Children begin to grasp the world in categories at a very early age—which might lead to prejudice. But the good news is that by changing the language children hear and providing positive experiences with diversity, we can prevent the development of essentialist thinking about specific social groups.
When he was three years old, my son ran into our living room and said to me: “I know the pretend dolphins living in Daddy’s closet are really mammal-dolphins, and that they breathe outside of the water like you said. But they look like fish-dolphins, so I’m going to pretend that’s what they are.” He then ran back to continue playing with his amazing (wholly imaginary) dolphin friends.
This example shows something remarkable about how young children think about categories. My son already holds the view that whether something is a mammal or a fish is not up to him, but instead reflects real structure in the world. He believes that he has to learn about categories from experts, not only by relying on his own senses. He sees categories as something that can be changed only “for pretend.” My son demonstrated his capacity to think in essentialist terms—to view categories as philosophers do, as fundamentally “carving nature at its joints.”
“If a basic component of children’s conceptual machinery gives rise to prejudice, is there anything that society can do to prevent its development?”
Why do children think of categories in this way? Essentialist representations are a basic component of human conceptual machinery, and can be very useful, especially early in conceptual development. Essentialism helps children go beyond what things look like and learn about deeper aspects of the world. But for decades, theorists from anthropological, philosophical, and social psychological perspectives have pointed out that such representations are problematic as well.
In the 1950s, Gordon Allport described how essentialism underlies social conflict. Essentialist thinking about race, for example, means thinking that people of different races (like animals of different species) are fundamentally different from one another. This view can lead to stereotyping, prejudice, and inter-group conflict.
Essentialist views of race are not universal
This raises a serious question: If a basic component of children’s conceptual machinery gives rise to prejudice, is there anything that society can do to prevent its development?
But although the capacity to think in essentialist terms emerges early in childhood, this does not mean that children inevitably develop essentialist views about social groupings like race.
Essentialist views of race take a long time to develop. In research that I did with Susan Gelman a few years ago, we found that essentialist views about race develop between ages seven and ten (in contrast to essentialist views of animals, which were found in this research among children as young as ages three and five).
Moreover, essentialist views of race are not universal. We found that although these views of race became common by age ten in a racially and ethnically homogeneous community, they were much less common in communities that were more diverse.
“Essentialist beliefs about race might rely on basic conceptual machinery, but whether they develop is a product of growing up in particular environments.”
Different communities around the world develop essentialist beliefs about different types of human divisions—sometimes race, sometimes gender, ethnicity, religion, or social class. The lengthy developmental trajectory and cultural variability of essentialist beliefs about social groupings show that the human mind is not set up to think of any particular group in essentialist terms. Essentialist beliefs about race might rely on basic conceptual machinery, but whether they develop is a product of growing up in particular environments.
Whether children develop essentialist views of any particular group depends (at least in part) on the language they hear, the diversity of their environments, their own group memberships, and the beliefs and ideologies of their parents.
Essentialism is only problematic when it interacts with people’s stereotypes and beliefs
Even if children develop essentialist views of race, however, our recent research shows that it is not inevitable that these beliefs will lead to prejudice. In two recent papers by Tara Mandalaywala, David Amodio, and myself, we tested how essentialism shapes racial attitudes among large samples of Black and White adults and children.
At the start, we expected that essentialism would lead directly to prejudice by accentuating out-group differences. If so, essentialism would lead to more anti-Black attitudes among White participants, and more anti-White attitudes among Black participants. This is not what we found. Instead, essentialism was associated with more anti-Black attitudes for Black and White adults alike, as well as among Black children, and was not correlated at all with the attitudes of White children.
“Essentialism shaped attitudes not by accentuating out-group differences, but by leading people to think of social inequalities as a natural and inevitable part of the world.”
In these studies, essentialism shaped attitudes not by accentuating out-group differences, but by leading people to think of social inequalities as a natural and inevitable part of the world. By doing so, essentialism increased negative attitudes toward groups that people perceived as low-status—as if essentialism led people to view the low status of the group as part of its essential nature.
These studies show the pernicious consequences of essentialism. They show how these consequences are particularly problematic for Black children and adults, where essentialism led both to more negative in-group attitudes and to becoming the target of more negative out-group attitudes. But importantly, essentialism did not lead to these negative consequences on its own; it did so only when it interacted with people’s stereotypes and beliefs about social inequalities. Among white children, who may not yet have held such stereotypes, essentialism was not problematic for inter-group attitudes.
Essentialist views are biased and inaccurate, and they clearly contribute to problematic processes. But as the example at the start of this article illustrates, essentialism also facilitates the development of important abstract representations. Thinking of prejudice as the inevitable consequence of essentialism—a basic feature of our conceptual machinery—could lead parents, teachers, and policy makers to throw up their hands and conclude that there is nothing to be done to improve inter-group relations.
“We can begin to identify the modifiable features of children’s environments that might be targeted to help prevent the development of prejudice in the next generation of children.”
These recent studies show that we can’t blame child essentialism alone. By looking carefully at the processes by which essentialism develops and by which it has negative consequences, we can begin to identify the modifiable features of children’s environments that might be targeted to help prevent the development of prejudice in the next generation of children.