Even Toddlers Can Tell If You're A Likable Leader Or Terrible Tyrant


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockSep 5 2018, 11:00 UTC

Fight the power, kids. EvgeniiAnd/Shutterstock

Next time you yell at some kids to get off your lawn, be warned, they can tell if your authority is just a castle made of sand.

According to new research, kids as young as 21 months old have an understanding of the subtleties of power, especially whether someone's power is deserved and fair or achieved through bullying.


A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has suggested that infants can distinguish between a likable leader, who commands power out of respect, and a bully, who commands power out of fear. Perhaps most interestingly, the kids also expect others to obey the commands of nice leaders even if they’re not there. However, the moment a bully is out of sight, the little rebels quickly pay no attention to their power.

Fight the power, kids.

Of course, psychological studies of infants are extremely tricky to do, not least because they can only express their thoughts through screaming or babbling. So, to delve into the brains of these toddlers, researchers from the University of Illinois and the University of Trento in Italy showed a group of 21-month-old infants a series of cartoon scenarios and analyzed their eye-gazing behavior as they watched.


Using an established “violation-of-expectation” method, the researchers were able to make judgments about how the kids perceived the scenarios and characters based on how the toddlers' eyes moved.

“Infants will stare longer at scenarios where larger characters defer to smaller ones. They also take note when a character who normally wins a confrontation with another suddenly loses,” lead author Professor Renee Baillargeon said in a statement.

“But little was known about infants’ ability to distinguish between different bases of power.”

Example of the cartoons showed to the infants. Renee Baillargeon

To build up an image of whether a character was a bully or a likable leader, the infants were shown two different scenarios involving three protagonists playing with a ball (image above). In one scenario, the likable leader enters the scene and the three protagonists bow to them and hand them their ball. In the second, the “bully” character hits the three protagonists on the head before stealing their ball.

In the following test trials, one cartoon character gave an order saying “Time for bed!” to the three protagonists. The character then left the scene and the protagonists either continued to obey or disobey them. The researchers' findings suggest that the toddlers were totally surprised when the three protagonists disobeyed the leader, but not when they disobeyed the bully.

“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.”

  • tag
  • kids,

  • psychology,

  • social,

  • toddler,

  • leaders,

  • power,

  • human behavior,

  • bully