Leader or Bully? A Baby’s Intuition

Bullying is one of the major problems kids face right from infancy. (Image:  libreshot /  CC0 1.0)
Bullying is one of the major problems kids face right from infancy. (Image: libreshot / CC0 1.0)

Bullying is one of the major problems kids face right from infancy. Introverted children are especially at risk of being picked on by more aggressive kids, which can cause long-term psychological and behavioral damage. Although it was believed that children only start understanding the difference between a bully and a leader later on in life, a new study suggests that kids are able to distinguish between the two right from three years of age.  

Bullies and leaders

The study was conducted by Renee Baillargeon, a psychology professor at the University of Illinois. Ninety-six infants were part of the study in which the kids were made to watch a series of cartoons that had three protagonists and a character that was presented either as a leader or a bully. The researchers tracked the movements of the children’s eyes to understand their ability to distinguish between a bully and a leader.

The team discovered that babies could identify a bully even before they gained the ability to talk. And the key to their ability to differentiate between both of them was fear.

“In general, when the leader left the scene, the infants expected the protagonists to continue to obey the leader. 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,” the Daily Mail quotes the researcher.

The U.S. has adopted the most Chinese children in the world. (Image: Anja Disseldorp via flicker / CC BY 2.0 )

The team discovered that babies could identify a bully even before they gained the ability to talk. (Image: Anja Disseldorp via flicker / CC BY 2.0 )

The research shows the difference between how bullies and leaders work. While a bully makes someone follow his commands by instilling fear in them, a leader is able to command by being inspirational and respectable. While the child will unwillingly follow the bully out of their own powerlessness, they will follow the leader willingly even when the leader is weaker than them because of the respect they have for the leader.  

The relationship between bullying and leadership

Despite the clear difference between bullying and leadership, they are curiously intertwined in some of the highly successful people. A study by the University of Buffalo looked at how well bullies with excellent social skills do at their jobs. What the researchers found was a bit unsettling.

“Socially skilled bullies are quick to identify weaknesses in others and use that knowledge to manipulate people to get favorable results. Not only that, they’re talented at hiding their negative behaviors from upper management,” Bullying Epidemic concludes from the findings of the study.

While a bully makes someone follow his commands by instilling fear in them, a leader is able to command by being inspirational and respectable. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

So, an employee who likes to bully people and has excellent social skills will likely discover the people in the organization who are prone to obey bullies and psychologically manipulate them to do his or her bidding. And with the rest of the people whom he believes will not fall prey to his bullying, the employee will use his positive social skills to create a good impression. As a consequence, socially skilled bullies tend to do exceptionally well at work.

While this study was conducted on adults, it is still applicable to children. Even in schools, there are bullies who frighten studious kids to do their homework while remaining friends with other popular kids. Though this behavior may be impossible to change on a large scale, what can be done is to properly train vulnerable kids so that they can avoid being manipulated by bullies. This will also help them when they grow up and enter the workforce.

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