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Schmidt and Tomasello on Social Norms

+ Brandon Fuller

Beginning at around 3 years of age, young children do not just follow social norms but actively enforce them on others—even from a third party stance, in situations in which they themselves are not directly involved or affected…Although there are many prudential reasons for following social norms, it is not immediately clear why a 3-year-old child should feel compelled to actually enforce them on others. Such group-oriented behavior opens the possibility that young children are not merely driven by individualistic motives but that, from early on, they start to identify with their cultural group, which leads to prosocial motives for preserving the group’s ways of doing things.

Excerpt from “Young Children Enforce Social Norms,” a new article by Marco Schmidt and Michael Tomasello. The authors point out that children can differentiate between at least two types of social norms: moral norms and conventional norms. Moral norms are in line with our ”natural aversion to harming others and natural attraction to helping others.” Conventional norms are those whose violation does not involve direct harm or victimization, such as norms about appropriate funeral attire or the rules of a game (even if the game involves solitary activity).

...whereas young children enforce moral norms equally on all violators, they enforce game norms only on members of their own cultural in-group (e.g., people who speak the same language)—presumably because only “we” fall within the scope of the norm and can be expected to respect it.

Interesting throughout (gated). Hat tip to Shankar Vedantam.

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