Essentialism bias

"I believe that social groups have a distinct and unchanging essence."

Definition

Not all categories are created equal. The distinction between categories in the social universe (e.g. Canadians and Americans) can be much more complex and nuanced than that between natural categories (e.g. minerals and plants). To facilitate our processing of this information, we rely on the essentialism bias, which is the process of conceptualizing social groups as naturally and essentially distinct. This bias leads to overestimating the extent to which a person is defined by the social category to which they belong. In other words, it leads to thinking that a lot of information can be deduced about an individual simply by their membership in a social group [1]. This is a general tendency that has been demonstrated at all ages and in various cultures [2].

Example

For a child learning to classify the social universe, it is easier to assume that men have short hair and women have long hair, or that men like blue and women like pink. However, these distinctions are not effective ways of classifying men and women, and lead to categorization errors, since they are not essential differences, nor are they perfectly immutable or representative of an intrinsic nature.

Explanation

To facilitate our understanding of the social universe, we perceive categories as having an essential and unchanging underlying nature. This gives us the impression that we can more easily predict the characteristics of group members and understand their essential characteristics [1].

Consequences

This bias is associated with the endorsement of stereotypes and prejudices against groups (e.g. as in sexism, racism, and ageism). Moreover, it can also lead to the justification of social injustice. Indeed, if groups are believed to be essentially distinct, it is easier to accept or propose that they should have access to different resources and rights [3]. Thus, studies have shown that an essentialist view of sexual differences can lead to justifying or excusing sexual crimes [4]. On the other hand, an essentialist vision can lead to a reduction in perceived responsibility in some social categories which can lead to higher acceptability. For example, an essentialist view of homosexuality and obesity is associated with less discrimination against members of these groups [5].

Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias

  • Become aware of the complexity of social categories.

  • Learn to differentiate real differences between groups and the social constructions attributed to them.

  • Diversify one’s social network and make contact with people from other social groups in order to recognize their individuality.

How is this bias measured?

Several researchers measure participants' level of essentialism bias by asking them to indicate the extent to which they agree or disagree with statements that betray essentialist or anti-essentialist thinking. For example, participants should indicate the extent to which they agree with the following statement: “It is possible to know about many aspects of a person once you become familiar with a few of their basic traits.” [3]. Researchers have also developed methods to experimentally manipulate participants' level of essentialism bias. These methods often involve asking participants in two different groups to read different texts about social groups. In these studies, participants who read texts explaining, for example, that research indicates major differences between groups (e.g. men and women) then express a higher level of essentialist bias and a greater endorsement of stereotypes than those who read texts which do not mention these so-called marked differences [4].

This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:

This bias has social or individual repercussions:

This bias is empirically demonstrated:

References

[1] Allport, Gordon W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.


[2] Dar-Nimrod, Ilan & Steven J. Heine (2011). Genetic essentialism: on the deceptive determinism of DNA. Psychological bulletin, 137(5), 800.


[3] Bastian, Brock & Nick Haslam (2006). Psychological essentialism and stereotype endorsement. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 42(2), 228-235.


[4] Coleman, Jill M. & Ying-yi Hong (2008). Beyond nature and nurture: The influence of lay gender theories on self-stereotyping. Self and Identity, 7(1), 34-53.


[5] Haslam, Nick, Brock Bastian, Paul Bain & Yoshihisa Kashima (2006). Psychological essentialism, implicit theories, and intergroup relations. Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 9(1), 63-76.

Tags

Intergroup level, Representativeness heuristic, Need for cognitive closure, Need for social belonging

Related biases

Author

Émilie Gagnon-St-Pierre is a PhD candidate in social and cognitive psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She is affiliated to the Laboratoire des processus de raisonnement and the Laboratoire Culture, Identité et Langue. She is also co-founder of Shortcuts.

Translated from French to English by Susan D. Renaud.

How to cite this entry

Gagnon-St-Pierre, E. (2020). Essentialism bias, trans. S. D. Renaud. In C. Gratton, E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 1. Online: www.shortcogs.com

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