This Is How We Do It: Exploring the Psychology of Culture

Social life is powerfully shaped by rules of culture. But how do we acquire these rules, and why are we so prone to do so? Recent research is shedding light on these questions, and showing how we use culture to create our social identity.

Credit: David Cooper []

Gangs do it; high-school cliques do it; even educated professionals do it: in all walks of life, groups of people — whether defined by shared interests, belonging to the same profession or competition with other collectives — invariably invent ways of demarcating themselves from everyone else. Street gangs like the notorious Crips and Bloods, who brought mayhem to South Central Los Angeles during the crack years of the 1990s, differentiate themselves by blue and red clothing, along with unique gang signs, tattoos, tags, and even dances. Teenagers and young adults — emo kids, skaters, goths, hipsters — broadcast membership in their chosen subculture by walking, talking and dressing the same.

This tendency to define and mark off our ingroup boundaries in terms of largely arbitrary and symbolic markers goes much wider than the clothes we wear, the hairstyles we sport, and the make-up and tattoos we adorn ourselves with. We have an almost inexhaustible range of social traits that can be used to define who is in or out of our groups — and we take full advantage of these opportunities.

For example, the language we speak is an especially salient way of carving out large-scale group boundaries. Between countries that share a common language, accent (British or American) serves as a more fine-grained way to divide up peoples, and within countries our accent, and the idiom we speak, provide a similarly easy way to divide up the social world (northern or Cockney, posh or working class).

Languages and dialects, however, are just the tip of the identity iceberg. Social, ethnic and religious groups have developed their own rules governing everything from what foods are deemed acceptable to eat, and the ways it should be prepared and consumed, to sexual mores, ways of greeting each other, the appropriate means by which the dead should be handled and disposed of, and so on indefinitely.

Practically every area of life is governed to a greater or lesser extent by a complex and sometimes opaque web of interweaved codes of conduct, rules of etiquette, social conventions, and moral prohibitions that constitute what behavioural scientists call social norms. So extensive are the social norms governing the way “our people” do things that they constitute a good part of the culture we imbibe during childhood and beyond. Understanding how we pick up these social norms, what motivates us to follow them, and how we treat people who fail to obey them is a first step towards explaining how and why we’re such deeply cultural creatures.

Acting right

Do The Right Thing

Social norms are not a homogenous bunch of rules and regulations. They cluster into categories, albeit categories with blurry boundaries. Perhaps the most prototypical kind of social norms are moral norms — injunctions like “You must not steal” or “You must not kill” being among the least controversial norms in this class.

Moral norms, however, are a special kind of norm. The moral principles such norms articulate probably reflect attitudes that we are biologically biased to lean towards anyway. As such, they are not merely socially or culturally constructed moral conventions. Take, for instance, moral norms against hurting other people. Kids all over the world recognise that hitting other kids and making them cry is a bad thing to do. Is this just a matter of social learning and picking up culturally local moral conventions?

Probably not. As a social species, we’re built to get along with other people. With the exception of psychopaths, we’re a broadly empathic species, moved to experience visceral pain when we witness the suffering of others (even of non-humans). Neuroscientists have even shown that watching people in pain activates similar neural pathways as being in pain oneself —­ we can literally feel another’s suffering. Brain-imaging studies suggest that vicariously experiencing pain in this way also recruits brain regions that help us process the mental states of others, so that we can imagine what they’re feeling and thinking about their experiences, which underpins genuine moral empathy. The upshot is that if a feeling of aversion to the suffering of others is part of our biological heritage, then moral norms proscribing harming others merely codify and reinforce behaviour that we’re already predisposed towards. That’s why moral norms against harming other people have such a resonant, self-evident quality.

