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Navigating the social world – A cross-cultural and developmental perspective on social norms


Image Credit: Patricia Kanngiesser

Humans share 99.9% of their DNA; yet, the astonishing variety in human sociality and culture cannot be explained by biology alone. Rather, different social norms and institutions underlie most of this variety. Unlike any other species on the planet, humans possess unique abilities to collectively create social norms, to sustain them and pass them on to preceding generations. To date, the ontogenetic roots of these abilities have been primarily studied in children from so-called WEIRD populations (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) with the assumption that these research findings represent universal patterns of development. In contrast, anthropologists have documented substantial differences in childhoods around the world. Moreover, behavioural research with adults from small-scale, non-WEIRD populations has documented large cross-cultural variation in adults’ social norm understanding. This knowledge of cross-cultural variance, however, has been very slow to transfer into theories and studies of children’s socio-cognitive development. This project will be the first systematic, large-scale investigation into the ontogenetic origins of social norm understanding from a cross-cultural perspective. The focus of the project will be on investigating the development of two core features of social norms: (1) mechanisms of norm enforcement and (2) the role of social norms in social coordination and cooperation. The project will be conducted with children from different non-WEIRD populations world wide, thus covering a wide range of living conditions, climates, forms of subsistence, languages, and social structures. This approach promises to do more justice to the diversity of human sociality than the vast majority of developmental research currently being conducted. Moreover, it allows for a closer investigation of the interplay between universal patterns of development and the socio-cultural environment on the development of social norm understanding.

This project is supported by a Freigeist Fellowship from Volkswagen Foundation.