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WHAT IS GOOD AND WHAT IS BAD: how toddlers evaluate actions

WHAT IS GOOD AND WHAT IS BAD: how toddlers evaluate actions
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Children’s adaptation to social norms is a complex and controversial process. For example, 2-year-old children are already capable of lying when it is not necessary and sometimes even to their own harm. How and when do they begin to understand what behavior is socially acceptable and what is not? A group of scientists from Germany and Great Britain decided to find out in the course of a study, the results of which are published in the international scientific journal Nature.




The development and maturation of a child involve understanding and accepting social norms. Children gradually learn to recognize which of their actions may be approved by others and which may be disapproved and rejected. Scientists have found that such skills are formed in children from birth.

Even in the preverbal period of development, they begin developing skills to interpret the information that they receive by observing the behavior and relationships of family members: mom and dad, brothers and sisters, and grandparents. And practically from the very first months of life, they are faced with a system of prohibitions, which is formed by adults.




As a result, they have a clear idea of what is good and what is bad. Around the age of 1.5 years, they begin not only to recognize which behavior is acceptable and which is not but also to protest if they identify a person’s actions as wrong.

Moreover, they try to correct those who are behaving inappropriately and try to guide them «back on track». At the age of 3, children are already capable of putting this protest into words. But can toddlers adequately understand and evaluate compliance with social norms before they can speak?



To understand this, the researchers decided to conduct a series of experiments with the visual reactions of infants in preverbal age. To do this, 8-month-old children were shown specially created cartoons, the heroes of which were geometric figures — two cubes. However, these cubes were «humanized» — they had eyes, and, according to the plot of the video, they conflicted with each other.

Of course, the kids were not able to physically intervene in this conflict, but they could react to it with their eyes. That is, if one of the cubes behaved unfairly or aggressively, he could be punished with a prolonged look — in this case, a cartoon stone would fall on him. Children quickly realized how to restore justice and used the long gaze to establish a socially acceptable order.




Next, Moritz Köster of the University of Regensburg and Robert Hepach of the University of Oxford came up with another experiment. It involved 30 preverbal infants from 8 to 12 months old. The scientists found that the children expected the same behavioral reactions to things from members of the same social group.

The children not only understood the content and meaning of the social norm but also associated compliance with social approval. To verify this, the scientists again created a series of animated videos.

But this time, their heroes were not just cubes with eyes, but even more «humanized» triangles, which had arms, legs, eyes, and mouth.


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The plot of each cartoon began the same way — 3 triangles stood on one side of the screen, in the center of which were 2 balls. Then, one of the triangles left the group, took the balls, knocked them against each other, returned them to their previous place, and went to the opposite side of the screen.

Then, the second triangle did the same thing. At the same time, the first one expressed approval of his actions by raising his hands, jumping, and shouting with joy. But the third triangle could already deviate from the usual scenario — completely duplicate the actions of its group members or throw balls upwards.

Accordingly, the other two triangles could either express approval of his actions or condemn them. In the latter case, they were clearly angry, expressed dissatisfaction, and turned away from the «violator».




In total, four videos were created. In the first two, the triangles approved of their friend’s behavior if it was «right» and got angry when it was «wrong». In the next two clips, it was the other way around — atypical behavior was approved, and standard behavior was condemned.

While the children watched these cartoons, the authors of the experiment measured the reaction of their pupils. Earlier studies had already helped scientists realize that when children were surprised and discouraged by watching impossible events, their pupils reacted by dilating.

The infants’ pupils dilated the most when the triangles showed inconsistency in their judgment. That is when a «pattern break» occurred — approving the «wrong» and condemning the «right». This means that toddlers clearly correlated conforming behavior with social approval and vice versa.




Children begin to react especially actively to the violation of the norm by the age of 3. Here already, one surprise is not enough. «Abnormality» requires direct physical intervention to correct the situation or causes verbal protest.

Experiments have confirmed the conjecture that children can orient themselves to social norms and rules much earlier than they begin to speak. Of course, at 11 months of age, they do not yet have a full-fledged idea of how other people should act.

However, they are already good at distinguishing normative from non-normative behavior, expecting the former to be approved and the latter not.


Original research: Preverbal infants’ understanding of social norms


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