Developmental psychology: Even small children look for social rules in their behavior

Even young children understand behaviors as social norms
The psyche of children always presents science with special riddles, the deciphering of which sometimes also provides insights into the basics of human coexistence. In a recent study, scientists found that children search for norms and codes of conduct early on. They derive this from the behavior of their fellow human beings at the age of three. Misconduct is sometimes interpreted as a social norm.

According to the information provided by the Ludwig Maximillians University in Munich (LMU), children are overzealously looking for social rules. Even three-year-olds could quickly grasp social norms. However, behaviors are sometimes understood as being guided by the rules that are not, and the children then insist that these self-imposed “norms” are observed, reports the LMU psychologist Dr. Marco F. H. Schmidt. The pursuit of social rules could ultimately be a decisive factor in human coexistence, the scientists suspect. The researchers published their results in the journal "Psychological Science".

Social norms derived from behaviors
According to the LMU psychologist Marco Schmidt, preschool children already derive rules from individual behaviors and spontaneous actions by others. Many rules are conveyed to the little ones through verbal do's and don'ts, such as saying "hello" or "thank you". The children should also learn to share and "just don't take the shovel from someone's hand in the sandpit," the researchers explain. The essential rules are taught to them early on by adults. Such norms form a kind of "social glue" and play an important role in the emergence and maintenance of human cooperation and culture, according to Dr. Marco Schmidt.

Children independently looking for norms
In a current study, the research team investigated when and how toddlers develop an understanding of standards and which psychological and motivational mechanisms underlie this development, according to the LMU. In the study, Marco Schmidt, in collaboration with Lucas P. Butler (Assistant Professor at the University of Maryland), Julia Heinz and Professor Michael Tomasello (Co-Director at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig) was able to demonstrate that three-year-olds do more than just adhere to social norms learn direct instruction and prohibitions. Contrary to this previous assumption, the children are independently looking for standards and assume that even where adults see none, the scientists report.

Spontaneous behaviors are also interpreted as rules
"Preschool children very quickly understand the individual behavior and spontaneous actions of others as generalizable, rule-based and binding," explains Dr. Schmidt, who led the study at the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, before moving to LMU in October 2015. As part of the study, the researchers had three-year-old children observe spontaneous actions by adults, with an unknown person, for example, taking tools and other objects out of a pocket and using them to perform short, seemingly targeted actions. In another variant, completely useless objects were taken out of a garbage bag and spontaneous actions were also carried out.

Cheers for rule violations
For example, in the course of the experiments, a piece of bark was pulled over the table with a branch, the scientists report. In further experiment variants, the same action was carried out spontaneously and with the minimal pedagogical request "Look!" Or was apparently performed unintentionally with a loudly expressed "Oops!". Regardless of what the children saw, "they judged singular, spontaneous and apparently useless behavior as generalizable and absolutely correct, as long as it was not found to be unintentional," the scientists report. The children even expected other test subjects to do the same and protested if they handled the objects differently and thus violated the “social norm” assumed by the children.

Striving for social norms promotes cohesion in society
According to Dr. Schmidt is subject to “the fallacy of preschool children, to which the Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out that what is should also be so.” This also applies if they have observed a simple action by chance and only once and there is nothing to be said for it that this is subject to a norm or rule. “These findings therefore suggest that children draw far-reaching conclusions about the social world in which they live early, even without direct instruction,” adds Lucas P. Butler. According to Dr. Schmidt could be the early fundamental tendency of children to see the social world as inherently normative and rule-guided, an expression of their motivation to do things together, to identify with their cultural group and to acquire cultural knowledge. Possibly it is "our common, intimate relationship to social norms that holds human societies together at their innermost," concluded Dr. (fp)

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