “violation-of-expectation” method, which relies on the fact that infants stare longer at events that contradict their preconceived notions.

Margonia, Baillargeon, and Suriana examined whether infants can distinguish between two types of social power: respect-based power, and fear-based power. Respect-based power refers to power wielded by a competent authority figure, a leader. Fear-based power refers to power asserted by a bully.

While previous research has indicated that 21-month-old infants can recognize power dynamics, and power differences, little was known – until now – about infants’ ability to distinguish between respect-based power, and fear-based power, leaders, and bullies, competence and tyranny.

For the study, the researchers developed animations depicting various scenarios involving individuals portrayed as bullies, or leaders. Adults (undergraduate students) were tested first, and once they successfully determined the difference between respect-based power and fear-based power, infants were shown the interactive animations.

“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. The character then left the scene and the protagonists either continued to obey or disobeyed,” Renée Baillargeon explained in a press release supplied to the University of Illinois’ News Bureau.

In other words, infants detected no violation when the cartoon protagonists disobeyed the bully, but they detected violation when the protagonists disobeyed the leader. This was confirmed in two separate experiments. The third experiment tested whether the infants were responding to protagonists’ likeability, as opposed to a leader or bully status. The researchers’ main hypothesis was once again confirmed.

Twenty-one-month-old infants expected obedience when the bully remained in the scene, but expected disobedience when the bully left the scene. Furthermore, infants expected obedience when the leader remained in the scene, but also when the leader left the scene. This shows, researchers concluded, that infants have the ability to distinguish between fear-based power and respect-based power. In turn, this means that 21-month-olds can distinguish between competent leaders and bullies.

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