A new study from a Canadian researcher has found that infants can distinguish between true leaders and bullies.

“There was already research showing that babies kind of understand power relations,” the study’s senior author, Dr. Renee Baillargeon, told CTVNews.ca. “We wanted to know whether babies would be able to distinguish between two types of social power; whether they would understand that there are leaders that are respected and obeyed… and there are bullies who (are) maybe obeyed out of fear.”

Baillargeon is a Quebec-born psychologist and University of Illinois professor who specializes in infant cognition and development.

In the study, which was recently published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Baillargeon and her team presented nearly 100 infants, aged 20 to 22 months, with several animated videos that depicted a respected leader telling a group of characters to go to bed and a violent bully who does the same. In some of those videos, the leaders or bullies stuck around to see if their commands were being followed. In others, they left after issuing their orders. In some scenarios, moreover, the characters followed the commands while in others they did not.

To gauge the infants’ responses to each video, Baillargeon and her team analyzed their eye behaviour.

“We took advantage of one of babies’ natural responses, which is to look longer at events that are puzzling to them,” she said. “So babies tend to look longer at events that are puzzling as opposed to events that are just what they expected.”

The infants, Baillargeon concluded, expected the characters to follow the respected leader’s orders, regardless of whether or not they were present to see them through, and they also expressed surprise when the characters didn’t listen. The infants, moreover, expected the characters to follow the bully’s orders when they were present, but interestingly, they also expressed no surprise when the characters disobeyed absent bullies.

“Previous work has shown that… babies can tell the difference between someone who acts nicely and someone who acts not nicely,” Baillargeon explained. “And what our study does is kind of extend that to say, when someone beats you up, that person has some power over you in the sense that you may be afraid of them, and you may do what they say when they’re around and could harm you, but of course when they leave then you’ll do what you want.”

The study, Baillargeon argues, gives us a glimpse into the basis of human morality -- and it also offers lessons to parents and early childhood educators.

“A number of researchers… have suggested that human babies are born with a number of moral principles that guide their expectations about how individuals will act toward each other,” she said.

Those principles include fairness, in-group support and authority.

“There’s a very common idea that young children don’t understand authority and have to be taught,” Baillargeon added. “But what our study shows is… when someone has legitimate power, you have to respect and obey. And of course children may not obey because their self-interest says, ‘That’s not what I want to do now, I don’t want to go to bed,’ but you can remind them of what they know. You’re not really teaching them fairness or authority -- they already are born with these very abstract ideas, they know what those are -- you just have to remind them of what they know and sort of help them kind of keep their self-interest in check.”

Working with infants, Baillargeon adds, can also teach us a lot more about the current state of our world.

“Babies do have rich expectations about leaders and it’s so interesting when you look at the world we live in to think about, (if) this is what babies expect leaders to do, how well do our leaders measure up on what they’re expected to do?” she said. “Are they more along the bully side, or are they more along the leader side who care for their group and are willing to sacrifice themselves for their group?”