The question of how to understand and explain the phenomena of normativity and morality – the human sense of right and wrong and “oughtness” – is fundamental to the social sciences, philosophy, and increasingly the natural sciences. How is it that humans think that they “ought” to do certain things (e.g., stand in line at the grocery store, accept Euros as currency in some countries)? After all, we live in a causal universe full of physical laws and descriptive facts (e.g., humans cannot fly, but walk upright), don’t we?
Nonetheless, all human societies have, and heavily depend on, social norms and rules that prescribe or prohibit certain actions under certain circumstances. And prima facie, this is a peculiar fact given that by developing normative attitudes and following norms, humans limit their scope of action (and thought), be it voluntarily or through some other processes.
Fundamentally, norms are like a “social glue” that binds together group members and thereby fosters group cohesion, cooperation, and collaboration – all of which might have been crucial, if not necessary, for the evolutionary success of our species.
Norms, such as “One ought to stand in line at the grocery store”, are not embedded in our genetic code – rather, humans create, transmit, learn, and enforce such norms. But how do human infants and young children learn and come to understand norms? What are the psychological foundations that allow us to differentiate between “right” and “wrong”, that is, to appreciate normativity and thus build complex moral (cooperative) systems, social institutions, and cultural knowledge? These are the central questions that guide the research of our group.
In social-cognitive terms, we understand the human ability and motivation to entertain collective intentional states (e.g., “We do X in context C!”) as fundamental to developing an understanding of normativity. Importantly, we do not conceive of normativity as an isolated domain, but as fundamentally intertwined with theory of mind and epistemology (in particular, regarding learning mechanisms) on the one hand, and with prosociality and other-regard on the other.
Thus, our research focuses on three lines of investigation whose goal is to shed light on
- the depth and breadth of young children’s understanding of normativity
- mechanisms of normative learning
- interrelations between moral, epistemic, and prosocial development
The aim of our research group is to provide the foundation for developing an integrative theoretical framework of human normativity including ties to epistemology and prosociality, which is to spur further integrative research.
To address our research questions, we employ a range of different empirical methods, in particular, interactive tasks (simulating real-life situations) in which we measure infants’ and children’s spontaneous verbal and non-verbal actions as well as eye-tracking.