Psychological essentialism of social categories in the U.S.

Abstract

Psychological essentialism’ refers to the concept that an underlying reality exists within certain groups that give members the features, characteristics, behaviors, and outcomes associated with category membership. Previous research has indicated that people do hold essentialist beliefs about natural and social categories, but that we essentialize categories in varying degrees. Factors such as a person’s religiosity, age, and status have an impact on which social categories are more essentialized than others. Our study aimed to determine what role conflict plays in psychological essentialism of social categories. That is, does a person’s experience within a social or political conflict impact which social categories are essentialized, and to what degree? In this study, University students in Boston, Massachusetts rated social categories across several dimensions that measure different aspects of essentialist thinking. Our hypothesis stated that because of racial inequalities that exist within our country, participants would rate racial and ethnic categories higher on the dimensions of essentialism than they would rate other categories such as political affiliation or religion. Further research can use the results of this study to make cross-cultural comparisons about how adults essentialized social groups. Follow up studies should be done to examine which of the most highly essentialized categories are used to make inferences and predictions about people’s behavior.