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Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 1
How does social essentialism affect the development of inter-group relations?
Marjorie Rhodes,1 Sarah-Jane Leslie,2 Katya Saunders,1
Yarrow Dunham,3 & Andrei Cimpian1
Department of Psychology, New York University
Department of Philosophy, Princeton University
Department of Psychology, Yale University
In press, Developmental Science.
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 2
Research Highlights
Essentialism has been proposed to have negative social ramifications
Three studies experimentally tested this proposal among young children
Essentialism led children to withhold resources from out-group members
Essentialism did not lead to out-group dislike
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 3
Psychological essentialism is a pervasive conceptual bias to view categories as reflecting
something deep, stable, and informative about their members. Scholars from diverse disciplines
have long theorized that psychological essentialism has negative ramifications for inter-group
relations, yet little previous empirical work has experimentally tested the social implications of
essentialist beliefs. Three studies (N = 127, ages 4.5-6) found that experimentally inducing
essentialist beliefs about a novel social category led children to share fewer resources with
category members, but did not lead to the out-group dislike that defines social prejudice. These
findings indicate that essentialism negatively influences some key components of inter-group
relations, but does not lead directly to the development of prejudice.
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 4
How does social essentialism affect the development of inter-group relations?
Expecting a gentle baby tiger to inevitably grow up to be ferocious, an apple seed to
develop into an apple tree even if planted in an olive grove, or a young girl growing up in a
household of boys to prefer princesses to trucks, all reflect a conceptual commitment to
psychological essentialism (Medin & Ortony, 1989). Psychological essentialism is a pervasive
conceptual bias to view categories (e.g., tigers, apple trees, girls) as reflecting something deep,
stable, and informative about their members, as highly predictive of individual development
regardless of other influences, and as marking fundamental similarities among members and
differences between kinds (Gelman, 2004). Essentialist beliefs shape how people represent and
reason about many types of categories from at least the early preschool years onward (Gelman,
Essentialism has most often been studied in the case of biological categories, such as
animal species. For example, essentialist beliefs about tigers entail thinking that whether an
animal is a tiger is stable and determined by birth, that tigers are fundamentally similar to each
other and different from non-tigers, and that an animal—once born to tiger parents—will
inevitably grow up to be ferocious, even if it looks different from other tigers (e.g., is white
instead of orange) or is raised in an unusual environment (e.g., in a zoo, where it has few
opportunities to learn or practice ferocious behaviors; Gelman, 2004; Medin & Ortony, 1989;
Prentice & Miller, 2007). By at least age four, children make inferences in line with each of these
beliefs (Gelman & Markman, 1986, 1987; Gelman & Wellman, 1991; Waxman, Medin, & Ross,
2007; for review see Gelman, 2003).
In the case of animal categories, psychological essentialism may help get conceptual
development off the ground and facilitate knowledge acquisition by allowing children to
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 5
overlook superficial differences (e.g., between orange and white tigers) and focus on the
properties that category members all share (Gelman & Kalish, 2006). Yet, essentialism reflects a
biased, inaccurate picture of the world; most categories have no real essences (Leslie, 2013;
Mayr, 1991), species change over time in ways that essentialist thinking does not allow (Gelman
& Rhodes, 2012; Shtulman & Schulz, 2008), and category members often vary more widely
from each other than essentialism implies. Indeed, essentialist thought—particularly its emphasis
on within-category homogeneity and stability over time—interferes with people’s understanding
of the mechanisms that drive evolutionary change (Shtulman & Schulz, 2008) as well as with
normative reasoning regarding how properties are distributed across categories (Rhodes &
Brickman, 2010; Rhodes & Liebenson, 2015).
The negative consequences of essentialist beliefs are even clearer in the social domain.
