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Psychological Essentialism in context: The influence of socio-cultural context and self-identity on essentialising social categories

Pischedda, Roberta (2012). Psychological Essentialism in context: The influence of socio-cultural context and self-identity on essentialising social categories. (Unpublished Doctoral thesis, City University London)


The aim of this thesis was to investigate some aspects of essentialist beliefs about other people. The empirical part of the thesis is constituted by four investigations. Study 1 and 2 built on some earlier work on essentialist beliefs about social categories, and supported previous findings about the dimensions of Natural Kind and Entitativity that underlie the concept of essentialism in the social world (Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst 2000, which will be subsequently referenced as Haslam et al., 2000). Additionally, Study 1’s results raised the hypothesis that cultural contexts may determine different perceptions of social groups: in the study the Informativeness measure did not load under Entitativity and was negative for Natural-Kind-ness, showing a tendency for subjects from multicultural contexts to see natural categories as not informative of individuals.

Analysis of the literature highlighted the need for further investigation exploring the role of social contexts in the way categories are essentialised and stimulated hypotheses about the occurrence of cross-cultural differences. Study 2, based on an Italian sample in Sardinia, tested this hypothesis further confirming Haslam et al.’s (2000) findings, and supported the theory that some differences in essentialist beliefs may be due to cultural effects. This finding showed that in social categorisation processes subjects from different social contexts may not rely on the same factors. For instance, while subjects from traditional contexts perceive biological aspects as informative of an individual’s makeup, people from less traditional contexts regard those aspects as not informative.

Also, the role of a person’s own identification with social categories was addressed by the two studies and the hypothesis that one’s own categories are seen as more essential received some support in both studies, particularly in relation to Natural Kind-ness. There is a tendency for individuals to “naturalise” personal social categories and this same tendency was also observed to be employed for the categorisation of minority groups in both Study 1 and 2.

Interestingly, the analysis of Study 1’s data revealed that the structure of individual personal styles in the way individuals essentialise categories also corresponded to dimensions of Entitativity and Natural-Kind-ness. Personal styles vary along these two dimensions and may result in an individual being extreme in both dimensions, extreme in either one or the other dimension, or in none of them. This result was tested further in Study 3, whose purpose was to design a parsimonious measurement of essentialist beliefs and to explore individual styles in different samples of subjects, such as normally developing individuals and Autism Spectrum Disorder subjects. There was evidence for reliable individual differences in essentialising. There was little evidence of group differences in this study although an increase in the rating’s extremeness was observed in the Autism Spectrum Disorder sample.

Finally, Study 4 tackled essentialism from the perspective of social categorisation, and considered some variables that previous research defined as fundamental in person construal: facial stimuli and verbal information (e.g., Macrae & Bodenhausen, 2000; Townsend et al., 2000; Macrae et al., 2005). The study provided evidence for the importance of verbal information in relation to the behavioural response of a target individual in a social interaction scenario, but no significant effect was observed in relation to facial stimuli. This thesis contributes new evidence to the discussions of psychological essentialism especially for the role of social contexts and category membership, and for findings about cognitive styles of essentialism. Future directions for research on the role of social contexts in essentialist beliefs about other people, and on the effect of personal category membership in essentialism are suggested.

Publication Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
Departments: Doctoral Theses
School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
Doctoral Theses > School of Arts and Social Sciences Doctoral Theses
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