Joshua Knobe
Yale University
Psychological essentialism has played an important role in social psychology, informing influential theories of stereotyping and prejudice as well as questions about wrongdoers’ accountability and their ability to change. In the existing literature, essentialism is often tied to beliefs in shared biology—i.e., the extent to which members of a social group are seen as having the same underlying biological features. Here we investigate the possibility of “value-based essentialism” in which people think of certain social groups in terms of an underlying essence, but that essence is understood as a value. Study 1 explored beliefs about a wide range of social groups and found that both groups with shared biology (e.g., women) and shared values (e.g., hippies) elicited similar general essentialist beliefs relative to more incidental social categories (e.g., English-speakers). In Studies 2-4, participants who read about a group either as being based in biology or in values reported higher general essentialist beliefs compared to a control condition. Because biological essences about social groups have been connected to a number of downstream consequences, we also investigated two test cases concerning value-based essentialism. In Study 3, beliefs about both shared biology and shared values increased inductive generalizations about the social group relative to control, but in Study 4, only the shared biology condition reduced blame for wrongdoing. Together these findings join with recent work to support a broader theoretical framework of essentialism about social groups that can be arrived at through multiple pathways, including, in the present case, shared values.
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