Revisiting Racism: Psychological Essentialism, Part I

Not actually a tiger. Image by Flickr user Exkhaniber.

Not actually a tiger. Image by Flickr user Exkhaniber.

There are a couple of posts that bring steady traffic to my blog, even though they written a long time ago and even though I have barely updated the blog since I wrote those posts. One of these is on the relationship between religion and racism. Racism is an important topic for psychologists, one with substantial application to our understanding of everyday social behavior. So there is a lot to say about it, and I would like to revisit it this week with a couple of posts on one of the psychological processes underlying racism: psychological essentialism. Today, I’ll explain what psychological essentialism is, and in the second post later this week, I will explain how it is linked to racism. 

What makes a tiger a tiger? Is something a tiger because it has black stripes, four legs, a tail, etc.? Or is there something deeper, something inside that makes it a tiger? If you are like most people, you probably believe that just having the features of a tiger (stripes, etc.) is not enough to be a tiger. After all, if I painted stripes on myself, crawled around on all fours, and taped a tail to my rear end, I wouldn’t be a tiger. No, there is something else, something invisible to the naked eye, something inside the tiger that makes it a tiger. If you agree, then you might be a psychological essentialist.

Psychological essentialism is a theory that claims people see natural kinds (like tigers, skunks, water, and gold) differently than they see artifacts (like coffe makers, tables, flower pots, and lamps). You might agree that there is something inside the the tiger that makes it a tiger, but you probably don’t think the same thing about a coffee maker. The coffee maker is a coffee maker because it makes coffee, but the tiger isn’t a tiger because he tigers, whatever that would mean.

Maybe Charlie Sheen is a tiger in a really good human costume.

Maybe Charlie Sheen is a tiger in a really good human costume.

No, the tiger has tiger DNA (or tiger blood?), and that’s what makes it a tiger. Gold is gold because it’s made up of gold atoms and not silver atoms. This belief in the unseeable, internal properties that define a natural object category is the core of psychological essentialism (Gelman, 2003). This is where the term essentialism come from: people’s beliefs about what exactly inside something is so important might vary a lot, from DNA to atoms to blood, so as a general term, this important internal thing called an essence.

As adults, you and I know about things like DNA and atoms, but as children, did we think that the stripes make the tiger? Or did we still think that there is something inside, even if we don’t know what it might be, that makes the tiger a tiger?

The answer seems to be that, if we were typical children, it might have taken us a while to realize that insides matter for natural kinds, but we probably understood them before we knew what atoms and DNA are. In a now classic study, Frank Keil (1989) told kindergarten, second grade, and fourth grade children stories about doctors who had performed operations on a set of natural kinds and artifacts. For example, one story told about doctors who had dyed a raccoon black, painted a white stripe down its back, and put a sac of smelly gunk inside it. In another story, the doctors sawed the handle off of a coffeepot, sealed its top and spout, cut a window in it, attached a perch, and filled it with bird food. After these stories, the children were asked to choose the post-operative identity of the object. Is the object in the first story a raccoon or a skunk? Is the object in the second story a coffeepot or a bird feeder?

Across age groups, children overwhelmingly answered the artifacts (for example, coffeepot/bird feeder, kitchen pipe/flute, tire/boot) had changed their identities. The kindergardeners were likely to say that the identities of the natural kinds (for example, raccoon/skunk, diamond/pearl, grapefruit/orange) had also changed.  However, the second and fourth graders mostly thought the natural objects’ identities had stayed the same. So it seems that as children age, they become aware that natural kinds don’t just change because they begin to look or act like something else. There is something deeper that makes a raccoon a raccoon than simply what color it is or how it smells. Similar results have been found in lots of other studies, with children as young as 4 or 5 seeming to make the distinction between artifacts and natural kinds.

It turns out that essentialist thinking has a number of consequences for how we reason about different categories. When people behave as if they believe a category has an essence, they come to believe that category membership is innate and cannot be changed, that category members share many of the same properties, and that knowing category membership (e.g., knowing that something is a tiger) tells one a lot about an object (Gelman, Heyman, & Legare, 2007).

Are you beginning to see how this might relate to racism? In my next post, I will discuss how some of these findings (e.g., stability of category membership) apply to how people think about race.


Gelman, S. A. (2003). The essential child: Origins of essentialism in everyday thought. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gelman, S. A., Heyman, G. D., & Legare, C. H. (2007). Developmental changes in the coherence of essentialist beliefs about psychological characteristics. Child Development, 78, 757–774. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.01031.x

Keil, F. C. (1989). Concepts, kinds, and cognitive developmentCambridge, MA: MIT Press.


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