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Preschool children already subject to peer pressure

Children are sensitive to the opinion and behaviour of adults from a young age. Researchers from the Max Planck Institutes for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen and Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig have found that four-year-old children are also subject to pressure from their peers. The study, from Daniel Haun and Michael Tomasello, was published in the journal Child Development on October 24.
Preschool children already subject to peer pressure

Photo MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology.

November 7, 2011

Humans conform to majority opinion, even when they know better. This conformity plays a crucial role in the acquisition of our group’s behavioural repertoire. We learn group-specific behaviour by observing other group members, and when confronted with information that stands in conflict with our own beliefs or preferences, we often succumb to the point of view of the majority.

Daniel Haun (MPI for Psycholinguistics and MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology) and Michael Tomasello (MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology) analysed how preschoolers handle information that they acquire from peers. A total of 96 four-year-old girls and boys from 24 different kindergarten groups participated in their current study. "We wanted to know whether preschool children conform their opinion to the majority view, even if it is obviously in conflict with their own point of view," explains Daniel Haun.

Daniel Haun Experiment Stimulus

In the first part of the study the preschoolers were tested in groups of four children each. They received seemingly identical books including 30 double pages with illustrations of animal families. On the left page were mother, father and child together, on the right only one of the three. The children were asked to identify the family member on the right. Yet, while the children believed all books to be the same, only three of the four books were actually identical, the fourth sometimes included the picture of a different family member on the right page. Haun explains, "The child with the divergent book was confronted with what was, from his or her point of view, a false but unanimous judgement from three peers. Out of 24 children, 18 conformed at least once although they knew the majority response to be false.”

Conform to majority

In a second study, the researchers investigated the motivation underlying children’s conformity. In this study, children were prompted to either say their answer out loud or to silently point to the correct animal, depending on whether a lamp was on or off. Only the adult observer, not the other children, could see their answers. Of 18 children, 12 conformed to the majority at least once if they had to say the answer out loud. When they pointed silently to the right answer, however, only 8 out of 18 children conformed to the majority judgement. The children thus conformed their public, but not their private, answer to the majority. This indicates that their conformity has social reasons, for example, to avoid conflict with their peer group. Haun summarises: “The current study shows that children as young as four years of age are subject to peer pressure and that they succumb to it, at least to some extent, out of social motivations.”

With thanks to Sandra Jacob, MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Personal page Daniel Haun

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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