In addition to possessing a moral sense that keeps us generally prosocial as individuals, we’re also sensitive to violations of moral norms committed by other people against third-parties. That is, even when the outcome of someone’s behaviour doesn’t directly affect or harm us, but does hurt someone else, we’re frequently moved to seek punishment of the transgressor and restitution to the victim — a tendency that has been called altruistic punishment, because it acts as a group-wide favour by providing an incentive for others act prosocially, which helps everyone get along better. (How altruistic punishment may have evolved is a big question for another day.)

Research by developmental psychologists, especially Michael Tomasello of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig and his numerous students and colleagues, has revealed that the ability to pick up on moral transgressions, along with a drive to chastise wrongdoers and support those who have been wronged, emerges early in development. In one study carried out by Tomasello with Amrisha Vaish and Manuela Missana, 3-years olds were sat down with two human-operated puppets. As they played, the children and the puppets drew pictures and made clay sculptures. After a while, one of the puppets left the room. Once alone, the remaining puppet cruelly destroyed the other puppet’s creation. Kids watching this mean-spirited act would protest against the malicious puppet’s actions, and when the victim puppet returned, the kids told them what had happened, and tried to comfort them [1].

Conventional thinking

Experiments like these show that even young kids recognise and enforce moral norms: they know what’s right and what’s wrong, and will speak out against wrongdoers and comfort victims of their bad behaviour. Yet moral norms are far from being the only, or perhaps even the most important, kind of norm structuring our daily lives. Much of our everyday behaviour is guided by conventional norms that prescribe the kinds of clothes we wear to work, what we eat when we get home, how we behave within the workplace or on the freeway on the way home. The specifics of these rules of conduct are much more grounded in the contingencies of culture than our evolved human nature.

These social conventions are often arbitrary and, when observed from outside their native social context, frequently appear odd or even absurd. For Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, daily life is an endless, and hilarious, battle against the conventions, rules of etiquette and norms of behaviour that guide how we live. It’s not simply that Larry is unaware of how he should comport himself in a given social situation (though he often is in the dark); he actively rejects many of the norms that other people unquestioningly adhere to. It’s for this reason that Jeff Greene, Larry’s best friend in the show, calls him a social assassin.

Although we might all have a bit of Larry David in us, we mostly abide by the unwritten and largely unspoken social norms of our particular cultural and social groups, and feel embarrassed when we run afoul of them. And while this may entail that we blindly do some things for no good functional reason, it also means that we’re able to participate in the social and cultural worlds in which we’re embedded. For unlike other animal species, human social life is structured by a wide range of ‘institutional arrangements’: agreed ways of assigning roles to, and interacting with, each other in certain contexts (what it means to be an employee, a trading partner, or a husband, for example). We enter into these institutional arrangements either proactively or by default as part of growing up in a certain cultural context. What’s more, we explicitly or implicitly agree to play by the rules of these institutions — that is, we adhere to a wide range of social norms — and frequently assume certain responsibilities and obligations within these social institutions, so that we can all get on with the business of living our lives.

This may sounds like rather abstract stuff, but kids recognise the distinction between moral and conventional norms from an early age. By the time they’re 5 years old they regard moral injunctions, like those against hurting other people or stealing from them, as independent of the authority of some adult, like a teacher. Kids see moral norms as compelling in their own right. (As noted above, this is probably an evolved aspect of our social and moral psychology.) Likewise, kids this age realise that if hurting someone is wrong in our classroom, then it’s wrong in all classrooms — it’s wrong tout court, and couldn’t be made OK just because a teacher or other authority figure said so.

Kids treat conventional norms very differently. In contrast to moral norms, the force of conventional norms is typically seen as deriving from some sort of authority. So for kids, wearing jeans to school is wrong because the school has rules saying that all students must wear the prescribed uniform. If, however, the school suspended the rules for a day, or if another school had no rules about what students wear, then it would no longer be wrong to wear jeans.

In addition to seeing conventional norms as authority-dependent in a way that moral norms are not, children also treat violations of these norms differently. Children view the breaking of moral rules, such as those against stealing or punching people, as generally worse, and deserving of greater moral censure, than transgressions of conventional norms, such as talking in class or turning up at school out of uniform.

