Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Oct 17, 2019

Having Essentialist Beliefs Predicts People’s Attitudes about Social Groups

by Jacqueline Chen and Kate Ratliff
Diverse group of women smiling at a camera

With which statement do you agree more?

Statement A: People can behave in ways that seem ambiguous, but the central aspects of their character are clear-cut.

Statement B: It is never possible to judge how someone will react in new social situations.

These statements tap into a belief known as essentialism, the tendency to believe that the differences that we see between individual people – and between social groups – are natural and unchangeable. Just as people differ in their levels of extraversion or agreeableness, they also differ in the degree to which they believe in essentialism. Those who agree with statement A (and other statements like it) are considered high in essentialism. Those who agree with statement B and others like it are considered low in essentialism. People with essentialist views tend to use more stereotypes, are less likely to pursue interactions with people of other races, and report less positive feelings toward mixed-race individuals.

We were interested in how essentialism might relate to people’s levels of racial prejudice. We reasoned that people high in essentialism may be more likely to take their observations about another person’s behavior to the “next level” by inferring that his or her behaviors reflect what that person, and other people who are similar to him or her, are truly like. For example, after learning about a Muslim person who committed an act of terrorism, a person high in essentialism might be especially likely to view Muslim people as terrorists. We tested this general idea in two studies. 

In our first study, we examined the link between essentialism and people’s racial attitudes towards Black Americans. We asked 500 Americans to fill out a measure of essentialism (from which statements A and B above were borrowed). Then we measured their attitudes towards Black Americans in two ways. The first measure was a survey with statements like, “How negative or positive do you feel toward Black people?” Our second measure was a less obvious measure of racial bias called the Implicit Associations Test (IAT). Our version of the IAT measured people’s tendency to associate “Black people” with negative emotionally-laden words.  We found that people’s levels of prejudice towards Black Americans, as measured by both the survey questions and the IAT, were associated with higher levels of essentialist thinking.  People higher in essentialism seem to harbor more racial prejudice towards Black Americans.

But why was this the case? Essentialism might lead to stronger prejudice because people high in essentialism are more likely to generalize the behaviors of one group member to other members of the group. If this is the case, then essentialist thinking should be linked to generalizing about groups even in ways that result in more positive attitudes about groups. For instance, after learning that some Muslims engaged in charitable behaviors, people high in essentialism might  associate Muslims with generosity more strongly than people low in essentialism.

In a second study, we measured the essentialism levels of 3,300 Americans, then described an imaginary group called the Laapians to them. Some people were told that Laapian individuals had engaged in 20 bad behaviors (such as parking in a space reserved for the handicapped). Others learned that Laapians had engaged in 20 good behaviors (such as they helped an elderly man who dropped some packages). A final group learned that Laapians had engaged in 20 neutral behaviors (they went to work). Participants then rated their attitudes towards Laapians as a whole.

As we expected, people higher in essentialism formed stronger attitudes towards Laapians based on learning that some individual Laapians had done some good or bad things.  This was true whether people thought the Laapians behaved poorly or well. Thus, among people who were high in essentialism, those who learned that some Laapians behaved positively had more positive attitudes towards Laapians as a whole. After learning exactly the same information, people low in essentialism formed weaker attitudes about the Laapian group. Again, this pattern of essentialism was true for both nice and nasty behavior. 

Our results shed light on why two people can draw different conclusions after witnessing a person perform the same behavior.  People high in essentialism are more likely to see the behaviors of individual group members as indicative of what all members of that group are like. But people high in essentialism are more likely to form negative and positive attitudes about the members of social groups.  Essentialism is not the same as prejudice.

If you’re concerned about forming unfair biases toward groups on the basis of the behaviors of a few individuals, here are a few strategies you could try. First, when you witness someone’s behavior and find yourself thinking that it is representative of their group, you could remind yourself that human behavior can be caused by many things, including things that have little or nothing to do with the person’s characteristics. When you witness a person acting a certain way, it is also helpful to think about the situational pressures that might have led the person to act in that manner. It could also help to imagine yourself acting in a similar way and identifying some of the pressures that could lead you to behave that way. Finally, if you ever see a Laapian behave poorly, you can remind yourself of a counterexample – in which a Laapian behaved kindly or heroically.  In general, thinking more deeply about the events and people that you witness may help reduce your likelihood of harboring unfair biases, be they positive or negative.

For Further Reading

Chen, J. M., & Ratliff, K. A. (2018). Psychological essentialism predicts intergroup bias. Social Cognition, 36(3), 301-323.

Jacqueline Chen is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Utah, where she directs the Social Cognition and Intergroup Perception Lab. Her research examines issues related to social perception, diversity, and intergroup relations.

Kate A. Ratliff is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida and Executive Director of Project Implicit. Her research focuses on prejudice, stereotyping, and other intergroup biases.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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