New study on sharing shows social norms play a role in decision making

Summary: Influence of social norms shapes a child’s desire to share by the age of eight.

Source: University of York

A child’s desire to share becomes influenced by social norms around the age of eight, new research has revealed.

The extensive study – conducted on eight diverse societies across the world – examined children and adults’ behaviour when asked to respond to a set of specific sharing tasks.

Researchers led by Dr Bailey House from the University of York’s Department of Psychology established the sharing patterns of adults in the eight societies, and then worked with children from the same communities to determine how they would split a set of rewards in an experimental sharing task.

Children were given a choice between two options: a generous option which delivered one reward to them and one reward to a stranger. The selfish option delivered both rewards to the child.

Children under seven largely opted for the selfish choice, while between eight and 12 children in some societies increasingly shared one of the tokens, as children began to follow the usual adult pattern of behaviour in their community. At about the same age, children in all societies also began to more strongly respond to social norms: they shared more when told that the generous option was “right”, and they shared less when they were told that the selfish option was “right”.

Dr House said: “These results suggest that during middle childhood children become sensitive to culturally-specific information about how to behave. This “information” may be encoded in local norms, which children acquire through an evolved human psychology for learning and conforming to normative information. This implies that that we ought to have a universally-developing psychology for becoming sensitive to normative information, and that variation in prosocial behaviour ought to be linked to variation in the content of a society’s social norms, and not to variation in development.”

Dr House studies decision-making and behaviour in adults and children, how these vary across diverse societies, and how they are shaped by both cultural beliefs and evolved adaptations.

For this research, eight different study groups were observed including urban communities in Germany, USA, Argentina and India, as well as rural communities in Ecuador, Vanuatu, and Argentina and hunter-gatherers in Tanzania.

This shows the game used in the study
The Dictator game used in the study. The image is credited to Julie Gatenby, University of York.

Dr House said: “People in all of these groups share extensively, but they are used to doing so in different situations and probably for different reasons. This is likely why people in these different societies made very different choices when we put them all in the exact same sharing situation.

“One of the implications of the study is that we should start to pay attention not just to what children know but why they start to follow social norms. The next step is to pose the question of what is happening in a child’s development between the ages of eight and 12 that makes them more responsive to social norms around them. The goal of the work is to better understand how culture and psychological maturation work together to produce human diversity in cooperation and other behaviours.”

Collaborators on the study included Joan B. Silk from Arizona State University, Patricia Kanngiesser from Frei Universität Berlin and Clark Barrett from University of California, Los Angeles.

The paper entitled, Universal norm psychology leads to society diversity in prosocial behaviour and development, is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

About this neuroscience research article

University of York
Media Contacts:
Julie Gatenby – University of York
Image Source:
The image is credited to Julie Gatenby, University of York.

Original Research: Closed access
“Universal norm psychology leads to societal diversity in prosocial behaviour and development”. Bailey R. House, Patricia Kanngiesser, H. Clark Barrett, Tanya Broesch, Senay Cebioglu, Alyssa N. Crittenden, Alejandro Erut, Sheina Lew-Levy, Carla Sebastian-Enesco, Andrew Marcus Smith, Süheyla Yilmaz & Joan B. Silk .
Nature Human Behavior doi:10.1038/s41562-019-0734-z.


Universal norm psychology leads to societal diversity in prosocial behaviour and development

Recent studies have proposed that social norms play a key role in motivating human cooperation and in explaining the unique scale and cultural diversity of our prosociality. However, there have been few studies that directly link social norms to the form, development and variation in prosocial behaviour across societies. In a cross-cultural study of eight diverse societies, we provide evidence that (1) the prosocial behaviour of adults is predicted by what other members of their society judge to be the correct social norm, (2) the responsiveness of children to novel social norms develops similarly across societies and (3) societally variable prosocial behaviour develops concurrently with the responsiveness of children to norms in middle childhood. These data support the view that the development of prosocial behaviour is shaped by a psychology for responding to normative information, which itself develops universally across societies.

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