By ages 4 or 5, children hold essentialist beliefs not only about biological species categories, but
about certain types of human social categories as well. For example, in the United States,
preschool-age children hold essentialist beliefs about gender; they expect girls to be
fundamentally similar to each other and different from boys (Gelman, Collman, & Maccoby,
1986); that being born a girl means that a baby will inevitably grow up to prefer tea sets to toy
trucks (Taylor, 1996; Taylor, Rhodes, & Gelman, 2009), and that gender categories reflect
natural, objective structure in the world (Rhodes & Gelman, 2009; Rhodes, Gelman & Karuza,
2014). By emphasizing within-category homogeneity, essentialism contributes to stereotyping
among young children and adults (Bastian & Haslam, 2006; Hoffman & Hurst, 1990; Levy &
Dweck, 1999; Martin & Parker, 1995; Pauker, Ambady, & Apfelbaum, 2010; Plaks, Stroessner,
Dweck, & Sherman, 2001; Prentice & Miller, 2007). Essentialist beliefs also lead people to
attribute group differences (e.g., men outperforming women in higher-level mathematics;
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 6
African Americans being convicted of crimes at higher rates than whites) to natural, biological
causes instead of to flexible, societal factors (Leslie, in press; Martin & Parker, 1995; Salomon &
Cimpian, 2014), thus making people more accepting of social differences and social hierarchies
(Cimpian & Salomon, 2014; Hussak & Cimpian, 2015; Jayaratne et al., 2006).
Beyond contributing to social stereotyping and attribution, social essentialism has also
been theorized to contribute to other components of inter-group relations, including prejudice
and discrimination (Allport, 1954). Prejudice and discrimination differ from social stereotyping
in that they involve negative feelings towards (in the case of prejudice) and negative behavior
towards (in the case of discrimination) a group, instead of, or addition to, expectations of withincategory similarity (Brewer & Brown, 1998). Consistent with Allport’s theorizing, explicitly
essentialist beliefs, such as beliefs that membership in a religious or ethnic group is determined
by genes, or that social categories have sharp boundaries that cannot be crossed, have played
central roles in some of the most pernicious instances of social prejudice throughout human
history (e.g., Hitler’s Aryanism; the white power movement in the United States; Holtz &
Wagner, 2009; Yzerbyt, Judd, & Corneille, 2004). In addition to contributing to the out-group
dislike that defines prejudice, social essentialism has also been proposed to negatively influence
inter-group relations by leading people to view category boundaries as discrete and inflexible,
thus decreasing the likelihood that people will choose to interact with members of other groups
(Bernstein, Sacco, Young, Hugenberg, & Cook, 2010; Levy & Dweck, 1999; No et al., 2008;
Williams & Eberhardt, 2008; Zagefka, Nigbur, Gonzalez, & Tip, 2012).
The proposal that essentialism leads to these negative social consequences has the
potential to address interesting developmental questions about the origins of inter-group
relations. By early childhood, and perhaps even early in infancy (Kinzler, Dopoux, & Spelke,
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 7
2007), children are highly sensitive to in-groups and out-groups, and show robust preferences for
their in-groups based on even trivial and arbitrary distinctions (e.g., randomly assigned shirt
colors; Dunham, Baron & Carey, 2011; Patterson & Bigler, 2006). Yet, not all in-group
preferences imply social prejudice or lead to discriminatory behaviors. Much of the time,
children show increased positive feelings for their in-group members in these paradigms, but do
not hold more negative feelings towards the out-group, or engage in more negative behaviors
towards out-group members (rather, they respond to out-group members neutrally, Bigler, Jones,
& Lobliner, 1997; Dunham et al., 2011, Patterson & Bigler, 2006; see also Aboud, 1988, 2003;
Brewer, 1999; Nesdale, 2004 for discussion of the distinctions between in-group positivity and
out-group dislike). Something else is needed to move from in-group preferences to more virulent
dislike and negative treatment of the out-group.
