Infants expect leaders to right wrongs, and are surprised when they don’t

Infants look to leaders to keep the peace, a new study finds.


Image via Pixabay.

Humans are very social creatures. Living in a group, however, invariably gives rise to some tension, conflict, and misdemeanor — and someone has to fix it. We have an innate understanding (and expectation) that this ‘someone’ is the leader of the group or some other kind of authority figure. New research shows that this understanding is baked into our hardware and that infants as young as 17 months of age expect leaders — but not others — to intervene when one member of their group transgresses against another.

I’m telling!

“We know that adults expect the leaders of social groups to intervene to stop within-group transgressions,” said Maayan Stavans, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Infant Cognition Lab and the paper’s lead author. “We wanted to know how early those expectations appear in human development, so we examined the question in very young children.”

The research was carried out in the lab of Renée Baillargeon, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois who led the research. The results add to a growing body of evidence showing that children have a well-developed understanding of social and power dynamics by their second year of life.

The team used a well-established method to gain insight into the reasoning of the children, who were too young to adequately express themselves verbally: infants tend to stare longer at events that develop in a way they didn’t expect, the team explains.

“By tracking how long children stare at different events, we gain insight into what they think,” Stavans said.

For the first two runs of the experiment, the researchers worked with 120 infants who sat comfortably in their parents’ laps and were shown a puppet play. These short skits involved bear puppets in two different scenarios: one involving a protagonist bear that two other bears treated as a leader, and the other a protagonist bear that appeared to have no authority over the other two bears. In both scenarios, the protagonist gave the other two bears toys for them to share, but one puppet quickly grabbed both for itself. Next, the protagonist would either rectify this (by redistributing the toys) or ignored the transgression (by approaching each bear without redistributing a toy).

“The scenarios differed in the status of the protagonist — was she a leader or not? — and in the protagonist’s response to the transgression — did she rectify the situation or ignore it?” Baillargeon said.

She explains that infants “stared longer” when the leader-protagonist ignored the wrongdoing rather than rectify it. This suggests they were expecting the leader to step up and intervene to right the injustice, and were surprised when it didn’t. The infants also stared for longer at the bear who took the toys than the victim bear when the leader ignored the event, likely to see what caused the leader’s reluctance to intervene.

On the other hand, the infants didn’t appear to show any surprise when the protagonist wasn’t a leader and didn’t address the wrongdoing. Infants consistently stared longer when leaders failed to act against wrongdoers, Stavans said. “But they held no particular expectation for intervention from nonleaders.”

In the third round of the experiment, one of the bears announced that it didn’t want a toy, and the other bear took both toys. In this case, the leader would either intervene to redistribute the toys or let the arrangement stand. The infants stared longer when the leader intervened to make sure that each bear had one toy.

“It was as if the infants understood that in this case there was no transgression, so they viewed it as overbearing for the leader to redistribute one of the toys to a bear who had made it clear she didn’t want one,” Stavans said.

“We knew from previous work that children this age have specific ideas about how followers will behave toward their leaders,” Baillargeon says. “Now we see that they also have complementary expectations about how leaders will behave toward their followers.”

The paper “Infants expect leaders to right wrongs” has been published in the journal PNAS.

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