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When to swim with or against the tide? Preschoolers’ conformity to social and eating behaviors and individual differences

Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

Social norms play an important role in guiding individuals’ behavior in society. By following social norms, individuals benefit from the knowledge a given society or culture has accumulated in its interactions with the natural world and management of social relations. While adherence to others’ norms can encourage beneficial decisions, such as recycling (Schultz, 1999) and energy conservation (Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, & Griskevicius, 2007), it can also lead individuals to make irrational decisions, such as making perceptually incorrect or potentially harmful judgments (Asch, 1956; Milgram, 1963; Zimbardo, 1973). Thus, it is important to explore conformity to group norms to better understand how social pressure might spur or maintain beneficial or maladaptive behavior. Past research has focused on adults with little attention given to conformist behavior in early childhood, social conformity across various domains, as well as alternative modes of conforming (anticonformity; Willis, 1963). Additionally, factors related to the act of conforming to peer groups have been underexplored. To extend basic research on early conformist behaviors and to allow for translational findings that might help promote positive growth for young children, two socially important behavior domains (moral/social-conventional judgments, food eating behaviors) were chosen to investigate the effects of conformity among preschoolers.

In a series of four studies, this dissertation aimed to (1) examine the extent to which preschoolers conform and anticonform to peers’ social norms in different domains (judgment about antisocial and unconventional behaviors in Study 1, healthy food preferences in Study 2, healthy and unhealthy food portions in Study 3, and actual food consumption in Study 4 (with drinks); and (2) examine whether maturity-related individual characteristics (age, inhibitory control, theory of mind) and activities and parenting practices facilitate conformity and/or anticonformity. Three-to-6 year olds from preschools in Singapore were tested in the four studies (N =58 in Study 1; N = 89 in Study 2; N = 75 in Study 3; N = 89 in Study 4).

Results showed conformity effects across moral/social-conventional judgments and all three food eating behaviors, suggesting that peers (even ones that are not present) can change initial judgments and behavior in domains of social importance. Evidence for anticonformity was also found for moral/social-conventional judgments and healthy food preferences, demonstrating that some preschoolers tended to counter social pressure. Preschoolers’ participation in extracurricular activities was found to be associated with moral conformity as well as conformity to peers’ healthy food portion selections. Age and BMI were also linked to conformity in food/drink choice and portion selection behaviors, indicating that some inherent traits were likely to be associated with peer influence in eating behaviors. Although correlates of conformity were sporadic, all but one were consistent with the predicted direction that higher social cognitive maturity would be associated with higher conformity to healthy eating behaviors and lower conformity to moral transgressions. In sum, findings from these set of studies shed light on the complex interplay of prudence and trust that preschoolers place on peers in social learning, and the association of various child characteristics and parenting with differentiated conformity to socially relevant norms. Some limitations include not measuring BMI for all food–related studies (due to time constraints) as well as not including follow-up questions as to why children did or did not agree with the group. Future research should examine conformity among young children in other health-related behaviors, in which peers may promote beneficial behavior.

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