Based on the theorizing of Allport (1954) and others (Bigler & Liben, 2007; Hirschfeld,
1996; Leslie, in press; Prentice & Miller, 2007; Rothbart & Taylor, 1992), perhaps psychological
essentialism is a key factor that moves people from mild preferences for in-groups towards the
development of negative attitudes and behaviors towards out-groups. Although young children
and adults can readily learn new criteria for social categories, people hold essentialist beliefs
regarding only a subset of social categories that they encounter. For example, children can
readily learn to group people based on shirt colors and will show some social preferences based
on this distinction (Dunham et al., 2011), but do not form essentialist beliefs about such
categories unless they are given additional information—that is, they will not expect color-based
groups to be determined by birth or stable, to imply similarities across group members and
differences between groups, or to reflect fundamental causally-powerful features of an
individual’s identity (Rhodes & Brickman, 2011; Rhodes, Leslie, & Tworek, 2012; see also
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 8
Kalish, 2012). There is also variation in the extent to which children hold essentialist beliefs
about particular social categories that they encounter in their everyday lives; for example, white
children in the United States hold more essentialist beliefs about gender and language-based
groups than about race (Kinzler & Dautel, 2012; Rhodes & Gelman, 2009), and Israeli children
hold more essentialist beliefs about religious-ethnic categories than those based on personality
traits (Diesendruck & haLevi, 2006). Whether children develop essentialist beliefs about
particular social groupings varies based on features of their cultural context, including exposure
to certain forms of language (Gelman & Heyman, 1999; Rhodes et al., 2012; Segall, Birnbaum,
Deeb, & Diesendruck, 2014), experiences with social diversity (Deeb, Segall, Birnbaum, BenEliyahu, & Diesendruck, 2011), and the nature of existing social hierarchies (Mahalingam, 2007;
Mahalingam & Rodriguez, 2006). In short, whether people within a community hold essentialist
beliefs about particular groupings develops and changes across childhood (Astuti, Solomon, &
Carey, 2004; Birnbaum, Deeb, Segall, Ben-Eliyahu, & Diesendruck, 2010; Diesendruck &
Haber, 2009; Kinzler & Dautel, 2012; Rhodes & Gelman, 2009; Taylor, 1996). Thus, one
possibility is that variation in essentialist beliefs explains which social groups become the targets
of social prejudice and discrimination; in line with Allport and others, perhaps the development
of essentialist beliefs about particular groups fosters the development of more virulent dislike of
essentialized out-groups.
There are several mechanisms by which essentialism could negatively influence
intergroup relations. For example, because essentialism implies that differences between groups
are the result of stable and inherent factors, perhaps essentialism leads people to view the outgroup as differing more dramatically from the in-group (No et al., 2008). Seeing a group as very
different from one’s own in-group has been well documented to contribute to prejudiced
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 9
attitudes (Brewer, 1999). Along the same lines, as essentialism indicates that social groups
reflect fundamentally distinct kinds of entities (e.g., in the prototypical case of animal
categories—different species), such beliefs could lead people to think of out-groups as somehow
less human than their own group, a dehumanization process that also contributes to prejudice in
adult populations (Haslam, Bastian, Bain, & Kashima, 2006; Leyens et al., 2001). Another
pathway by which essentialism could lead to prejudice involves influencing how people respond
to negative information about individual group members; for example, essentialism could make
people more likely to draw conclusions about the inherent nature of a group based on the
negative actions of single individuals (Andreychick & Gill, 2014; Leslie, in press; Prentice &
Miller, 2007).
Alternately (or additionally), essentialism could negatively influence inter-group
relations, but not directly via the processes that Allport and others have proposed. Rather,
essentialism could have negative consequences for inter-group relations by leading people to
view group boundaries as discrete and inflexible, and thus to view out-group members as less
worthy of attention and effort (Bernstein, Sacco, Young, Hugenberg, & Cook, 2010; Chao,
Hong, & Chiu, 2013; Levy & Dweck, 1999; No et al., 2008; Williams & Eberhardt, 2008;
Zagefka et al., 2012). If so, essentialism would decrease the likelihood of intergroup interactions
or cooperation (Chao et al., 2013; No et al., 2008), with possible downstream consequences for
Despite the long history of theorizing regarding the implications of essentialism for intergroup relations, however, empirical work on this issue has been limited and yielded mixed
results. A major limitation of prior research on this topic is that it has been conducted almost
entirely among adult populations; there is very little previous empirical work examining the
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 10
implications of essentialism for inter-group relations in early childhood. Essentialism does
appear to play a role in the development of social stereotyping in childhood; for example, Pauker
et al. (2010) found among children ages 3-10 that essentialist beliefs about race predicted
children’s use of negative racial stereotypes (see also Levy & Dweck, 1999). Also, Diesendruck
and Menahem (2015) found that increasing the salience of Israeli children’s (age 6) essentialist
beliefs about ethnicity led them to draw members of different groups farther apart (indicating
perhaps that they perceived more social distance between groups) and to draw in-group members
with more positive affect than out-group members. These findings are suggestive of an early
emerging link between essentialism and inter-group relations. Because this study used known
groups about which children already had essentialist beliefs and other related group-relevant
knowledge and experience (Deeb, Segall, Birnbaum, Ben-Eliyahu, & Diesendruck, 2011;
Diesendruck, Goldfein-Elbas, Rhodes, Gelman, & Neumark, 2013), however, it leaves open the
question of whether the formation of essentialist beliefs—alone—causally influences how
children feel and behave towards members of other groups. Experimentally testing whether the
formation of essentialist beliefs in early childhood holds negative ramifications for inter-group
attitudes and behaviors can reveal whether such beliefs have causal implications for the
development of inter-group relations.
