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What's good? The origins of normative judgments


In this line of work, I study when and why children and adults reason that what is normal must be good. Prior work on these inferences from what is to what ought to be proposed that this conflation reflects an irrational bias, but I recently argued that this tendency originates in rational reasoning about the world, specifically people’s explanations about why things are the way they are. That is, I found that people tend to assume that what's normal in the natural world is the result of benevolent historical processes, so it must serve some function and therefore be good (Foster-Hanson & Lombrozo, 2022b). For example, if people assume that zebras normally have stripes because stripes have served an important function like camouflage, then it's reasonable to infer that having stripes must be good for zebras.

In recent work, I found that social judgments, like “mommy shaming,” are also shaped by the same intuitive beliefs that what’s normal for a category resulted from benevolent natural processes—and is therefore good. For example, I found that people often think that women ought to care for children because it's their natural function to do so (Foster-Hanson & Lombrozo, 2022a). In ongoing work, I'm testing the extent to which people think that men and women are inherently different because nature “designed” them that way for a purpose, and the role of these beliefs for their endorsement of unequal systems and gender stereotypes.


In line with my work on how concepts of what’s good shape beliefs about what’s normal, I found that young children often show more pronounced is-ought judgments than adults. For example, young children are stricter than adults in their judgments of both animal and human social category members that don't conform to their groups (Foster-Hanson, Roberts, Gelman, & Rhodes, 2021). This evidence of children’s domain-general expectation that what's normal must be good lends additional support for my proposal that a heightened focus on category ideals in early childhood reflects a general feature of conceptual development.

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