Durham, N.C. — Researchers at Duke University recently dove into the brains and actions of three-year-olds to figure out what actually drives them to behave. And they returned with this theory: While the voices of parents and other authority figures are important, often kids just want to fit in.
By the age of three, kids not only listen to the adults in their lives, but also pay attention to the actions of others too, according to a press release.
To conduct the study, researchers invited 3.5-year-olds to a pretend tea party. Each of the 104 kids received the same blue sticker to wear. They were told that people with that color sticker were part of the same team.
From there, the kids made decisions about what teas, snacks, cups and plates would be used at the tea party. First, they picked their favorite. Then, they could change their mind after hearing what others had chosen.
Sometimes, when announcing their choices, a child would say that they had chosen a donut, for example, because it was their personal preference. They would say something like, “For my tea party today, I feel like using this snack,” the press release said.
But others framed their decision as a “norm” shared by the whole group, the release said. So they would say something like, “For tea parties at Duke, we always use this kind of snack.”
After listening to what everybody else had picked out, the kids usually stuck to their first choice. But 23% of the time, the kids changed what they wanted, based on what another person had picked, the release says.
“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 press release said.
And that pattern continued even when another child made the choice, not another adult. That suggests, the release said, “that the preschoolers weren’t simply acting out of a desire to imitate adults or obey authority.”
The findings could help explain how kids develop the moral reasoning that sets us apart from animals, the release says.
“When an adult says to an infant or a toddler, ‘we don’t hit,’ the child generally does as she’s told out of deference to that person,” the release says. “But eventually, by around their third birthday, children start to think in a different way. They begin to understand cues such as “we don’t hit” as something larger, coming from the group, and act out of a sense of connectedness and shared identity.”
The study’s first author is Leon Li, a doctoral student in psychology and neuroscience at Duke. The study was conducted in the lab of professor Michael Tomasello at Duke and with Duke undergraduate student Bari Britvan.