Although there is more work on this issue in adult populations, this body of work has
yielded a mixed pattern of findings. Most of this work has examined the relation between
essentialist beliefs and prejudice regarding salient social categories that people encounter in their
daily lives—testing whether essentialist beliefs about race, for example, correlate with increased
prejudice towards racial out-groups. Some studies taking that approach have found weak or no
relations between measures of essentialism and prejudice (Haslam, Rothschild, & Ernst, 2002;
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 11
Haslam & Levy, 2006; Hodson & Skorska, 2014), whereas others have indeed found support for
such relations (Jayaratne et al., 2006; Keller, 2005). Experimental work on this issue has also
predominantly focused on familiar social categories such as race (e.g., seeking to increase or
decrease the salience of people’s essentialist beliefs about race prior to completing measures of
inter-group attitudes or behavior) and has also revealed a mixed picture of findings (Andreychik
& Gill, 2014; Chao et al., 2013; Diesendruck & Menahem, 2015; Hong et al., 2004; Keller,
2005; Levy, Stroessner, & Dweck, 1998; Rangel & Keller, 2011; Williams & Eberhardt, 2008).
To interpret these mixed patterns, some theorists have proposed that essentialist beliefs
do not causally influence inter-group relations per se, but instead are used to justify existing
social attitudes or practices (Haslam & Whelan, 2008; Pettigrew, 1979; Verkyuten, 2003; Rangel
& Keller, 2011). For example, Morton, Hornsey, and Postmes (2009) found that whether people
endorsed essentialist beliefs about particular categories (e.g., ethnic differences) depended on
whether essentialism was being used as a justification for excluding an in-group member or an
out-group member, suggesting that people adopt essentialist beliefs strategically to justify their
already-held beliefs or attitudes. In a similar vein, Mahalingam (2003) found that higher caste
Indians were more likely to endorse essentialist interpretations of caste than were lower caste
Indians, presumably because that interpretation validated their own higher status.
In sum, prior work leaves open questions regarding whether essentialist beliefs play a
causal role in the development of negative inter-group phenomena, whether essentialism alone is
sufficient to cause negative social outcomes (or whether it does so only when it interacts with
other knowledge and experience), and whether the negative consequences of essentialism for
inter-group relations in children extend beyond increased stereotyping. To address these
questions, we adopted an experimental approach using novel groups for the present studies. By
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 12
adopting such an approach among young children, we can provide a clear test of how
essentialism influences inter-group relations, during the developmental period when both
essentialist beliefs and prejudiced attitudes begin to emerge. We focused on the early childhood
years (ages 4.5-7) and created a novel social group, about which children have no prior
knowledge, stereotypes, or attitudes. We then experimentally induced some children (and not
others) to hold essentialist beliefs about the group, and tested for effects on children’s feelings
and behavior towards out-group members. This paradigm thus allows for a strong, direct test of
whether essentialism causally influences inter-group relations.
Given the paucity of previous developmental research on this topic, as well as the mixed
findings from studies among adult populations, we noted that there were several patterns of
findings that we could obtain. In line with Allport and others (e.g., Hirschfeld, 1996), we could
find that inducing essentialism in young children has far-reaching negative consequences for
inter-group relations, including leading to the development of more negative feelings towards
out-group members. Alternately, we could find that essentialism alone is not sufficient to initiate
these processes, and therefore, that our manipulation induces essentialism but has no
consequences for children’s inter-group attitudes.
