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Infants can identify a bully by age two, study finds

A new study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has found that young children can tell the difference between a leader and a bully before they are two years old. The research demonstrated that 21-month-old infants were able to distinguish between respect-based power and fear-based power.

The experts analyzed the eye-gazing behavior of infants, which is a standard method of measuring expectations in children that are too young to explain what they are thinking. This approach, which is known as the “violation-of-expectation” method, is based on the understanding that infants stare longer at events that go against their expectations.

According to study author Professor Renee Baillargeon, previous studies have revealed that infants can recognize power differences between two or more characters.

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

To investigate, Professor Baillargeon developed a series of animations which showed cartoon characters interacting with an individual who was portrayed as either a bully, a leader, or a likeable person with no evident power. She measured the eye-gazing behavior of infants as they watched the cartoons.

“In one experiment, the infants watched a scenario in which a character was portrayed either as a leader or a bully gave an order (“Time for bed!”) to three protagonists, who initially obeyed,” said Professor Baillargeon. “The character then left the scene and the protagonists either continued to obey or disobeyed.”

The trial revealed that infants detected a violation when the protagonists disobeyed the leader, but not when they disobeyed the bully. This was also found to be the case in a second trial that repeated the same scenario, but this time the leader and the bully had the same appearance.

A third trial tested whether the infants were responding to the likeability of the characters instead of their status as leaders or bullies.

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

The research confirms earlier studies showing that infants can detect differences in power between individuals and expect those differences to endure over time, explained Professor Baillargeon.

“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.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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