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WIREs Cogn Sci
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The development and developmental consequences of social essentialism

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People often view certain ways of classifying people (e.g., by gender, race, or ethnicity) as reflecting real distinctions found in nature. Such categories are viewed as marking meaningful, fundamental, and informative differences between distinct kinds of people. This article examines the development of these essentialist intuitive theories of how the social world is structured, along with the developmental consequences of these beliefs. We first examine the processes that give rise to social essentialism, arguing that essentialism emerges as children actively attempt to make sense of their environment by relying on several basic representational and explanatory biases. These developmental processes give rise to the widespread emergence of social essentialist views in early childhood, but allow for vast variability across development and cultural contexts in the precise nature of these beliefs. We then examine what is known and still to be discovered about the implications of essentialism for stereotyping, inter‐group interaction, and the development of social prejudice. We conclude with directions for future research, particularly on the theoretical payoff that could be gained by including more diverse samples of children in future developmental investigations. WIREs Cogn Sci 2017, 8:e1437. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1437 This article is categorized under: Psychology > Development and Aging Philosophy > Knowledge and Belief
Sample illustrations of ‘Zarpies’ from Rhodes et al.. Zarpies were designed to be diverse for sex, race, and age, so that the category would not easily map onto one for which children might already hold essentialist beliefs. During the first phase of the experiment, children were shown 16 individual Zarpies, one at a time. Text accompanied each illustration, which varied by condition. For example: generic condition: ‘Look at this Zarpie! Zarpies are scared of ladybugs’; specific condition: ‘Look at this Zarpie! This Zarpie is scared of ladybugs’; no label condition: ‘Look at this one! This one is scared of ladybugs.’ In Study 1 of Rhodes et al. (2012) children were read the 16 page book (each introducing a unique Zarpie with a unique property using language determined by the child's condition) twice on the first day of research, twice on a second day of research (approximately 3 days later). On a third day of research (approximately 3 days later), children completed a series of test questions assessing the extent to which they held essentialist beliefs about Zarpies. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2012 National Academy of Sciences)
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Probabilities of selecting category matches for younger 2‐year‐olds in each of the five conditions presented across Studies 1 and 2 from Rhodes et al.. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals. Two‐year‐olds reliably learned the new way of categorizing people only when the exemplars presented during the learning phase were introduced with generic language. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2016 Society for Research in Child Development)
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Overview of the method from Rhodes et al.. Two‐year‐old children were presented with six exemplars from a novel category that was marked by a shared perceptual feature (e.g., all six wore red or blue). The language used to introduce these exemplars varied by condition, as pictured. Children were then asked to find another category member. Reliably selecting an individual that matched the preceding exemplars with respect to the perceptual feature suggests that children have learned the new way of categorizing people. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2016 Society for Research in Child Development)
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Probabilities of essentialist responses by condition for Study 1 from Rhodes et al.. Error bars represent Wald 95% confidence intervals. Data are from a composite measure of essentialist beliefs that included the extent to which participants expected category properties to be determined by birth or the environment, the extent to which they explained individual properties by reference to the category, and the extent to which they thought of the category as homogeneous. In the two comparison conditions (specific and no‐label), children and adults reliably rejected these essentialist beliefs about the novel category, even after fairly extensive exposure to category labels and properties. The generic condition increased the likelihood that participants would endorse essentialist beliefs about the category. (Reprinted with permission from Ref . Copyright 2012 National Academy of Sciences)
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