Psychological essentialism from first principles

Tadeg Quillien

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Cognitive scientists have documented the existence of “essentialist” intuitions in humans: from a very early age, we assume that things have deep unobserved properties that make them what they are. I provide a sketch of an adaptationist explanation of psychological essentialism, arguing that these intuitions are the unsurprising output of adaptations for inductive inference. Variations on this insight have previously been used mostly as after-the-fact speculations, yet theories of adaptive function should ideally have a primary role in informing psychological research. Here I propose that viewing essentialist intuitions through an adaptationist lens has implications for some widespread assumptions about the phenomenon. Notably, researchers' focus on “higher-level” processes like categorization has led them to assume that essentialism is restricted to a few cognitive processes, but the ubiquity of inductive inference problems in cognition suggests otherwise. Additionally, because essentialist intuitions are the output of mechanisms solving related but distinct inference problems, it is unlikely that a single mechanistic theory can account for them all.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)692-699
Number of pages8
JournalEvolution and Human Behavior
Issue number6
Early online date19 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2018

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Essentialism
  • Concepts
  • Categorization
  • Induction
  • Causality
  • Object files


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