A new study suggests that even toddlers know the difference between an authentic leader and a bully—and they're willing to defy the bully if they can safely do so. The study out of the University of Illinois and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences analyzed the reactions of about 100 toddlers aged 20 to 22 months to animated scenarios. The kids watched videos in which a group of characters were told to go to bed by a respected leader or a violent bully, reports CTV News. The toddlers expected the characters to follow the leader's orders and expressed surprise when they didn't, even if the leader disappeared. They also expected the characters to follow the bully's orders—but they showed no surprise when the characters disobeyed if the bully was no longer present.
The study shows that "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," says lead researcher Renee Baillargeon. The researchers gauged the children's reactions by studying how long they stared, a previously documented way to understand whether an event syncs with their expectations. The more something doesn't jibe for them, the longer they'll stare, per a release at Eureka Alert. The study tested a third scenario, too, one in which the characters were told to go to bed by a nice but apparently powerless figure. "The infants expected the protagonists to disobey, most likely because the character held no power over them," says Baillargeon. (Read more bullying stories.)