Washington: Infants can distinguish between respect-based power asserted by a leader and fear-based power wielded by a bully, a study has found.
The study, published in the journal PNAS, analyzed infants' eye-gazing behavior, a standard approach for measuring expectations in children too young to explain their thinking to adults.
This "violation-of-expectation" method relies on the observation that infants stare longer at events that contradict their expectations.
Previous studies had shown that infants can recognize power differences between two or more characters, said Renee Baillargeon, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the US.
"For example, infants will stare longer at scenarios where larger characters defer to smaller ones," Baillargeon said.
"They also take note when a character who normally wins a confrontation with another suddenly loses," she said.
Baillargeon developed a series of animations depicting cartoon characters interacting with an individual portrayed as a leader, a bully or a likable person with no evident power.
She first tested how adults responded to the scenarios and found that the adults identified the characters as intended. Next, she measured the eye-gazing behavior of infants as they watched the same animations.
"In one experiment, the infants watched a scenario in which a character portrayed either as a leader or a bully gave an order to three protagonists, who initially obeyed," Baillargeon said.
"The character then left the scene and the protagonists either continued to obey or disobeyed," she said.
The infants detected a violation when the protagonists disobeyed the leader but not when they disobeyed the bully, Baillargeon found.
This was true also in a second experiment that repeated the scenarios but eliminated previous differences in physical appearance between the leader and the bully.
A third experiment tested whether the infants were responding to the likeability of the characters in the scenarios, rather than to 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," Baillargeon said.
"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," said Baillargeon.