A third possibility is that essentialism holds implications for inter-group relations, but in
a more limited manner and not via the activation of out-group dislike. As described above,
among adults, essentialist beliefs increase the extent to which people perceive group boundaries
as strict, absolute, and inflexible (No et al., 2008) and thus decrease expectations of inter-group
interactions (Bernstein et al., 2010; Williams & Eberhardt, 2008; Zagefka et al., 2012). At least
some of these effects occur independent of associations between essentialism and prejudice
(Williams & Eberhardt, 2008). Thus, in addition to measures of children’s feelings towards out-
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 13
group members, we also included a measure of inter-group relations that relies less on social
preferences, and more on expectations of inter-group interactions—resource allocation decisions.
Resource allocation decisions often depend more on people’s expectations of social reciprocity
than on feelings regarding potential recipients among both children (Renno & Shutts, 2015) and
adults (Yamagishi, Jim, & Kiyonari, 1999). For example, Renno and Shutts (2015) found that
preschool-age children’s tendency to give more resources to racial in-group than out-group
members was predicted by their expectations of social reciprocity; that is, the more that children
believed that a racial in-group member would be more likely to help them than a racial out-group
member, the more likely they were to distribute more resources to racial in-group members. In
contrast, children’s giving behavior was not predicted by their social preferences; children who
said they preferred white over black children were no more likely to show bias in their giving
behavior. Also, Paulus and Moore (2014) found that, by age 5, children’s sharing behavior is
strongly related to their expectations of the extent to which they expect others to share with
them. Thus, essentialism could reduce children’s willingness to share resources with out-group
members because it decreases their expectations of reciprocity among members of different
groups, perhaps without actually leading to out-group dislike.
The aim of Study 1 was to provide an initial test of whether inducing essentialist beliefs
towards a novel out-group leads to the development of more negative attitudes and behaviors
towards members of that group. To do so, we used a language manipulation to induce essentialist
beliefs about a novel group in some children and not others, and then tested their attitudes
towards members of the group. To test whether essentialism leads directly to more negative
attitudes or does so via the generalization of negative information about individual group
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 14
members (as described above, see Andreychick & Gill, 2014; Leslie, in press; Prentice & Miller,
2007), we assessed inter-group attitudes two times—once before children were exposed to
negative actions committed by individual group members, and once after exposure to such
Participants included 42 children (M age = 5.8 years, range = 5.0-6.9 years; 16 male, 26
female; 36% White, 19% multi-ethnic or multi-racial, 7% Black, 7% Latino, 2% Asian,
remainder did not provide this information) recruited from and tested at the Children’s Museum
of Manhattan. An additional 13 children began testing but were not included in analyses (5
because they did not complete the research session, 5 for experimenter errors, and 3 for parental
interference). To induce essentialism in some participants and not others, children were
randomly assigned to the Generic (n = 21) or Specific (n = 21) conditions. Based on effect sizes
from previous work using similar manipulations of essentialism and related beliefs (e.g.,
Cimpian, Arce, Markman, & Dweck, 2007; Gelman & Heyman, 2000; Gelman, Ware, &
Kleinberg, 2010; Rhodes et al., 2012), we aimed to include at least 14 children per condition in
all studies. Because we anticipated that some participants would need to be excluded, however,
we over-sampled beyond this number to ensure that we would have sufficient sample sizes in our
final analyses. Stopping rules for data collection were decided based on calendar dates that were
selected a priori to meet or exceed the minimum sample size of 14 children per condition.
Exclusion decisions were made after all data were collected and coded from videos, but before
data analysis. We report all usable data, and note the numbers and reasons for exclusions for
each study.
Manipulation of Essentialist Beliefs
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 15
To experimentally induce essentialist beliefs for the novel social category, we built on
prior work showing that generic language—language that refers to abstract kinds (e.g., “tigers
have stripes”)—causes children to apply essentialist beliefs to new categories that they encounter
(Rhodes et al., 2012; also Gelman et al., 2010). This previous work does not indicate that generic
language creates essentialist thought. Essentialist beliefs reflect basic conceptual biases that go
far beyond the content of generic language itself. For example, there is no explicit content in the
sentence “tigers have stripes” that communicates that being a tiger is a matter of innate and
immutable category membership. Yet children conclude that new categories have those features
after fairly limited exposure to such generics (Gelman et al., 2010; Rhodes et al., 2012). From
this perspective, children have abstract expectations that certain categories in their environment
reflect essential kinds and rely on linguistic cues to determine which categories have this
structure. Because generic language communicates regularities regarding abstract kinds, children
assume that categories described with generic language are the kinds of categories that are
coherent and causally powerful enough to support such generalizations (Cimpian & Markman,
2011; Gelman et al., 2010; Gelman & Heyman, 1999; Leslie 2008; Rhodes et al., 2012). In the
present context, generic language provides a useful way to induce essentialist thinking for a
novel category without manipulating any other aspect of inter-group relations.
