Three-year-olds quickly absorb social norms. They even understand behaviors as governed by rules that are not subject to any norms and insist that others adhere to these self-inferred “norms”, finds a study by Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich, the psychologist Marco FH Schmidt.
Children should say “hello” and “thank you”, share, and not grab anyone’s bucket from their hand. From an early age, they learn from adults the rules that determine daily social interactions. These standards are like a “social glue” and have played a key role in the evolution and maintenance of human cooperation and culture, says Dr Marco FH Schmidt, head of the “Origins of the development of normativity” research group human “at LMU Munich. With his team, he studies from what age and how young children develop an understanding of norms and what psychological and motivational mechanisms allow this development.
In a study recently published in the journal Psychological Sciences, Marco FH Schmidt, together with Lucas P. Butler (assistant professor at the University of Maryland), Julia Heinz and Professor Michael Tomasello (co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig), now shows that three-year-olds not only learn social norms from direct instruction and prohibition – as is traditionally assumed, but also research the norms themselves – even inferring them where adults don’t. do not see any. “Preschoolers very quickly understand individual behaviors and the spontaneous actions of others as generalizable, rule-based and constraining,” says Schmidt.
Intimate relationship with social norms
In this study, which Schmidt led at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, from where he transferred to LMU in October 2015, the developmental psychologist observed in three-year-old children spontaneous actions of adults. In one situation, the children saw an unfamiliar person take out tools and other items from their bag and, in another variation, even unnecessary items from a garbage bag. The person then spontaneously performed a brief and targeted action with these objects, without commenting. For example, a piece of bark was pulled along the table a bit with a branch. In other variants, the same action was carried out spontaneously with a minimum of pedagogy (with the call “Look!”) Or involuntarily (with a loud “Oops!”). Regardless of what the children saw: they judged singular, spontaneous and seemingly aimless behavior to be generalizable and absolutely right – provided it was not unintentional based on their observation. They even expected another person to do the exact same thing and would protest when that person did something different with the objects, thus violating the “social norm” inferred by the children. “Preschoolers are making the mistake originally pointed out by Scottish philosopher David Hume of deriving what should be from what is. This is even the case when they have observed a single action only once, and nothing suggests an underlying norm. or the rule, ”says Schmidt. “Thus, these results suggest that, even without direct instruction, young children draw far-reaching conclusions about the social world in which they live,” says Lucas P. Butler.
From a psychological point of view, according to Schmidt, this fundamental tendency manifested by children from an early age to perceive the social world as inherently normative and governed by rules, could be the expression of their motivation to do things together. , identify with their cultural group and acquire cultural knowledge. “Perhaps it is our common ‘intimate relationship’ with social norms that maintains the unity of human societies at their core,” says Marco FH Schmidt.
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