According to experimental psychologist Michael Tomasello, human language, learning, culture, and cooperation are all built on a common foundation of shared intentionality. Humans are like other animals in that they act with intent: they seek food, flee from predators, pursue mating opportunities, and so on. Humans differ from other animals in recognizing that other humans also act with intent. In Tomasello’s paradigmatic exemplar, a 12-month-old (pre-linguistic) human infant points to an object that someone else is seeking. By pointing, the infant simultaneously demonstrates that he understands the other’s intentions with respect to the pointed-at object, and he expects the other to understand the pointing gesture as an intentional act of information-sharing.
In Why We Cooperate (2009), Tomasello proposes that shared intentionality serves also as the basis for norms. Norms of cooperation make sense in this context: if each of us wants food, and each of us knows that the other wants food, then we are both functioning within a joint intentional frame. Establishing a norm for sharing food is useful for avoiding a fight, during which some third individual might sneak up and steal the food from both of us or a predator might eat us both for lunch.
But what about norms of conformity? If no one is actually harmed by violating a social convention, why do humans both follow and enforce the convention? The preschool teacher tells a kid to put the coat over there in the corner: why does the kid do it, rather than just tossing her coat wherever she feels like it? Piaget claimed that social rule-following is motivated initially by authority: if I toss my coat the teacher will punish me. Piaget asserted that only later, after kids have internalized authority-driven conformity, lose their thoroughgoing egocentricity, and start seeing one another as autonomous agents, do kids start enforcing the coats-go-over-there rule on one another.
So here’s a study that Tomasello conducted to evaluate the Piagetian theory of developmental acquisition of norm-based behavior:
“Three-year-old children were shown how to play a one-person game. When a puppet later entered and announced that it, too, would play the game, but then did so in a different way, most of the children objected, sometimes vociferously. The children’s language when they objected demonstrated clearly that they were not just expressing their personal displeasure at a deviation. They made generic, normative declarations like, ‘It doesn’t work like that,’ ‘One can’t do that,’ and so forth. They do not merely disapprove of the puppet playing the game differently; he is playing it improperly. This behavior is of critical importance, as it is one thing to follow a norm — perhaps to avoid the negative consequences of not following it — and it is quite another to legislate the norm when not involved oneself.”
In this study the rules don’t regulate the players’ cooperative social interaction within the game; rather, the rules are the game — they define the game — and playing the game is not a social activity but a solitary one. In learning the game the kids in this study were not subjected either to reward for following the rules or to punishment for breaking them. The puppet doesn’t play the game less effectively by not following the rules, since changing the rules changes the game. The puppet isn’t cheating an opponent or keeping a teammate from succeeding — isn’t violating mutual cooperative expectations — by not playing properly. In learning from the adult how the game is “supposed” to be played, the adult doesn’t have to describe the rules or make a mistake and then correct herself. Merely demonstrating how the game is played is enough to activate expectations in the observing kids about how the game should be played.
According to Tomasello, results of this study demonstrate that
“even young children already have some sense of shared intentionality, that is to say, that they are part of some larger ‘we’ intentionality. I contend that without this added dimension of some kind of ‘we’ identity and rationality, it is impossible to explain why children take it upon themselves to actively enforce social norms on others from a third-party stance, expecially those norms that are not based on cooperation but rather on constitutive rules that are, in an important sense, arbitrary.”
Tomasello contends that this sense of collective intentionality witnessed in three-year-olds is a generalized manifestation of the “he is me” identification with the other that is already manifest in the joint intentional behavior of those 12-month-old pointing infants he previously told us about. Conforming to the arbitrary rules of a game and enforcing them on others is not that different from participating in “language games,” in which specific meanings are arbitrarily assigned to specific sounds or physical markings — a game that can be played by oneself as well as with other people.
For readers with a philosophical orientation to normativity as it relates to human cognition and society, you might want to check in with bloggers Duncan Law, Deontologistics, Planomenology, and Minds and Brains.