Bullying is an issue that many kids confront while in their young school years—but even parents can identify toddler-sized bullies at the neighborhood playground sandbox. As it turns out, new research reveals that babies can spot bullies, too. Here’s what this fascinating study had to say on the topic—and how researchers came to such a surprising finding.

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that 21-month-old babies were able to distinguish between respected leadership and fear-inducing bullies. The researchers compiled their data based on infants’ eye gaze when they were faced with certain animated scenarios.

Photo: Alex Smith via Pexels

Previous studies had analyzed how babies reacted to the power dynamic between two or more individuals, but this study wanted to answer the question of whether infants were able to distinguish between power wielded by fear versus respect. The experiments involved presenting the infants with animated scenarios to see how they responded when characters followed the directions of a respected leader versus a bully.

“In general, when the leader left the scene, the infants expected the protagonists to continue to obey the leader,” said Renee Baillargeon, a University of Illinois Psychology Alumni Distinguished Professor who conducted the study. “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.”

The findings show that even early an infant’s second year of life, they can tell the difference between leaders and bullies. Baillargeon explained, “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.” (A subtle, but important distinction.)

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—Shahrzad Warkentin

 

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