Revisiting Racism: Psychological Essentialism, Part II

Earlier this week, I wrote about psychological essentialism, the idea that people tend to see certain categories as having an underlying essence that causes them to be what they are and to have the properties that they do. I gave the example of thinking that tigers are what they are because there is something inside them, DNA perhaps, which is responsible for their being tigers and having stripes and tails. Today, I want to discuss what all of this might have to do with racism.

It turns out that people think this way not just about natural kinds (like tigers and gold) but about social kinds as well. You can see this kind of thinking throughout history. For example, in the US the one-drop rule, the idea that any amount of African ancestry (that is, any amount of African blood—even one drop) makes one Black, was for some time a legally instituted definition of race. Although people may not have believed the blood metaphor literally, it is telling in its emphasis on an internal, undetectable, and biological determiner of social identity. We may no longer talk about drops of racial blood, but we still see this same kind of thinking today. Consider, for example, the attempt to analyze Newtown shooter Adam Lanza’s DNA for an explanation for his actions. We’re probably just as unlikely to find killer DNA as we are to find African blood, but the desire to explain differences between humans in terms of underlying, biological essences is strong.

But believing that people are different beneath the surface doesn’t itself explain prejudice and discrimination. So how do psychologists go from one to the other? As I mentioned at the end of my earlier post, psychological essentialism doesn’t stop at the idea that there is something deep inside that causes category membership. After all, the idea that a group of people has some deep, biological similarity implies lots of things about that group. People who have that belief are also likely to have a host of other kinds of beliefs about category memberships. They also tend to believe that category membership is unalterable, stable over growth, passed from parent to child, biologically based, and innate. Likewise, they may believe that category members share many features and that category membership is exclusive (for example, a person can belong to only one race), absolute (for example, a person either is or is not White; one cannot be a part member of a race), informative (tells you a lot about someone), and inherent (a real part of the world and not simply a social categorization). These beliefs have implications for how people think about and act towards people of different social categories.

Racial Essentialism Begins Early

It probably will not surprise you to learn that people hold these beliefs about race. What might surprise you is how young people acquire these beliefs. Anthropologist and psychologist Lawrence Hirschfeld conducted a brilliant series of experiments with children in which he investigated how ideas about race develop. For  the full effect, you should read his book Race in the Making. Here, I will summarize just one of his experiments.

Sample items from Hirschfeld (1995)

Sample items from Hirschfeld (1995).

In this study, Hirschfeld (1995) showed 3, 4, and 7-year-old children pictures of an adult and two children. Each of the children matched the adult on two of three properties: skin color, body type, or clothing. However, which properties that had in common was different for each of the children. For example, if the adult had dark skin, a large body type, and a police officer’s uniform, one of the children might have light skin, a large body type, and a police officer’s uniform. The other child would have dark skin, a large body type, and regular clothes. Participants then had to answer one of three questions: “Which of these is the adult as a child?”, “Which of these is the adult’s child?”, or “Which of these is most similar to the adult?” In answering these questions, participants had to decide which of the two differing features is most relevant? In the example given, is skin color or occupational clothing less likely to change over a person’s lifetime, less likely to be passed on to a child, or less central to similarity? Asked a different way, which is more central to identity over growth, inheritance, or similarity: race or occupation? Children in study saw a series of such pictures that allowed them answer for each of the three possible pairings (race/body build, race/occupation, body build/occupation).

When the children were asked about similarity, they chose the racially similar picture over the bodily similar picture a little more than half the time, the racially similar picture over the occupationally similar picture a little less than half the time, and the occupationally similar picture over the bodily similar picture a little more than half the time. However, when the questions were about growth or inheritance, the children chose the racially similar picture much more often than either the bodily similar or the occupationally similar picture, even though they did not change in how often they chose occupation over body type. The older children chose race more often than the other children, but even the three-year-olds chose race more often in response to the growth and identity questions than to the similarity question.

What does all of this mean? Even by three years old, children are beginning to see race as more central to identity, more stable, and more inheritable than other kinds of social categories. Of course, the effects at three years old were small, but it is amazing that even children this young see race as stable and central to identity. As the children got older, too, they began to see race as more important in the similarity questions, suggesting that they are also developing expectations that people with similar skin colors also share other traits more than people of similar occupational interests or body types do. (This, if anything, is a good argument for why parents should talk to their children about race: Children are learning about race and developing theories of it regardless, so parents may as well try to influence those theories in a positive way.)

