Fitting in with the group is an important component of behaviour in three-year-olds

Fitting in with the group is an important component of behaviour in three-year-olds

by Freya Lucas

June 15, 2021

By their third birthday, children are more likely to go along with what others say or do for the sake of following the crowd, rather than acting out of a desire to bend to authority, a recent study conducted by Duke University researchers has shown. 


“Every culture has its do’s and don’ts,” lead researcher Leon Li explained.


“We’re not born knowing what to say when someone sneezes, the right and wrong time to wear a hat, or that we should eat with a fork and not with our hands. But most of us begin to pick up on these unwritten social rules when we are very young, and quickly figure out when and how to follow them.”


Researchers then wondered what compels young children to behave and follow the norms of society, and set about to find out. Researchers conducted a study in the lab of Professor Michael Tomasello at Duke, where Mr Li and Duke undergraduate Bari Britvan invited 3.5-year-olds to help set up for a pretend tea party.


Each of the 104 children was given a blue sticker to wear at the start of the study, and told that the people with that colour sticker were part of the same team.


Next the researchers watched as the children decided among different kinds of teas, snacks, cups and plates for the tea party, first on their own and then after listening to the choices of other team members.


Sometimes the 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 listening to the choices of others, most of the time the children stuck with their first choice. In other words, children who initially said they felt like using the donut eventually wound up picking the donut no matter what the other person said they were using.


But 23 per cent of the time the children switched their choice to settle for someone else’s. And when they did, they were more likely to go along with the other person when an option was presented as a group norm rather than a mere personal preference.


The pattern held up even when the other person was another child, not an adult, suggesting that the preschoolers weren’t simply acting out of a desire to imitate adults or obey authority.


Researchers say the findings lend support to an idea, proposed by Mr Tomasello and colleagues, about how children develop the moral reasoning capacity that sets humans apart from other animals.


To review the study and its findings in full, please see here