Despite their tiny brains being only half the size of an adult’s, babies remain an underestimated intellectual power. Their cognitive functioning improves rapidly, with the cerebellum—the part of the brain responsible for movement—growing by 110 percent in the first three months alone. More than 100 billion neurons are packed into their softball-sized noggins to help facilitate development.

A new study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences from researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has illustrated just how potent all that neurological activity can be. As the Atlanta Journal-Constitution highlights, in a controlled experiment, infants could distinguish between benevolent leadership and fear-mongering bullies.

In the study, 96 infants aged 21 months were exposed to a series of cartoon sequences that depicted an assertive leader, a bully, and an individual with no apparent influence ordering three characters to go to bed. (The leader was denoted by having the subordinate characters bow; the “bully” smacked them with a stick.) The children watched as the characters either listened to their guardian or disobeyed by remaining awake. The infants appeared more interested and engaged when the leader’s instructions were disobeyed, while they maintained interest in both the bully being respected and ignored. Both outcomes appeared equally plausible to the kids.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

How can researchers really know what infants are processing? By using a technique called the “violation of expectation.” While babies can’t verbally articulate their feelings, researchers can collect insight by studying their eye gaze, which holds when something is capturing their attention. When a baby observes an event that contradicts their expectations, they tend to stare at it for longer periods of time. In this study, when a “leader” was disobeyed, the babies stared because it was an unpredictable event. They anticipated the authority figure would be respected. When the bully’s orders were processed, they stared at both outcomes, suggesting they considered each (obeying the bully to avoid punishment or ignoring the bully because they were now alone) to be plausible.

By anticipating obedience with a leader, disobedience when a bully left the scene, or ignored directions by a third, powerless character, the infants had the ability to recognize different kinds of authority, the study suggests. Because the third character was portrayed as likeable, it didn’t appear that a child’s personal preference for a figure was a factor in their expectations. Even more adorable research will be needed in order to better understand how babies are influenced by supervisors, but it's clear they're noticing a lot more than you might think.

[h/t Atlanta Journal-Constitution]