How Children's Evaluations Change Based on a Leader's Conforming or Nonconforming Behaviors

kids put arms around each other

Members of a societal group put trust in their leaders to act in line with certain values and political stances a group embodies. When leaders conform to the prescribed norms of their core group, conceivably their standing is maintained. Any violation of these prescriptive group norms can be viewed negatively. Psychologists today are studying the social processes behind leaders’ conformity or nonconformity to their core group’s ideals. More specifically, researchers at UMass Amherst examined points in a child’s development when their opinions about a leader’s actions start to form and change.

Yuchen Tian in a garden
Yuchen Tian

In a new study by PhD Student Yuchen Tian, UMass Amherst, and Assistant Professor Lin Bian, University of Chicago, children from ages 4-11 from the United States and China evaluated leaders versus nonleaders violations of group norms. They also examined in what manner beliefs of how leaders should conform shifted across a child’s development. Additionally, the team wanted to see if there were any differences between U.S. and Chinese children’s evaluations of leaders’ nonconformity. This work was funded by the Cornell China Center and an NSF Career grant (to Dr. Lin Bian).

Children from the U.S. and China participated in the study online. They were introduced to the experiment by being shown two novel groups named the hibbles and the glerks. Each group wore a certain type of outfit (i.e., green stripes, orange triangles). The subject was then keyed into some group norms like eating a certain type of berry or speaking a certain language. Next a target individual was described to the child as either a leader, “This hibble is powerful and in charge of other hibbles. Every day, this hibble decides how many cookies to give to other hibbles.” Or a nonleader “This hibble has the same power as other hibbles. Every day, this hibble and other hibbles, receive cookies to eat.”

The team tested how prescriptive norms (unwritten rules that are understood and followed by society and indicate typical behaviors) could be broken by having a group leader or nonleader eat a different kind of berry, speak a different language, or listen to the favorite music of the alternate group. The subject was then prompted to evaluate the behavior of the leader or nonleader, whether they thought it was good or bad that they were nonconforming.

“I remember that when I was in elementary school, I really aspired to be the class monitor. So, I felt like kids would be sensitive to leadership. Today, we see economic inequality widening every day and across all cultures. It’s a very important social issue and it’s not only at the society level, but also within social organizations, companies, or small groups. There are hierarchical structures everywhere, so I think this topic is really interesting,” conveys Tian.

The researchers theorized that Chinese children would be more sensitive to group leaders’ violation of group norms due to a strong emphasis on group harmony and social relations in Chinese culture. Children from the U.S. were envisioned being more likely to think about the innovative aspects of being group leader, possibly reacting more positively to a leader who does something different from the norm in the name of progress or innovation.

kids raise hands togetherThe results of this first experiment found that for kids aged 4-7, they gave a more positive evaluation of group leader’s non-conforming behaviors compared to an ordinary group member’s non-conforming behaviors. The researchers were questioning whether it was because of the positive bias that kids usually have for high-powered people, so a second experiment was performed with the same age group. This time kids evaluated a leader's conforming behaviors versus a group member’s conforming behaviors. “We found that they didn't make any difference in evaluation between these two conditions, which means that it was only when the kids were evaluating the non-conforming behaviors that they showed a positive bias for the leader,” says Tian.

Older kids aged 10 and 11 made more negative evaluations of leader’s non-conforming behaviors compared to an ordinary group member’s non-conforming behaviors. So, this age group was harsher towards a group leader, meaning they believed leaders should follow group norms more strictly.

Tian suggests, “at this point in their age, kids observe in their daily life group members taking on more group responsibility. For example, kids are serving as a class monitor, are helping their teacher with class work, or something like that so they're more sensitive to the responsibility that a leader should take. They believe that a group leader should be a prototypical group member who should follow group norms without breaking these norms for their own benefit.

“But for younger kids, it’s totally different. They perceive that power brings people freedom—if you are a leader, you can do what you want with more freedom. With age kids tend to think that if you are leader, you must take responsibility.”

It turns out that the researchers did not find cross-cultural differences in leader expectations and preconceptions. Across the U.S. and China, the developmental trend of these two conditions were similar.

Tian states, “We believe that by gaining a deeper understanding of children's leadership cognition, we will better know what ‘group leaders’ means in kids' minds and which traits people possess that will make them more likely to be selected as group leader. By unveiling the development of children's expectations for a good leader, we hope to see educational programs arise that help children build their own leadership skills and learn how to better lead now and in the future, from a small group to political entity.”

Tian would like to continue her cross-cultural research on leadership in group contexts, especially to what degree children expect leaders to be innovative. For her dissertation, Tian is exploring how kids think about social status, economic inequality, and specifically social mobility (change in a person's socio-economic situation). She wants to understand whether children are aware of the disparity in upward social mobility across different social groups and cultures.