10.4 Psychological Essentialism: Examples & Application

Jan 15, 2020 | Cognitive Psychology, Courses, ch10 Mental Organisation of Knowledge

Why do we think a certain way? Sometimes, we don’t even realize what makes us categorize objects, or people, the way we do. In this lesson, we will discuss the idea of psychological essentialism, and how it affects our thinking and actions.

More the Same, or More Alike?

A talking Barbie doll says, ”Math is hard!” An adopted son searches for his birth mother. A wealthy music fan pays thousands of dollars for a scarf thrown from a stage by Elvis Presley, complete with the King’s sweat stains still intact. A post on an extremist website makes crude generalizations about people of different colors and religions.

What do these situations have in common? At first, it might seem they share nothing. However, if we take a closer look at why these events took place, we come to a surprising conclusion. All of them, probably without anyone involved realizing it, owe what they perceive as their reality, or existence, to a concept not widely known, but influential: the idea of psychological essentialism.

What Is Psychological Essentialism?

Essentialism as a philosophy goes back thousands of years, to the days of the great Greek philosophers. Plato theorized that everything had its own unique essence, a set of traits that made up its identity. Aristotle agreed, saying that each entity had a particular substance; without it, he noted, that entity would not be what it was.

The concept of essentialism has been debated almost as long as it has been in existence, though. Socrates did not subscribe to it, asking if mud or hair also had their own essences.

From the psychological point of view, essentialism is a way the brain represents and classifies things. It is especially interesting to study how this idea applies to children’s thinking. Developmental psychologists have long assumed that young children relied on the most concrete features of a thing in order to categorize it. On the contrary, studies show that children frequently group things as if they have underlying essences which, though they cannot be seen, can be used to predict characteristics the members of that group would have in common.

Not only that, but the appearance of an entity can change, without changing that essence. For example, if one wants to classify tigers based only on concrete observable features, one would say: it has stripes, four legs, and sharp teeth. If an old tiger loses his teeth, though, or a tiger loses a leg in a fight, that doesn’t make it any less of a tiger. So there would appear to be some validity to the idea.

Overreach: When Essentialism Becomes Prejudice

Researchers theorize that essentialism developed as a way to organize the earliest concepts in human thought, such as wild animals in a hostile environment, or edible plants. Psychologists are fascinated by the idea that humans have a sort of innate tendency to look for an inner essence that makes members of a group belong. A problem arises, however, when that tendency becomes an inclination toward stereotyping.

Say, Cecily introduces her friends Jane and Mary to her new boyfriend Carlos. After the couple leaves, Mary says, ”Cecily sure looks happy.” ”Well, of course,” Jane replies archly. ”Everybody knows Latin guys are great lovers!”

Jane is definitely engaging in unconscious essentialism here! For starters, unless Cecily specifically mentioned that Carlos is of Latin ancestry, Jane is making an assumption based on his name or appearance. Then, based on that, she relies on her concept of an essence she believes common to all men of Latin descent, and attributes to him, deservedly or not, the status of a great lover.

This example is relatively benign, but when essentialism becomes unconscious bias, it can become dangerous. A police officer, for example, may be adamant that all people are treated the same; but if confronted with a situation requiring split-second judgment, an action may be taken, based on assumptions about the persons involved, that the police officer isn’t even consciously aware of.

Putting Essentialism in Its Place

Now that we know the part essentialism plays in our thinking, let’s go back to those examples from the start of the lesson. Barbie says math is hard; Barbie is a girl; so, some might assume, math is hard for all girls. This example illustrates recent findings that the language we use can reinforce essentialist thought.

The adopted man searching for his birth mother may be acting out some essentialist thought too, though not in a negative way. Besides more concrete reasons for his search, like needing to know his family medical history, he may simply feel a connection to the woman who bore him. That same feeling may spur the music fan with deep pockets to want to own something that touched that person’s idol, and those are not bad things in themselves.

The extremist who traffics in offensive stereotypes is a whole other matter, though. How do we keep from falling prey to such bigotry?

As we saw with Barbie, language plays a big role. Instead of saying ”Math is hard”, she could as easily say ”I think math is hard, but Francie loves it.” The use of nongeneric language, that doesn’t overgeneralize, helps decrease the inappropriate use of essentialist thought. Simpler still, we can just learn to be aware of our essentialist leanings, but counter them with the knowledge that every person is unique.

Lesson Summary

Psychological essentialism is a way humans represent and classify things. The brain groups things as if each has an underlying essence which, though invisible, can be used to predict characteristics the members of that group would have in common. It’s theorized that essentialism evolved to help early humans categorize items in their environment, such as wild animals or useful plants.

Today, we must be watchful that we do not let the tendency toward essentialism lead us to subconsciously stereotype individuals based on assumptions about a group we put them in. Nongeneric language is useful to counter generalizations and reinforces the awareness that every person is unique.

10.5 Semantic Memory Network Model
10.3 Theories of Cognitive Categorization & Classification