Developmental Origins of Human Normativity (EN)

Links and Functions
Language Selection

Breadcrumb Navigation


The DeNo research group ("Developmental Origins of Human Normativity"), led by Prof. Dr. Marco F. H. Schmidt, investigates the ontogenetic basis of human normativity and cooperation. Our research focuses on the question of how children develop an understanding of norms and rules and which social-cognitive and motivational capabilities contribute to the ontogeny of human normativity.

Find out more about our research here.


Children’s Metaethics: Who’s right when two people argue about moral issues?

When two persons have a moral disagreement – for instance, about whether it is okay to pull someone’s hair – one person may think that it is right to perform the action in question whereas the other person may think that it is wrong to perform the action. When we ourselves think about the “truth” of the persons’ moral judgments, we engage in metaethical thinking. The two most prominent types of metaethical judgment are an objectivist attitude (i.e., only one person can be right) and a relativist attitude (i.e., both persons can be right).

In a study recently accepted for publication at Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, we investigated children’s developing metaethical judgment in the context of moral disagreement between two puppets who expressed conflicting moral judgments. One puppet was always an ingroup member who expressed a typical moral judgment (e.g., that it is wrong to pull someone’s hair) while the other puppet was either another ingroup member or an extraterrestrial agent (with different preferences and background) who expressed an atypical moral judgment (e.g., that it is okay to pull someone’s hair). We found that 9-year-olds, but not younger children, were more likely to judge that two persons could be right (a relativist attitude) when an ingroup member disagreed with an extraterrestrial agent than when the second person was another ingroup individual. This context-relative enhanced moral relativism was not found in a comparison case in which agents disagreed about the possibility of different physical laws. The findings of this study suggest that although children typically express moral objectivism, by early school-age they begin to temper their objectivism with culturally relative metaethical judgments.

Schmidt, M. F. H., González-Cabrera, I., & Tomasello, M. (2017). Children’s developing metaethical judgments. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 164, 163-177.

Promiscuous Normativity in Preschoolers

Our study, recently published in Psychological Science, suggests that preschoolers have a tendency to infer the presence of social norms based on minimal evidence – that is, in situations in which an adult merely performs an arbitrary action spontaneously for herself without giving any pedagogical or explicit cues that this one-shot behavior is governed by collective norms. It seems sufficient that the spontaneous acts are intentional as opposed to accidental. In other words, children autonomously derive what ought to be (generalizable and prescribed actions) from what is (observed behavior) – and thus commit the is-ought fallacy, as originally pointed out by the philosopher David Hume some 300 years ago.

Schmidt, M. F. H., Butler, L. P., Heinz, J., & Tomasello, M. (2016). Young children see a single action and infer a social norm: Promiscuous normativity in 3-year-olds. Psychological Science, 27(10), 1360–1370.

Find out more about our current study here.

Young Children’s Understanding of How Norms Can Come Into Existence

In a paper recently published in Child Development, we report that 3-year-old children understand that group norms can be established via agreement. Interestingly, children at this age see a valid and binding rule as coming into being only in cases of unanimity – thus, even a majority of 90% cannot introduce a valid rule.

Schmidt, M. F. H., Rakoczy, H., Mietzsch, T., & Tomasello, M. (2016). Young children understand the role of agreement in establishing arbitrary norms—but unanimity is key. Child Development, 87(2), 612–626.

Child Studies

If you are interested in having your baby or child participate in one of the studies please follow the link to our website: “Forscher Früchtchen”.


The International Junior Research Group „Developmental Origins of Human Normativity“ is funded by Elitenetzwerk Bayern.