Children across societies enforce conventional norms but in culturally variable ways

Patricia Kanngiesser, Marie Schäfer, Esther Herrmann, Henriette Zeidler, Daniel Haun, Michael Tomasello

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Individuals in all societies conform to their cultural group’s conventional norms, from how to dress on certain occasions to how to play certain games. It is an open question, however, whether individuals in all societies actively enforce the group’s conventional norms when others break them. We investigated third-party enforcement of conventional norms in 5- to 8-y-old children (n = 376) from eight diverse small-scale and large-scale societies. Children learned the rules for playing a new sorting game and then, observed a peer who was apparently breaking them. Across societies, observer children intervened frequently to correct their misguided peer (i.e., more frequently than when the peer was following the rules). However, both the magnitude and the style of interventions varied across societies. Detailed analyses of children’s interactions revealed societal differences in children’s verbal protest styles as well as in their use of actions, gestures, and nonverbal expressions to intervene. Observers’ interventions predicted whether their peer adopted the observer’s sorting rule. Enforcement of conventional norms appears to be an early emerging human universal that comes to be expressed in culturally variable ways.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2112521118
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number1
Early online date30 Dec 2021
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jan 2022

Bibliographical note

Copyright © 2021 the Author(s). Published by PNAS. This open access article is distributed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives License 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND).


  • Conventions
  • Coordination
  • Cross-cultural
  • Norms
  • Sanctions


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