Although many moral norms are backed up by powerful emotional responses to transgressions of the codes of conduct they embody, conventional norms have to gain traction in other ways. Two obvious means stand out. First, there’s often a price to be paid for violating a conventional norm (wear jeans to school and you might get detention), which provides an incentive to follow convention. Second, failing to adhere to the norms of your social group is a quick way to get people to think of you as “not one of us”. So the twin fears of punishment and ostracism from social groups are two good reasons to play by the rules, as arbitrary and conventional as they might be.

The rules of the game


In recent years, developmental and social psychologists have been busy trying to work out when and how kids learn to follow and enforce conventional norms: when are children first able to recognise conventional norms, and when do they begin to pick up on violations of such norms? What do they do when they witness such violations? In what ways do children treat conventional norms differently than moral norms? Given that the acquisition, maintenance and adherence to conventional norms is a big part of what it means to be such a supremely cultural creature as a human, these studies promise to shed light on the cognitive foundations of our exceptional capacity to define ourselves by the rules we construct to live by.

One of the leading researchers in this field is Michael Tomasello, whose studies have already been mentioned. In a series of studies, Tomasello and colleagues have studied how children handle an important subset of conventional norms called constitutive norms. These norms don’t just dictate how to act in a given social setting, but actually define and create new social realities.

Lest you think we’re about to enter the strange world of postmodernist philosophy, here’s the unpostmodern philosopher John Searle giving the notion of constitutive norms, and associated ‘institutional facts’, concrete expression in his book The Construction of Social Reality:

[T]here are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world, that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking of things like money, property, governments, and marriages. Yet many facts regarding these things are “objective” facts in the sense that they are not a matter of your or my preferences, evaluations, or moral attitudes. I am thinking of such facts as that I am a citizen of the United States, that the piece of paper in my pocket is a five dollar bill, that my younger sister got married on December 14, that I own a piece of property in Berkeley, and that the New York Giants won the 1991 superbowl. These contrast with such facts as that Mount Everest has snow and ice near the summit or that hydrogen atoms have one electron, which are facts totally independent of any human opinions. Years ago I baptized some of the facts dependent on human agreement as “institutional facts”, in contrast to noninstitutional, or “brute”, facts. Institutional facts are so-called because they require human institutions for their existence. In order that this piece of paper should be a five dollar bill, for example, there has to be the human institution of money.

Just as our agreement that money exists can make it so — and in the process create new institutional facts about money — so too can agreement on conventional norms create new aspects of social life. And these are the constitutive norms. Perhaps the clearest examples come from games.

Playing chess is not simply a matter of using a board of a certain kind, along with pieces with specific names; it’s about applying rules that govern legal moves of pieces, taking your opponent’s pieces and putting them in checkmate. If you sit down at a chess board and decide that your opening move will be to shift a pawn seven squares diagonally left, you’re just not playing chess — or at least you’re playing it wrong.

Given that the rules of games like chess are prototypically conventional, and also have a prescriptive, normative dimension (“These are the moves that are allowed”), studying how kids pick up the rules of new games can shed light on the broader issue of how they acquire social norms and become embedded in their local culture.

And this is why games, which kids love to play, can be used to find out when the capacity for acquiring social norms of the constitutive variety emerges in childhood. In one of the first studies to address this question, Tomasello, working with Hannes Rakoczy and Felix Warneken, invented a new game they called daxing. This game involves using an implement like a roulette rake to push a wooden block across a board so that it drops into a gutter at the other end. Tomasello and colleagues first had 2- and 3-year-old kids meet an adult who showed them how to dax (and explicitly told them that this game was called daxing). Next, the kids were introduced to a puppet called Max, who made friends with the kid and then said “I’m gonna dax now!”. (Max the puppet was operated by a member of the research team.)

