By Alex Fradera
Every child is born into a world far more complex than the womb it departed. Physically it’s made up of objects, distances, heights, which we know new-born infants are already oriented to read and make sense of. But their new world is also a social one, chock-full of agents with needs and intentions, and past findings show that infants are surprisingly quick to recognise much of this too. New research in PNAS adds to this literature, investigating the ability to make an important social distinction – between those who hold power due to respect and those who impose it through force – and finds that already by the time they are toddlers, infants can do this too.
Past evidence showed that infants in the first year of life can view situations and recognise who is likely to hold power. They are more surprised (we know this because they pay attention for longer) when a smaller figure bosses a bigger one about, or a lone figure controls someone with companions, than when the opposite is true. Infants also seem to grasp that power lasts over time, looking longer when someone who used to be obeyed is suddenly defied.
A research team led by Francesco Margoni of the University of Trento, wanted to see if this sensitivity to power extended to telling between its two major types – legitimate power (e.g. when someone is chosen to be leader or has natural talents) and power based on bullying and inciting fear. We know that these types of power have different implications: fear-based power is resented and can lead to acts of disobedience when possible. Do infants have a sense of this?
To find out, Margoni’s team recruited 96 healthy infants – average age 20-24 months; a balance of sexes – and presented them with a series of cartoony videos (see examples below). One set began with three figures playing with a ball who are visited by a leader wearing a flamboyant hat and wielding a stick that it used to strike the floor, triggering a greeting ritual involving the ball-players bowing and murmuring reverently (intended to show this leader was respected).
Next, the leader told the other characters it was time for bed, led them into a house, and left. At this point the study forked, and the infants either saw the subordinates closing their eyes, thus obeying the leader, or they watched a different clip where the ball-playing characters exited the house back to their game area. These two 15-second climaxes looped until the infant lost interest.
On average, the infants looked significantly longer at the version of the story involving disobedience, suggesting that already at this age, the infants did not expect a respected leader to be disobeyed.
Other infants viewed a similar series of videos with a crucial difference: the cue for where the visiting leader was drawing their power. Instead of using their stick for a greeting ritual, this bully visitor used it to strike each of the other characters on the head. Margoni’s team were interested in what the infants would make of disobedience towards this kind of bullying leader. In fact the infants’ looking times were similar whether the subordinate characters did as they were told or disobeyed, suggesting they did not find disobeying a bully at all surprising.
Follow-up experiments showed the main findings were unaffected by whether or not the leader wore a giant hat (implying that the size of the leader figure wasn’t the determining factor). Nor were the effects due to the bully being seen as ineffectual: when another video showed the bully staying in the room, infants now found disobedience surprising. Even though the bully was outnumbered, the infants still expected what the bully said to be law… at least for those within reach of the stick.
One last possibility was that the infants expected compliance to the leader figure because they seemed nice, not because they seemed powerful. So the researchers introduced a visitor who was friendly but had no obvious power. Now the infants were more surprised when the ball-playing characters did obey, quite the opposite effect to that found with the respected leader.
This research suggests that we understand power relations at a surprisingly young age. The infant mind can read legitimate power and distinguish it from tyranny, understanding not merely who is in charge, but why. Even toddlers recognise that the iron fist holds the most tenuous grip on power.