Essentialism Predicts Stereotyping and Discrimination

As children grow up, they often carry these ideas about race with them into adulthood, and those who do are more likely to endorse racial stereotypes. Two psychologists, Brock Bastian and Nick Haslam (2006), asked participants to rate how much they agreed with several generic essentialism items. For example, the item, “The kind of person someone is can be largely attributed to their genetic inheritance,” taps into people’s belief in an underlying biological basis for identity, and the item, “It is possible to know about many aspects of a person once you become familiar with a few of their basic traits,” taps into the idea that some features of a person are more central and informative than others. People who agreed with these essentialist statements were more likely to attribute stereotypical traits to nine different social groups (males, females, homosexuals, Japanese, Aboriginals, Jews, doctors, lawyers, and politicians). (Note: It didn’t matter whether the traits were good or bad; essentialism predicted stereotype endorsement regardless of whether the stereotypes were positive or negative.)

The connection between essentialism and racism extends to behavior, too. In one study, psychologists Melissa Williams and Jennifer Eberhardt (2008) had participants read one of two fake science news stories. For some participants, the story described a breakthrough in genetic science that allowed scientists to tell what race someone is by examining their genes and claimed that race was inherited from parents through genes. For other participants, the story said that scientists were not able to use genes to guess a person’s race and that the practice of classifying human races according to skin color was based in culture, not biology. These essays were intended to prime either an essentialist, biological idea of race or a cultural one. This part of the study was ostensibly about how well people can comprehend science stories, so participants answered a few questions about the articles before moving on to a supposedly unrelated task.

The experimenters told participants that they would be working on something with another participant shortly. They were asked to fill out a brief personal information sheet about themselves that would be shared with their partner. These sheets included basic demographic information like race and gender as well as information about likes and dislikes. Once they completed these, participants were shown the sheet filled out by their partner. In reality, this sheets was filled out ahead of time by the experimenter. The partner’s sheet listed their race as Black. (Only 3% of participants were Black, so for most participants, this represented a cross-racial interaction.) Participants were told that they could sign up to work with this same partner again in future studies for payment and asked whether they would like to do so. Participants never actually interacted with their partner. The study set-up was a ruse to find out how willing they were to spend time with someone from a different racial group.

The results are astounding. When participants read the essay promoting a biological view of race, only 40% of participants were willing to complete future studies with their partner. But when participants read the essay promoting a cultural view of race, they were almost 1.5 times as likely to choose to work with their partner again; 59% of these participants agreed to come in for future studies. Thinking about race as linked to an internal, biological cause made participants less willing to spend time with their partners. Although the authors don’t address this question in their article, it is unlikely that participants explicitly drew an inference from the reported genetic basis of race to their preference not to work with this partner again. Instead, it’s more likely that reading the article simply made stereotypes about race more accessible and more likely to be endorsed. From there, it’s not a far leap to the feeling that spending more time with this person would not be worth the money, even if the connection is unknown to participants.


Psychological essentialism is a widespread and problematic phenomenon. People appear to endorse essentialist beliefs about a wide array categories from natural objects (gold) to species (tigers) to social categories (race). And when essentialism extends to race, it is linked to stereotyping and discrimination. That essentialism appears early and carries through the lifetime for many people is concerning. For now, I don’t think we know much about how to reduce its effects, but psychologists are looking for answers. (If I am wrong, and you know of ways to reduce essentialism, please correct me!)

However, there are troubling implication here for scientists who study racial differences. Should scientists study such things? If differences are found to exist between people belonging to different racial groups, can such findings be communicated in a way that doesn’t increase racial discrimination? This issue was taken up in a discussion in the journal Nature in 2009, with opposing responses arguing that navigating these difficult waters makes science better and that such questions are simply not scientific. It’s a difficult question and one about which I feel conflicted. On the one hand, I think that science is obligated to investigate all scientifically viable questions and I suspect the answer is that race is not a biologically meaningful concept . On the other hand, I find the implications of potentially finding such differences disturbing and likely to reinforce stereotypes and prejudice and to make discrimination worse. In the meantime, I hope that efforts to reduce racism continue and strengthen.

In my next post in this series, I plan to return to the question that I asked before: Does religion cause racism? I’ll take a look at research linking religion to essentialism of social categories and racism and try to tease out how we can know what role, if any, religion plays in racism.


Bastian, B., & Haslam, N. (2006). Psychological essentialism and stereotype endorsement. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42, 228–235. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2005.03.003

Hirschfeld, L. (1995). Do children have a theory of race? Cognition, 54, 209–252. doi:10.1016/0010-0277(95)91425-R

Williams, M. J., & Eberhardt, J. L. (2008). Biological conceptions of race and the motivation to cross racial boundaries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1033–1047. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.94.6.1033


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