What happened next differed between groups of kids. One group saw Max dax as they’d seen it performed previously: Max picked up the rake, and pushed the wooden block across the board and into the gutter. The other set of kids, however, saw Max simply tip the board so that the wooden block tumbled into the gutter. (This was something that the experimenter had previously done and characterised as a mistake by saying “Whoops!”)

Tamsello and colleagues wanted to know whether, and how, the kids would react to this daxing mistake. The 3-year-olds, but not the 2-year-olds, often objected in some way when Max tipped the board. They’d wag their finger and say “No! It does not go like this!”, or they would show Max how to dax properly. So by the third year of life kids not only recognise constitutive norms, but also enforce these norms on people who violate them — they want others to play by the conventionally agreed rules, just as they enforce moral rules and condemn transgressors of these norms [2].



Recent studies, however, have complicated this picture by showing that young kids treat violations of conventional and moral norms differently, and in ways that may explain why kids are motivated to enforce conventional norms in the first place. Specifically, recent studies by Marco Schmidt in conjunction with Rakoczy and Tomasello have found that while 3-year-olds protest when anyone violates a moral norm that involves harming someone else, they only enforce conventional norms on people who are members of their ingroup [3].

Before seeing why, it’s worth pausing to look at how Tomasello and colleagues set about studying the effects of group affiliation in young children. To do so, they came up with a clever means to foster group identity. First, children met with one of the experimenters, who introduced them to our puppet friend Max. A sense of group identity and affiliation was established with the experimenter saying “Max is a Daxo, great, isn’t it? We are Daxos!”, and from then on all three (experimenter, Max and child) were referred to as Daxos, as they all worked together to solve a puzzle. The children were also given a multi-coloured bracelet to wear, as a symbolic marker of group identity that would come into play later.

After a while of playing together, Max the puppet told the child that he was going to have a nap, and ‘left’ the room. Then, the child was introduced to another puppet called Henri, who said “Hello! My name is Henri and I am from France” — in French, to the German-speaking children recruited into this study. To this, the Max-operating experimenter expressed surprise and said, “Huh, well, who are you? I don’t know you. You speak differently. What’s your name and where are you from?”’. Now Henri replied in German, but with a French accent, “My name is Henri, and I am from very far away, from another country. I am a Fendi.” The experimenter then said “Well, we are Daxos”, to which Henri replied “I am no Daxo. I am a Fendi.” The experimenter then pointed to Henri’s bracelet and said to the child “Ah, right, look. He doesn’t have a multicolored bracelet like Max and we have. He has a black one. It’s different from ours. He’s no Daxo, he’s a Fendi from very far away. Look, only we are Daxos, he’s not.”

This all set the stage for the core experimental tests. To see how children reacted to a violation of the conventional norms governing game play, they were given a demonstration of daxing by the experimenter, after which Henri stepped up to the board to have a go. But instead of pushing the block into the gutter, Henri tipped the board to roll it in, replicating the ‘mistake’ from earlier studies. (A number of other games were also deployed in these studies, but I focus on the daxing example here for simplicity.) Another set of tests looked at violations of moral norms — for example, those prohibiting the destruction of another person’s property, which involved Max or Henri popping a balloon that the experimenter had decorated with a picture of a flower.

The kids in these studies were likely to protest when Max, the ingroup member, failed to dax properly, saying things like “That is not how it is done!” or “Look, he’s doing it wrongly!”. By contrast, they weren’t really bothered when Henri, from an outgroup, misused the daxing board and they were much less likely to say anything in protest. So kids treat violations of conventional norms differently depending on whether the transgressor is a member of their ingroup or not. Yet this contrasts sharply with how they react to violations of moral norms. When it came to destroying another’s property (the balloon in these experiments), Max and Henri received equal censure. This act was wrong, period.

