Universal norm psychology leads to societal diversity in prosocial behaviour and development


Recent studies have proposed that social norms play a key role in motivating human cooperation and in explaining the unique scale and cultural diversity of our prosociality. However, there have been few studies that directly link social norms to the form, development and variation in prosocial behaviour across societies. In a cross-cultural study of eight diverse societies, we provide evidence that (1) the prosocial behaviour of adults is predicted by what other members of their society judge to be the correct social norm, (2) the responsiveness of children to novel social norms develops similarly across societies and (3) societally variable prosocial behaviour develops concurrently with the responsiveness of children to norms in middle childhood. These data support the view that the development of prosocial behaviour is shaped by a psychology for responding to normative information, which itself develops universally across societies.

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Fig. 1: Arrangement of the apparatus and testing area.
Fig. 2: Results of models 1b, 2 and 3.
Fig. 3: Results of models 4b, 5, 7 and 8.
Fig. 4: Results of models 6c and 6d.

Data Availability

All data supporting the findings of this study are provided in the Supplementary Code and data.

Code Availability

All code supporting the findings of this study are provided in the Supplementary Code and data.


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We thank C. Ross for assistance with statistical methods, and the staff of the Institute of Human Origins at Arizona State University for support. This research was funded by a grant (grant no. 48952) from the John Templeton Foundation to the Institute of Human Origins, Arizona State University. The opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation. This research was also funded by a Freigeist Fellowship from the Volkswagen Foundation to P.K. (grant no. 89611) and a SSHRC Doctoral Scholarship to S.L.-L. (award no. 752-2016-0555). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information




B.R.H. and J.B.S. conceived the project and designed the study. P.K., H.C.B., T.B., A.E., S.L.-L., C.S.-E. and A.M.S. also contributed to study design. B.R.H., P.K., H.C.B., T.B., S.C., A.E., S.L.-L., C.S.-E., A.M.S., S.Y. and A.N.C. collected data. B.R.H. analysed the data. B.R.H. and J.B.S. wrote the manuscript and P.K. and H.C.B. also contributed substantially to writing. All of the authors contributed to writing the Supplementary Information.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bailey R. House.

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Peer review information Primary Handling Editor: Stavroula Kousta.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Methods, Supplementary Results, Supplementary Figs. 1–14 and Supplementary Tables 1–10.

Reporting Summary

Code and data

All datasets and R code for statistical analyses and figures.

Experimental Stimuli Videos

All video stimuli used across the different experimental conditions.

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House, B.R., Kanngiesser, P., Barrett, H.C. et al. Universal norm psychology leads to societal diversity in prosocial behaviour and development. Nat Hum Behav 4, 36–44 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0734-z

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