Study Finds Toddlers Enforce Social Norms, Object When People or Puppets Break the Rules

Posted on July 28, 2012

Psychologists have conducted studies that show toddlers can easily identify social norms and will raise objections when they are not followed. Marco Schmidt and Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, along with Hannes Rakoczy of the University of Gottingen, have been conducting studies about children's enforcement of social norms.

Schmidt says, "Social norms are crucial for understanding human social interactions, social arrangements, and human cooperation more generally. But we can only fully grasp the existence of social norms in humans if we look into the cradle."

Schmidt and Tomasello were specifically interested in understanding children's use of a type of norm called constitutive norms. Constitutive norms can be found in many places, but they are especially important in rule games like chess. If you move a pawn backward in a game of chess, you're not just violating a norm by failing to follow a particular convention, you're also not playing the game everyone has agreed upon. You're simply not playing chess.

In one study, children, aged 2 and 3 watched a puppet, who announced that she would now "dax." The puppet proceeded to perform an action that was different from what the children had seen an adult refer to as "daxing" earlier. Some of the children did not like that the puppet was daxing incorrectly. Many of the children objected to this rule violation and the 3-year-olds specifically made norm-based objections, such as "It doesn't work like that. You have to do it like this."

In another study, the researchers found that children only enforce game norms on members of their own cultural in-group - for example, people who speak the same language. These results suggest that children understand that "our group" falls within the scope of the norm and can be expected to respect it. Research also shows that children don't need explicit teaching from adults to see an action as following a social norm; they only need to see that adults expect things to work a certain way.

Tomasello says, "Every parent recognizes this kind of behavior - young children insisting that people follow the rules - but what is surprising is how sophisticated children are in calibrating their behavior to fit the circumstances."

An article about the studies was published here in the August 2012 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.