Children are little conformists by nature

Understanding how this thinking develops could help promote tolerance and reduce group-based biases
estefania17, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0
estefania17, Pixabay.com, CC0 1.0

When I was five, my sister and I were playing outside when she asked me to unknot her Barbie doll’s hair. I was conflicted. On the one hand, I believed that brothers should help their sisters, but on the other hand, I knew that boys should not even think about Barbie dolls. After several rounds of deliberation, I reluctantly picked up the doll and brushed away. Immediately, Tommy, my best friend at the time, ran over yelling, “You play with dolls!” Nervous and upset, I dropped the doll and punched Tommy in the face.

I am still ashamed of my violent outburst, though this example highlights something truly fascinating about children. Once children believe that a group is a certain way, they believe that individual group members should be that way. That is, young children show a “descriptive-to-prescriptive tendency”, using group norms to judge how individuals should or should not behave.

On the one hand, descriptive-to-prescriptive reasoning, which is likely rooted in human evolution, has positive consequences. First, it helps the individual be accepted by others, which increases collaboration and learning opportunities. Second, it maintains group functioning and solidarity, which increases strength against other groups. Third, it ensures that group practices and rituals are transferred across generations, which helps maintain culture. Given all these benefits, it is no surprise that even young infants expect group members to act alike.

“Given all the benefits of descriptive-to-prescriptive reasoning, it is no surprise that even young infants expect group members to act alike.”

On the other hand, however, descriptive-to-prescriptive reasoning has drawbacks. Children are often too sensitive to group norms, which can bias them against individuality and self-expression.

In a series of studies, my colleagues and I introduced children ages 4 to 13 to two groups: Hibbles and Glerks, who were each characterized by different norms. For instance, Hibbles played games with one kind of toy and Glerks played games with another kind of toy. Children were shown individual group members who either conformed or did not conform to their group (e.g., a Hibble who played games more typical of Glerks).

“When children view non-conformity, their immediate judgment is to disapprove.”

Children did not like non-conformity. They disapproved of it and justified their disapproval with prescriptive language, by saying things like “Hibbles are not supposed to play with that!” In other words, we found that once children believe that a group is a certain way, they believe that individual group members should be that way.

We also found that children’s descriptive-to-prescriptive tendency is an intuitive bias. That is, when children view non-conformity, their immediate judgment is to disapprove. In fact, this bias is so powerful that it influences what children believe to be socially and morally appropriate. For example, if a group typically does something that is bad, like stomping on animals, children are somewhat accepting of individual group members engaged in bad behavior because they expect conformity.

“Our research suggests that children’s descriptive-to-prescriptive reasoning can be reduced.”

Importantly, though, our research suggests that children’s descriptive-to-prescriptive reasoning can be reduced. For example, children who are encouraged to thoughtfully consider whether or not non-conformity is in fact unacceptable, or who are encouraged to focus on individuality rather than group membership, are more tolerant toward individuals who challenge group norms. Indeed, children from cultures that emphasize individuality and self-expression are relatively more accepting of non-conformity.

Group norms are important, though so are individuality and self-expression. If we are to understand both, it will be important to understand how, when, and why descriptive-to-prescriptive reasoning develops. Doing so may reduce group-based biases, which ultimately, could make tolerance more normative for future generations.

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