Children know what makes a leader more than some adults

Even kids get that a real leader puts others' interests first.

girl leading younger child by the hand
Credit: freestocks.org from Pexels
  • 5-year-olds recognize social hierarchies and are aware when others don't contribute their fair share.
  • Children of this age consider someone a leader only when they sacrifice toward achieving the common goal.
  • "Leaders" who take more than they give are considered unacceptable to young children.

    • To some, attaining leadership is like winning the ultimate prize, while for others it represents an opportunity to help. A new study in Child Development finds that young children have a very clear opinion about what makes a leader, and it has nothing to do with arriving at a position of privilege. It turns out 5-year-olds understand the attributes that make someone worthy of being a leader better than lots of adults do, including some powerful people.

      The question at hand

      children sitting on grass

      Credit: Charlein Gracia/Unsplash

      The study was authored by cognitive development post-doc Maayan Stavans of Central European University in Budapest, Hungary and psychologist Gil Diesendruck of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel.

      Children have to learn how to function socially by developing a sense of what they can expect in their interactions with others. When dealing with an adult, certainly the adult assumes a leadership role. However, in groups of children, leaders also emerge. The researchers were interested in exploring how kids feel about, and what they expect of, their leaders.

      We understand how this works for adults with decades of social experience. "In leadership hierarchies," says the study, "individuals show respect and defer freely to those who take charge."

      Grownups will generally accept two types of leaders:

      • Authoritative leaders accept the power to give orders and make decisions for a group, and members of the group are expected to obey them.
      • Prestige leaders are awarded disproportionate benefits, and are not concerned with commanding others.

      The study investigates, on the other hand, what constitutes leadership for a person who is not yet fully socialized and is also likely to be at an especially pragmatic — "Who will feed me? Who will keep me safe?" — stage of life. Young children may thus serve as a sort of tabula rasa through which we can discern signs of how grownups really feel, or maybe should feel, about leadership and authority.

      The study

      experiment setup with toys and bowls

      In the experiments, the person with a hat is the leader.

      Credit: Stavans, et al./Child Development

      The researchers tested 5-to-6-year-old children in particular for a couple of reasons. First off, kids of this age are known to be aware of social hierarchies and leadership roles. Second, they're capable of tracking the contributions of individuals within a group and will withdraw from situations where others aren't doing their part.

      The researchers conducted three experiments. 48 children from local secular Israeli kindergartens participated in the first experiment, 40 in the second, and 48 in the third. In all of the experiments the participants were led through onscreen stories that presented amusement park scenarios exploring:

      • pairs, or dyads, of kids where one member was an authoritative leader
      • entitlement dyads with a prestige, or "entitlement," leader
      • egalitarian dyads of co-equal children

      The story narratives involved the need to contribute coins to activate rides — the children were given physical coins to make the contributions feel more tangible. Decisions were also to be made regarding who got to go on rides, and on which rides.

      Children were allowed to influence the stories at times, and were also presented "actual" narratives onscreen to which their reactions were recorded. For each story, the kids assessed how fairly and effectively the protagonists and/or leaders in a dyad served the attainment of that group's common goal.

      Experiment 1

      In the first experiment, when children experienced egalitarian relationships, they expected that both members would contribute an equal number of coins — kicking in either more or less than one's equal share was unacceptable. For dyads with leaders, those leaders who contributed more than their equal share of coins were seen as acceptable. Leaders who offered fewer were deemed unacceptable. This suggests that to these children, leaders are expected to sacrifice toward a common goal, and that entitlement leaders are not qualified to lead.

      Experiment 2

      The most significant finding of the second experiment was that when one member of a dyad was identified as a leader — without the type of leader being specified — the children assumed that the person was an authoritative leader, with decision-making power and a greater measure of responsibility for achieving the goals of a dyad.

      Experiment 3

      In this experiment, kids were shown supposedly egalitarian relationships were one dyad member kept more coins for themselves. The children adjudged that person to be an entitled leader, and they were none too pleased about it.

      Leadership to the young

      "These findings show that children view leaders as more responsible (not more entitled), relative to non-leaders," Stavans told Bar-Ilan University,

      She adds, "Because children were not asked about familiar kinds of authority figures, such as teachers and parents, nor about situations in their everyday lives, their responses reflect sophisticated ideas about leadership applied to novel protagonists and situations. While impressive, we have yet to understand how children come to think leaders have increased responsibility, at what point do they begin to represent leaders' increased entitlement (as adults do!), and how dependent are these representations on context."

      The authors hope that they study can provide some guidance for adults when dealing with the young ones in their charge. First, by themselves being the leaders children expect. Second, the study highlights a need to help children who eventually begin to convey entitlement upon leaders to understand that these entitlements are valid only when they are rewards for a leader whose responsibilities have been fulfilled.

      Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

      A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

      Photo Credit: HS2
      Culture & Religion
      • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
      • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
      • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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      Are we really addicted to technology?

      Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

      Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
      Technology & Innovation

      This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

      In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

      But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

      In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

      Popularizing medical language

      What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

      To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

      If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

      LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

      "Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

      "We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

      "These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

      The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

      "If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

      Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

      But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

      Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

      In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

      "That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

      "Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

      Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

      Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

      "It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

      Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

      People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

      JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

      There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

      For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

      "For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

      "Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

      In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

      "None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

      "I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

      Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

      "The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

      "And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

      This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

      "Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

      Learned helplessness

      The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

      "The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

      So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

      "A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

      Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

      "If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

      But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

      For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

      Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

      The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

      According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

      Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
      Strange Maps
      • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
      • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
      • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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