In the present study, first, an experimenter read an illustrated book that presented a novel
category (“Zarpies”). The books were identical to those used in Rhodes et al. (2012, Study 1) and
presented 16 individual pictures of Zarpies, one per page, each displaying a unique property. The
16 Zarpies were diverse with respect to race, sex, and age, so that children could not map the
category onto any group for which they might already hold essentialist beliefs. By condition,
children heard the property on each page described either with generic language (e.g., “Look at
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 16
this Zarpie! Zarpies climb fences”) or non-generic language (e.g., “Look at this Zarpie! This
Zarpie climbs fences”). None of the properties involved any negative qualities. The experimenter
read the book twice to the child.
Using these materials, Rhodes et al. (2012) found that, in the Specific condition, children
did not hold essentialist beliefs about Zarpies after exposure to the book. That is, although they
learned the category “Zarpie”, they did not expect Zarpie properties to be determined by birth,
they did not expect individuals to do certain behaviors because they are Zarpies, and they did not
expect all Zarpies to share either the properties mentioned in the book or other new properties. In
contrast, the Generic condition significantly increased the likelihood of these essentialist beliefs
among preschool-age children, with effects persisting for at least several days after exposure to
the generic language. Follow-up control studies confirmed that it was the genericity of the target
sentences—not simply their syntactic plurality—that elicited these effects.
Measures of Essentialist Beliefs
After the book-reading, children completed two measures of essentialist beliefs used by
Rhodes et al. (2012) and Gelman et al. (2010). These included three explanation items, in which
children were asked to explain why individual Zarpies performed specific behaviors that had
been shown in the book (e.g., “Look at this Zarpie. Why is this Zarpie climbing a tall fence?”).
Responses were transcribed verbatim from video and coded by two independent raters
(agreement = 93% across both studies, with disagreements resolved by a third coder). Following
Cimpian and Markman (2009, 2011), Gelman et al. (2010), and Rhodes et al. (2012), responses
were scored along two dimensions: (a) whether they referred to intrinsic (e.g., “because he loves
to climb”, scored “1”) or extrinsic (e.g., “because it is nice outside”, scored “0”) causal factors
and whether they referred to the category (e.g., “because Zarpies love to climb”, scored “1”) or
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 17
not (e.g., “because he loves to climb”, scored “0”) to explain the behavior. Thus, scores for each
explanation item could range from 0-2 essentialist responses.
Next, children completed two inheritance items, in which they were told that a baby was
born to a Zarpie mom but raised by a non-Zarpie mom (Gelman & Wellman, 1991; Hirschfeld,
1995; Taylor, 1996; Waxman et al., 2007). Children were asked to predict whether the grown-up
child would exhibit a property held by the Zarpie mom (e.g., “flaps her arms when she is happy”,
scored “1”) or the non-Zarpie mom (e.g., “claps her hands when she is happy”, scored “0”).
These items test whether children think that properties exhibited by Zarpies are determined by
birth and stable (consistent with essentialist thought) or determined by the environment
(inconsistent with essentialist thought). Following Rhodes et al. (2012), scores for all of the
essentialism items were totaled to create one composite (number of essentialist responses out of
8 total possible). We analyzed these data using binomial regression models and report average
probabilities of essentialist responses, accompanied by Wald 95% Confidence Intervals (CIs),
with Odds Ratios (and accompanying CIs) as indicators of effect size.
