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Children Understand Social Norms Very Early

Update Date: Jul 27, 2012 02:52 PM EDT

Our action defines us and many of these things are taught to us by our parents or elders and there are many other aspects which are not taught. All these constitute social norms which govern our action and inaction. The observance of social norms helps us fit into the society. 

In a latest study by researchers Marco Schmidt and Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the authors have attempted to better understand the important concept of 'social glue' by reviewing research on children's enforcement of social norms. 

"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," says Schmidt in the news release. 

The researchers were particularly interested in understanding how children used constitutive norms. Constitutive norms, unlike other norms can give rise to new social realities.

For example, the rights given to Police are given to them by the government and cannot be practiced by an average citizen. 

Constitutive norms can also be found in games. For example, the rules of playing chess are constitutive norms. There are certain norms that the player has to follow while playing chess and that is what makes the game. 

In recent years, Schmidt and Tomasello, along with Hannes Rakoczy of the University of Göttingen, have conducted several studies with the aim of examining how children use constitutive norms and identifying the point at which they stop thinking of game rules as dictates handed down by powerful authorities and begin thinking of them as something like a mutual social agreement, the press release said. 

In one of the studies, children aged between 2 and 3 were showed a puppet show and it was announced that one of the characters would now 'dax.' The character, however, started performing an action which was different from what the children had seen an adult refer to as 'daxing' earlier.

Many of the children recognized and objected to the rule-violation and particularly, the 3-year-olds made objections which were norms based. "It doesn't work like that. You have to do it like this," some of them said.

Also, another study helped Schmidt, Rakoczy, and Tomasello find that children  enforce game norms only on those who they think belong to their own cultural in-group - for example those who speak the same language. 

The results of the study suggest that children understand that 'our group' falls within the scope of the norm and can be expected to respect it.

Also, it suggests that a norm need not be necessarily taught to a child by an adult. Children can learn a norm only by seeing adults expect things to work a certain way. 

 "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," said Tomasello in the press release.

The researchers argue, that understanding social norms "is essential to understanding the social and cooperative nature of the human species," and plan to conduct more studies on the same.  

The article appears in the August 2012 issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

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