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.