First Measure of Inter-group Attitudes
After the essentialism measures, children’s attitudes towards Zarpies were assessed with
four questions. For each, children were shown a new individual Zarpie, and asked a question
about whether they would want to affiliate with the Zarpie (“Do you want to invite this Zarpie to
your birthday party?” “Do you want to play with this Zarpie?” “Do you want to share your toys
with this Zarpie?” “Do you want to sit next to this Zarpie at school?”). For each, children
responded with “yes” or “no” and were then asked a follow-up question. For example, if they
responded affirmatively, they were asked, “do you sort of want to or really want to”? Each item
received a score ranging from 0-3, with higher numbers indicating more negative attitudes (0 =
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 18
really want to, 1 = sort of want to, 2 = sort of don’t want to, 3 = really don’t want to). The four
individuals that were shown were matched to the participating child’s gender and varied by race
across the four questions. Responses to these items were averaged and analyzed via standard
analyses of variance.
Exposure to Negative Information
Subsequently, children were shown a series of four negative actions completed by new
individual Zarpies. For example, children were shown an individual Zarpie stealing a cookie. To
avoid providing either generic or specific language regarding the action, children were asked to
describe the behavior themselves (e.g., “Look, a Zarpie! Look what’s happening here. What’s
going on here?”) If the child responded with “stealing a cookie”, the experimenter responded,
“Yes, that’s stealing a cookie”. The experimenter described only the behavior; the experimenter
did not repeat any references to the agent. If the child responded with a different action, the
experimenter said, “Right, that looks like [child’s response]. You know what else? That’s
stealing a cookie. Remind me, what is that? Right, that’s stealing a cookie.” Children correctly
responded with “stealing a cookie”, for example, on 87% of trials either before or after this
prompting (this rate did not vary by condition, p > .20). This procedure was repeated for four
behaviors (each displayed by a different individual Zarpie): stealing a cookie, teasing, pushing
someone, calling someone a mean name. After children were shown all four behaviors once, they
were reviewed a second time. For each, the experimenter said, “Remind me, what is that? Right
that’s stealing a cookie”. On this second run through, children gave the intended descriptions on
92% of trials (this rate did not vary by condition, p > .70). Exploratory analyses revealed that the
number of accurate behavioral descriptions given by children during this phase did not predict
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 19
any of the dependent measures; responses to these comprehension questions were not considered
Second Measure of Inter-group Attitudes
After the negative actions, children completed the measure assessing their attitudes
towards Zarpies a second time. They were asked the same four questions as in the first measure
of inter-group attitudes, but with different individual Zarpies pictured (whether a specific picture
was shown before or after the negative information was counter-balanced across participants).
Resource Allocation
Finally, participants completed a resource allocation task. Children were shown a picture
of a new, individual Zarpie (not one seen before in either the book, measures of inter-group
attitudes, or exposure to the negative information), given four stickers, and told, “Now you get to
give some stickers to a Zarpie. You have four stickers to give. You can give as many stickers as
you want.” Children then decided whether to give each sticker. Any remaining stickers were
simply removed from the table; they were not given to the children themselves. Thus, giving to
the Zarpie was a non-costly decision on the part of the child. We selected this approach because
previous research on children’s group-based giving behavior also used non-costly situations
(Dunham et al., 2011; Renno & Shutts, 2015). These data were analyzed with binomial
regression models, with the dependent variable being the number of decisions to withhold a
sticker out of four possible. To be consistent with the measure of inter-group attitudes, which
was scored such that higher numbers reflect more negative attitudes, resource allocations are
reported as probabilities of withholding resources from the Zarpie, such that higher numbers
indicate more negative treatment of the Zarpie.
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 20
Confirming that our manipulation successfully induced essentialist beliefs, children in the
Generic condition gave more essentialist responses (probabilities of essentialist responses, M =
.43, CI = .36, .50) than children in the Specific condition (M = .27, CI = .21, .35), Wald χ2(1) =
8.72, p = .003, OR = 1.99, CI = 1.26-3.14. This finding replicates Rhodes et al. (2012).
There were no main or interactive effects of condition (Generic, Specific) or time (before
the negative information, after the negative information) on children’s attitudes towards Zarpies,
ps > .30. Overall, children felt relatively positively towards Zarpies (M = 1.38, SE = .16; possible
range 0-3, with higher numbers indicating more negative attitudes; Generic condition, before the
negative information, M = 1.30, SE = .24; After, M = 1.16, SE = .23; Specific condition, before,
M = 1.55, SE = .24; After, M = 1.54, SE = .23).
