People aren’t born understanding social norms, but kids do have a desire to fit in with the crowd from an early age, according to a new study.
Researchers from Duke University in Durham, N.C. found that when 3-year-olds were asked to behave in a certain way and did so, they weren’t conforming just to obey an adult, but were going along with the group.
Kids begin to pick up on society’s unwritten social rules, such as eating with a fork instead of their hands or covering their cough, when they are very young, according to the study.
Researchers asked 104 preschoolers, age 3 1/2, to help set up a pretend tea party. At the start, they gave each child a blue sticker and told them that people with that color sticker were part of the same team.
Then, researchers watched as the kids made decisions about teas, snacks, cups and plates for the party, first on their own and then after hearing others’ choices.
Sometimes other team members framed their choice as a matter of personal preference (“For my tea party today, I feel like using this snack”). Other times, they presented it as a norm shared by the whole group: “For tea parties at Duke, we always use this kind of snack.”
After hearing others’ choices, kids usually stayed with their first choice. But 23% of the time, they switched to someone else’s. When they did, they were more likely to go along when an option was presented as a group norm rather than just a personal preference.
This was true even when the other person was a child, not an adult. Researchers said this suggested that the preschoolers weren’t simply acting out of a desire to imitate adults or obey authority.
First author Leon Li, a doctoral student in psychology and neuroscience, is a member of Duke’s Tomasello Lab.
He said the findings lend support to an idea proposed by lab director Michael Tomasello, a psychology and neuroscience professor, and colleagues about how kids develop the moral reasoning that sets humans apart from other animals.
When an adult says to an infant or a toddler, “we don’t hit,” the child generally does as she’s told out of deference to that person, according to researchers. Eventually, though, their way of thinking changes. They begin to understand cues such as “we don’t hit” as something larger, coming from the group, and act out of a sense of connectedness and shared identity, researchers said.
“Every culture has its do’s and don’ts,” Li said in a university news release.
The findings were published May 26 in the journal PLOS ONE.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has information on communicating with your child.
SOURCE: Duke University, news release, May 27, 2021