It’s well-known that humans have evolved to rely on leaders to settle grievances in their social group. A new study shows this expectation appears in children as young as 17 months.
The discovery builds on evidence that young children understand social hierarchies and power dynamics, says lead researcher Renee Baillargeon, from the University of Illinois, US.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, involved showing 120 infants a series of interactions between puppets.
The performers were three bears with female voices who played a protagonist, wrongdoer and victim.
First, leadership status was determined. In one condition, the protagonist issued commands that the other bears obeyed, establishing the bear as a leader. In the other, the bears ignored the commands, signalling non-leadership.
Then the infants were shown the main event. In each play, the protagonist produced two toys for the others to share, but one bear grabbed both toys.
In both conditions – with a leader or non-leader – the protagonist either intervened by taking one of the toys from the wrongdoer and giving it to the victim or did nothing.
To determine the infants’ evaluation of the protagonist’s behaviour the researchers measured how long they looked at this bear while events took place – looking at it longer would indicate that their expectations were violated.
“By tracking how long children stare at different events, we gain insights into what they think,” explains first author Maayan Stavans, from Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Results showed that when the leader did not intervene, the infants consistently looked at this bear longer, suggesting they expected it to do something. They also stared at the victim longer as if there was something about this bear that explained why the leader failed to do anything.
They did not do this with the non-leader, therefore didn’t seem to expect them to fix the transgression.
This finding “echoes research showing that adults associate leaders with role responsibilities, including within-group conflict resolution,” Stavans says.
Evolutionary psychologists believe that humans learned to survive by gathering together to address collective problems like food and safety.
Individuals who were stronger, more skilled, intelligent or experienced naturally took charge by coordinating group efforts and resolving conflicts and were accepted and respected as leaders.
Stavans says they think it’s “quite remarkable that infants in the second year of life hold role-expectations about leaders’ responsibility towards their followers”.
“But given that parents and other authority figures have a great impact on children’s thinking,” she adds, “the best we can do is make sure we’re behaving in ways consistent with these early expectations.”
Stavans sees links with the global student protest movement, led by Norway’s Greta Thunberg, about political inaction on climate change.
“One of the reasons we can so easily empathise with Greta Thunberg and the student movement she has initiated is that we share the expectations that she voices about leaders having responsibilities towards their followers,” says Stavans.
“Our research suggests that these expectations are already evident in very young minds, before they can voice them. So, in a sense, we all have a little Greta Thunberg in our minds.”
Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct senior research fellow with the University of South Australia.
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