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The Early Ontogeny of Social Norms


  • Hannes Rakoczy, Institute of Psychology & Courant Research Centre “Evolution of Social Behaviour,” University of Göttingen; Marco F. H. Schmidt, Department of Developmental and Comparative Psychology, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.
  • We would like to thank Michael Tomasello for comments on an earlier draft of this paper. Thanks are also due to Dana Barthel and Marina Josephs for help in preparing the manuscript. This work was supported by a “Dilthey Fellowship” of the Volkswagen Foundation and the Fritz Thyssen Foundation and by the German Initiative of Excellence.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Hannes Rakoczy, Institute of Psychology & Courant Research Centre, Evolution of Social Behaviour, University of Göttingen, Waldweg 26, Göttingen D-37073, Germany; e-mail:


Recent research has produced new insights into the early development of social cognition and social learning. Even very young children learn and understand social activities as governed by conventional norms that (a) are arbitrary and shared by the community, (b) have normative force and apply to all participants, and (c) are valid in context-relative ways. Importantly, such understanding is revealed both in the fact that children themselves follow the norms, and in the fact that they actively enforce them toward third parties. Human social cognition thus has a fundamental normative dimension that begins early. This norm psychology plausibly evolved due to its role in stabilizing group coordination and cooperation, and is one of the foundations of what is uniquely human social learning and culture.