How Does Generic Language Elicit Essentialist Beliefs?

Abstract

Generic language (e.g., “tigers have stripes,” “girls hate math”) is a powerful vehicle for communicating essentialist beliefs. One way generic language likely communicates these beliefs is by leading children to generate kind-based explanations about particular properties; e.g., if a child hears “girls hate math,” he may infer that there must be an inherent causal basis for the generalization, which in turn supports essentialist beliefs. However, it is also possible that simply hearing a category described with generics elicits the belief that the category is an appropriate kind to generalize about. On this account, even if the generic is negated (“girls don’t hate math”), the generic language might nonetheless lead children to essentialize the category. The current study supports the latter possibility, suggesting that even hearing negated generics (“girls don’t hate math”) may still foster social essentialism.


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