How Little Kids Decide What ‘Normal’ Means

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Photo: Thomas M. Barwick/Getty Images

When you’re a little kid, learning everything for the very first time — “a little snot-nosed sponge,” as my colleague Drake has put it — you don’t have time for nuance. You’re too busy soaking everything in. Sometimes, that means you have to take some shortcuts. And one of those shortcuts, according to a new study published last week in Psychological Science, is in deciding what “normal” means: Seeing something once, it seems, is enough to consider it the standard.

For the study, researchers recruited 48 3-year-olds — an age chosen, the authors explain, “because 3 is the youngest age at which children have been shown to regularly understand and use normative language in response to potential norm violations” (in other words, that’s around the time when they start correcting people for saying or doing the wrong thing). Each kid was placed in a room with an experimenter and a puppet, who proceeded to act out a bit of a show: In the first act, while the puppet sat quietly, the adult would use a collection of objects to play a simple game, like pushing a ball with a hammer or fitting pegs into disks. In some cases, the experimenter framed it as a demonstration, making eye contact and asking the child to pay attention; in others, they acted indifferent as they played, or even pretended they’d come up with the game by accident — saying “oops” as they hit the ball, for example.

In the second act, the experimenter finished up what they were doing and handed the objects off to the kid to examine. After a few minutes, the puppet would get in on the action and ask to take a turn with them, inventing a game that was obviously different than whatever the adult had been doing. Again and again, the researchers saw the same thing happen: The kid would try to stop the puppet from “misusing” the objects, sometimes using actions (gesturing, seizing the toys for a demonstration) and sometimes using words (explaining the “right” way to do things, or calling to the adult to intervene). They even did it when the experimenter had made the first set of actions look like an accident, rather than a conscious choice.

It’s all a little bit convoluted, but it boils down to this: Little kids will often see something and assume that’s just The Way Things Are Done, even if an adult doesn’t do anything to suggest that might be true. By age 3, the researchers wrote, children are “promiscuous normativists” who “have a natural and proactive tendency to go from ‘is’ to ‘ought.’” Put another way, they leap straight from “this is how one person used this thing” to “this is how everyone uses this thing, and you’re wrong for using it any other way,” without stopping to collect more evidence first. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail; when all you have is a blank slate, everything looks like a norm.