Rational learners and parochial norms


Parochial norms are narrow in social scope, meaning they apply to certain groups but not to others. Accounts of norm acquisition typically invoke tribal biases: from an early age, people assume a group’s behavioral regularities are prescribed and bounded by mere group membership. However, another possibility is rational learning: given the available evidence, people infer the social scope of norms in statistically appropriate ways. With this paper, we introduce a rational learning account of parochial norm acquisition and test a unique prediction that it makes. In one study with adults (N = 480) and one study with children ages 5- to 8-years-old (N = 120), participants viewed violations of a novel rule sampled from one of two unfamiliar social groups. We found that adults' judgments of social scope - whether the rule applied only to the sampled group (parochial scope), or other groups (inclusive scope) - were appropriately sensitive to the relevant features of their statistical evidence (Study 1). In children (Study 2) we found an age difference: 7- to 8-year-olds used statistical evidence to infer that norms were parochial or inclusive, whereas 5- to 6-year-olds were overall inclusive regardless of statistical evidence. A Bayesian analysis shows a possible inclusivity bias: adults and children inferred inclusive rules more frequently than predicted by a naïve Bayesian model with unbiased priors. This work highlights that tribalist biases in social cognition are not necessary to explain the acquisition of parochial norms.

In Cognition