Elite Network: Developmental Origins of Human Normativity

Developmental Origins of Human Normativity

All human societies have, and heavily depend on, social norms and rules that prescribe or proscribe certain actions. Norms are like “social glue” that binds together group members and thereby fosters cooperation. How do human children come to understand norms? What are the psychological foundations that allow us to differentiate between “right” and “wrong”, that is, to appreciate normativity? These are the central questions that guide the research of our group.

The Junior Research Group at a glance

Place of researchLudwig-Maximilians-Universität München
AssociationInternational Doctorate Program „REASON”
Project duration2015 to 2021
Group leaderProf. Dr. Marco F. H. Schmidt
Contact the group leader

The phenomenon of normativity

Importantly, we do not conceive of normativity as an isolated domain, but as fun­da­mentally intertwined with theory of mind and, more broadly, with epistemology. This is because what we see in our everyday life are not “norms” – an abstract notion – but particular actions by particular individuals with particular beliefs, desires, and intentions in the here and now. That is to say, the young learner needs to solve a knowl­edge problem: to infer whether a specific action is subject to a generic norm or not. More fundamentally, beyond inferring the exis­tence of a standard or norm, under­stan­ding normativity also means grasping that normative phenomena are human-made social facts that can be changed or brought into existence under certain conditions (e.g., by aligning our beliefs, desires, and intentions). But something is missing. We not only understand normativity theoretically, but we also care about normativity practically.

Most strikingly, we are motivated to act in accord with norms, to correct or punish others who violate norms, and so to uphold common prac­ti­ces and values, even at a personal cost. That is, normativity – most evidently morality – is also interrelated with prosociality.

Goal and orientation of the research group

Our research group intends to approach the de­ve­lop­mental emergence of our “norm psy­cho­lo­gy” by relating it to theory of mind, epistemology, and prosociality. We employ a range of different em­pi­ri­cal methods (e.g., eye-tracking and inter­active tasks simulating real-life situations) to tackle a number of important and interrelated questions about the origins of human normativity.


Hence, the goal of the 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. Such a frame­work may improve our under­stan­ding of the psychological foun­da­tions that are essential to the hu­man capacity to cooperate, build so­cial institutions, learn from others, and co-construct cultural know­ledge.

Portrait photo: Prof. Dr. Marco F. H. Schmidt

Our group investigates the psychological foundations and de­ve­lop­men­tal origins of normativity and thus addresses the question of how human cooperation, complex moral systems and societies as well as social institutions are established and maintained.

Prof. Dr. Marco F. H. Schmidt

Our research is inherently interdisciplinary and thus sits at the nexus of the social sciences, humanities (in particular philosophy), and natural sciences. The International Junior Research Group is affiliated with the Department of Psychology and the Inter­national Doctorate Program REASON (Scientific Reasoning and Argumentation) at LMU Munich.

Further cooperations

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzig, Germany
Harvard UniversityCambridge, USA 
University of Los AndesBogota, Colombia
University of Duisburg-EssenEssen, Germany
University of CaliforniaBerkeley, USA
University of KentCanterbury, Great Britain
University of MarylandCollege Park, USA
University of LeipzigLeipzig, Germany