What’s going on here? On the one hand, kids try to enforce conventional norms just as they do moral norms, so perhaps they treat violations of both classes of norms equivalently, in practical terms, even if they can distinguish between the two. Yet kids of the same age enforce moral norms on everyone, regardless of group affiliation, while restricting the enforcement of conventional norms to their own ingroup, which in these experiments was marked in three ways: symbolically (with a multi-coloured bracelet), linguistically (“We’re Daxos! He’s a Fendi!”), and by accent (French in a German-speaking country).

One explanation for this pattern, favoured by Tomasello, is that the willingness of children to adhere to conventional norms, and to enforce them on fellow members of their ingroup, serves to establish a sense of affiliation with the cultural group in which they grow up: people who play by the same rules as we do, and comply with shared conventional norms, are easily recognisable as members of our larger social world. These norms eventually serve as markers of group identity at a wide range of organisational levels — from relatively small cliques like street gangs to cities, nations and global religious communities — and help foster positive social sentiments, such as trust, within these groups.

Perhaps it seems a stretch to believe that 3-year-olds are already socially invested in some perceived ingroup, such as their nation. In fact, a series of studies by Katherine Kinzler, Emmanuel Dupoux, and Elizabeth Spelke suggest that certain social preferences emerge much earlier than this [4]. For instance, six-month-old infants prefer to look at a photo of a person they have previously heard speaking their native language (English, say) compared with Spanish, and ten-month-olds (English/French) prefer to accept a gift, such as a toy, from someone they’d previously seen speaking their own language. By the time they’re 5 years old, kids are explicit that they would not only prefer to be friends with someone who speaks their language (unsurprising), but would also prefer to be friends with people speaking their language in their local accent than someone speaking the same language with a foreign accent.

All which suggests that from a very early age, infants and children are driven to form positive associations with members of whichever cultural group they happen to grow up in, and to be more wary of outsiders. Language and accents are convenient ways to identify outsiders. Conventional norms are even better, in part because they can vary over regions encompassed by a single language or dialect. The Crips and the Bloods, for instance, live side by side in a patchwork of territories in LA (and now all over the US), and they all share a common language and the many conventional norms of 21st-century urban communities. So they’ve invented conventions — clothing styles, hand signs, dances, initiation rites and more — that define group membership, and help create new divisions within their broader linguistic or ethnic community.

Similar dynamics could plausibly have played out during our evolutionary history. Imagine two tribes living a few miles apart but in similar forest dwellings. Given their shared ecological context, the norms of each tribe for obtaining food and building shelters will probably show much overlap. After all, they’re drawing on the same natural resources and face the same challenges of survival. Such instrumental norms — norms about how to achieve certain ends — will not be reliable markers of group identity. But conventional norms, by their very nature, can vary arbitrarily. So even groups living in identical ecological conditions can develop wildly different ways of dressing, preparing food (beyond instrumental things like peeling vegetables or cooking meat), playing and so on — and these differences can be used to draw lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

If this account is correct, it suggests two things. First, that children have a natural capacity to recognise, assimilate, store and follow conventional norms, which enables them to participate in the social and cultural worlds in which they live. And second, that the reason we have such an inclination to absorb conventional norms is so that we can identify the people towards whom we should develop social preferences, in terms of increased trust, cooperation and altruism. On this picture, the emergence of culture, and especially the evolution of a psychology that supports conventional norms, is a big part of the story of how we came be the ultra-social species we are today.


1. Vaish, A., Missana, M. & Tomasello, M. (2010) Three-year-old children intervene in third-party moral transgressions. Br. J. Develop. Psychol. 29, 124–130.

2. Rakoczy, H., Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. (2008). The sources of normativity: young children’s awareness of the normative structure of games. Develop. Psychol. 44, 875–881.

3. Schmidt, M. F. H., Rokoczy, H. & Tomasello, M. (2012). Young children enforce social norms selectively depending on the violator’s group affiliation. Cognition 124, 325–333.

4. Kinzler, K. D., Dupoux, E. & Spelke, E. S. (2007). The native language of social cognition. PNAS 104, 12577–12580.


About Dan Jones

Dan Jones is a freelance science writer
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