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Children respond to rulebreakers in culturally distinct ways

Societal “rules” and norms help people to coexist harmoniously and shape the ways in which we live our lives. Although these rules differ between cultures, children are very quick to identify others who break the established rules. 

In a new study, the behavior of children in response to rulebreakers has been investigated in eight different societies. This is the first study of its kind to measure exactly what children did in order to challenge others who violated societal norms.

The participants in the study were children between the ages of five and eight years, and came from eight different societies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. In total, the behavior of 376 children was observed. The research was led by scientists from the University of Plymouth, UK and from Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.

“What is new about this study is that we observed children’s behaviors and travelled worldwide to do so – we didn’t ask children what they intended to do, but measured what they actually did in real-life social interactions,” said study lead author Dr. Patricia Kanngiesser.

The children were taught a game that involved sorting blocks. Half were taught to sort the blocks by color, and the other half learned to sort the blocks by shape. They were then paired up, and one child played the sorting game while the other child observed. 

The research showed that observers were more likely to intervene when the other child appeared to play by the wrong set of rules. The more a child intervened, the more likely the partner was to change his or her behavior. This finding gives insight into how norms enable people to achieve behavior that is coordinated and cooperative. 

The study also showed that the type of intervention varied – with children from rural areas using imperative verbal protest more than children from urban areas.

“It was also really interesting to see that how the children corrected each other varied by location. To our surprise, children from rural small-scale communities protested as much or even more than children from urban settings,” said Dr. Kanngiesser.

“We assumed that, because everyone knows everyone else in small scale communities, direct interventions would be less common, as people could rely on more indirect ways such as reputation to ensure compliance with rules. But we actually found the opposite to be true.”

“The next step is to explore further what motivates children to intervene and how they learn to intervene. For example, do they learn from adults or older children around them how to react to rule breaking?”

The findings of the study are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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