Learning from Infants: What this Study on Allegiance Teaches Us About Group Formation and Inclusion in the Workplace

Summary of:

Pun, A., Birch, S., & Baron, A. (2021). The power of allies: Infants’ expectations of social obligations during intergroup conflict. Cognition, 211. https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0010027721000494

Background & Theory

Social allegiances are a crucial aspect of human social life, such that they are part of the group formation process and justify the expectation that when one member is threatened by an opposing group, members of the same group will come to their aid. The researchers sought to study this phenomenon in the context of infants in terms of their expectations of social allegiance since they are a group that haven’t experienced any intergroup conflict before.

Research Question(s)

The researchers attempted to answer the following question:

    1. Do infants view social groups as social allegiances, and consequently, expect ingroup members to provide support to one another during intergroup conflict?


The researchers did three identical experiments, where the age groups of the infants differed. In experiment 1, they were 17-19 months old, in experiment 2, they were 9-13 months old.

In Experiment 1, 36 infants were recruited where each participant was seated on the lap of their caregiver in a soundproof testing room. They were made to view a series of animations that depicted third-party interactions between members of two opposing social groups. Infants’ looking times to the outcomes of the two test trials were recorded.

This looking time was indicative of the surprise they experienced when the intervening agent helps an outgroup member (Unexpected Outcome), compared to when they help an ingroup member (Expected Outcome) in the animation series. The authors believed that if infants expect members of the same group to be part of a social allegiance and help each other during a conflict, then infants should be more surprised and look longer.


The authors found that infants expect members from the same group to intervene and help an ingroup member accomplish their goal, as allegiances often form to defend each other against rival groups.

9–13-month-olds looked significantly longer to the Unexpected Outcome trial, in which the intervening agent helped an outgroup member compared with the Expected Outcome trial, in which the intervening agent helped their ingroup member. These findings suggest that within the first year of life, infants use social allegiances to predict how individuals within a group are obligated to behave towards one another.

This study hence confirms that infants have an abstract expectation of social group obligation that group members should uphold, and making third-party judgments about social group behavior, that is not influenced by a “like me” or “ingroup” preference or bias.

How This Translates for the Workplace

  1. Allegiance and Allies– This study points to the expectation of infants regarding group behavior and how they develop a sense of ethics at a young age. At the workplace, there may be different kinds of groups forming based on identifying who the in-group or out-group is, department or team-wise, and therefore reactions to such task can vary if employees can expect allegiance or defense by an ally. Ideally, there should be a sense of allegiance amongst departments or teams, which points to the next recommendation.
  2. Improving Inclusion– Since the groups in the animation series were not indicative of any particular group or cultural identity, it showed that infants were still able to have an idea of in-group, out-group, and expect allegiance. In the workplace, however, social and cultural identities are rarely hidden, and group allegiance may be tied to this bias of cultural in-group. In order to mitigate this, the management must invest in diversity and inclusion training so as to nudge allyship and allegiance regardless of social or cultural identity. We at PPS offer training for workplaces in diversity, inclusion, as well as conflict resolution. Contact us to make your workplace more inclusive!

Anupriya Kukreja

Anupriya Kukreja is a graduate in Political Science and Psychology from Ashoka University in India. She has interned at Hospitals in their psychology departments and worked at reputed policy organizations, as well as been an Albright Fellow at Wellesley College. At PPS, she examines the latest research in international conflict and writes about how such methods may apply to conflict in the workplace. She is also a part of APA Division 48’s official Newsletter "The Peace Psychologist’s" editorial team. Her long-term career goal is to apply the lens of Behaviour science to Public Policy, Conflict Resolution, and Organizational Transformation.


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