Study reveals there's "more than meets the eye" to how children see leadership

University of Alabama assistant professor Peter Harms looked at how fantasy-based stories can shape a child’s idea of what defines being a leader by examining the 1980's popular animated series, Transformers. (Courtesy photo)
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July 14, 2015 - 6:44am

Is there a link between what kids watch on TV and the type of person they'll grow up to be? NET News’ Ben Bohall talks with a former University of Nebraska-Lincoln and current University of Alabama assistant professor who is the author of a recent study taking a somewhat unorthodox approach to answer that question. 


Peter Harms- an assistant professor of management at University of Alabama, and formerly of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has done his fair share of unique research. Ranging from the psychological effects of extended space travel on astronauts- to how brain parasites cause leadership.

For this study, Harms wanted to look at how fantasy-based stories can shape a child’s idea of what defines being a leader. And he chose to do so by examining the popular 1980's animated series "Transformers".

NET NEWS: Why Transformers, in particular?

PROFESSOR PETER HARMS, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA: The show itself is conveying lessons about how society should be, about how leaders should be, how we should act as followers; and what is good and what is bad. It’s very cartoonish - the good people do certain things and the bad people do certain things - but it conveys a larger messages to us. Leaders should be honest and they should be loyal. You think of Optimus Prime. They should be intelligent and willing to self-sacrifice. One of the interesting things we found when looking at the structure of these organizations was the Autobots were very egalitarian in terms of their rankings. Optimus Prime wasn’t really putting himself up above his followers; whereas Megatron, the leader of the Decepticons, was absolutely doing that and trying to put distance between himself and the others by insulting them and berating them. What children are supposed to take away from that is this is what you would expect a good leader to do. And this is what a bad leader does, and you shouldn’t be like that. So it’s conveying societal values to you in very much the same way we’ve done with myths and folklore throughout time.

NET NEWS: Were there certain moral characteristics or traits that did factor in? As you were just saying, when I think of Transformers, I think of the Autobots being the good guys and the Decepticons as the bad guys. But you still had a leadership structure in both factions.

PROFESSOR PETER HARMS: One thing we found that was really interesting was the factor we measured, which was “courage.” It didn’t seem to predict leadership at all. We thought it should for the Autobots because they sort of need to display it. In the opening episode, one of the characters says to Optimus Prime, ‘We’re not fighters. We don’t stand a chance against these guys.’ They’re all basically civilians who are sort of drafted into this war where they’re defending humans, animals, and the environment against these brutal thugs. Courage is really important for them. They exemplify it on a regular basis. We ended up actually finding that although courage didn’t factor in terms of who became their leader, in fact, all the Autobots displayed substantially more courage than the Decepticons did. The values of courage, loyalty, honesty, and integrity certainly played a role in terms of what the show was telling us, what it means to be a good person and a good follower.

NET NEWS: What has this shown you and your colleagues in terms of what we can take from popular culture narratives as children?

PROFESSOR PETER HARMS: It’s hard to say how strong it is. I think the ones where they create an emotional connection do have a lasting effect. My co-author, Seth, talks about how he cried when he watched the Transformers movie and Optimus Prime died. It was like losing a family member for him. Those ones matter, but I think as parents and people who are making decisions as far as what our children watch, you have to think, ‘what are the values being conveyed here? Are these my values?’ It’s not just entertainment. It’s not the only force that shapes your person but it definitely is a force that shapes the mindsets of your children… Go out, sit down, watch some shows with your kids. Have a thought about what the underlying message is. Maybe even sit down with the family and discuss. What did that mean? What did we learn from this? We can learn from even the silliest of things sometimes.

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