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Infants can tell the difference between bullies and leaders, study says

While infants’ brains aren’t fully developed by age 2, they can differentiate bullies from leaders, according to a new report. 

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Researchers from the University of Illinois, Champaign recently conducted a study, published in the National Academy of Sciences, to explore babies’ ability to distinguish between different bases of power. 

To do so, they analyzed their eye-gazing behavior, a standard approach for measuring expectations in children too young to explain their thinking to adults. The method is called the “violation of expectation,” and “it relies on the observation that infants stare longer at events that contradict their expectations,” the team explained in a statement.

They used the technique to test how little ones, aged 21 months, responded to a series of scenarios that depicted cartoon characters interacting with an individual portrayed as a leader, bully or likeable person with no evident power. The scientists examined the children’s eye gaze as they watched the animations.

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The participants watched either a leader or bully ordering three protagonists to go to bed. The character left the room, and the protagonists either continued to obey or disobey. 

After observing the subjects, the analyst determined the babies noticed when the protagonists disobeyed the leader but not when they disobeyed the bully. They yielded the same results when they repeated the experiment but eliminated the previous difference in physical appearance between the leader and the bully.

“Infants in the leader condition looked significantly longer at the disobey than at the obey event, suggesting that they expected the protagonists to continue to obey the leader in her absence,” the authors wrote. “In contrast, infants in the bully condition looked equally at the two events, suggesting that they viewed both outcomes as plausible: The protagonists might continue to obey the absent bully to prevent further harm, or they might disobey her because her power over them weakened in her absence.”

The researchers then tested whether the little ones were responding to the likeability of the characters in the scenarios as opposed to their status as leaders or bullies. The team said, “when the likeable character left, the infants expected the protagonists to disobey, most likely because the character held no power over them.”

The scientists acknowledged that previous studies have shown that toddlers can detect differences in power between individual, and they believe their findings provide further evidence. 

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

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