Resource Allocation
Children in the Generic condition, however, withheld more resources from the Zarpies
(Probabilities of withholding resources, M generic = .45, CI = .35-.56; M specific = .30, CI = .21.40), Wald χ2(1) = 4.25, p = .04. The odds of withholding in the Generic condition were 1.95
times as high as those in the Specific condition (CI = 1.03-3.68).
We conducted further analyses with the Process Procedure in SPSS to test whether
essentialism mediated the effect of condition on the proportion of resources withheld from
Zarpies. Indeed, this analysis confirmed that there was a significant indirect effect of condition
on the proportion of resources withheld through essentialism (standardized indirect effect = .12,
Bootstrapped 95% CI = .02-.29). The mediator accounted for roughly half of the total effect of
condition on the proportion of resources withheld from Zarpies (ratio of indirect to total effect =
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 21
.52). Children’s decisions to withhold resources were not correlated with their responses on the
attitude measure either before, r(40) = .24, p = .13, or after, r(40) = .23, p = .14, the negative
In Study 1, we successfully manipulated children’s essentialist beliefs about a novel outgroup. Yet we found that increasing essentialist beliefs towards the group did not lead children to
have more negative attitudes towards group members. Providing negative information about
individual group members also did not lead to more negative feelings in either condition,
suggesting that children—even in the essentialism condition—did not generalize negative actions
committed by individuals to the group as a whole. Nevertheless, children induced via generic
language to hold essentialist beliefs were less likely to allocate resources to members of the
essentialized out-group. Because the resource allocation task was always administered after
exposure to the negative information, however, it remains unclear whether essentialism led
directly to these effects, or whether it did so only once children were exposed to information
about the negative actions of individual group members. This issue is addressed in Study 2.
Study 2 had two main aims. The first was to replicate the effect of condition on children’s
resource allocation decisions found in Study 1, and to test if this effect held even if children were
not exposed to negative information about any individual group members. The second was to test
if essentialism might indeed influence children’s inter-group attitudes (not only their resource
allocation decisions) if children receive more exposure to generic language over a longer period
of time and attitudes are assessed using a wider range of measures.
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 22
Participants included 52 children (M age = 5.09, range = 4.5-5.5; 23 male, 29 female;
69% White, 16% Asian, 13% Latino, 5% Black, remainder chose not to report this information).
Consistent with our goal of examining the implications of essentialism for inter-group attitudes
at the age at which essentialist beliefs about social categories have been found to emerge, we
sampled a slightly younger group of children in Study 2. The lower bound was set at 4.5 years,
however, because pilot work conducted for Rhodes et al. (2012) found that younger children had
difficulty with both the length of the research session and the verbal demands of the test
questions. An additional five children began testing but were excluded (four because their
parents reported that they had not completed the assigned book reading at home prior to the
research session, see below, and 1 because they did not complete the research session in the lab).
Children were recruited from a database of families who had signed up to participate in research
in developmental laboratories at New York University.
Families were contacted by phone or email and asked if they would be interested in
participating in a parent-child book reading study. If parents expressed interest in the study, they
were randomly assigned to a Generic (n = 27) or Specific condition (n = 25; as in Study 1) and
the Zarpie book specified by condition was sent to them via mail. They were asked to read it 8
times in the 10 days prior to their visit to the laboratory and given a diary to record their bookreadings; all families included in analyses reported having completed the assigned number of
readings. Families then visited an on-campus laboratory to complete measures of essentialism
and inter-group attitudes.
This “read at home” procedure was also used by Gelman et al. (2010). One possible
concern with this approach was that parents would form their own attitudes about Zarpies and
then communicate those attitudes to children; if children then adopted their parents’ attitudes,
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 23
this could perhaps make it more difficult to find effects of condition on the measures of intergroup attitudes. To address this possibility, parents were also asked to complete measures of their
attitudes towards Zarpies during the family’s visit to the lab; we found no correlation between
parents’ and children’s attitudes towards Zarpies on any measure (ps > .50). We discuss this
issue further below.
Children completed the same measures of essentialist beliefs used in Study 1. The
research assistant who administered these measures was blind to which book the family had read
at home (and thus was blind to the child’s condition). The child completed the session with the
researcher in one room while the parent completed measures on a computer in an adjoining
Inter-group attitudes
Children completed three measures of inter-group attitudes. These included two questions
about liking (e.g., “Look at this Zarpie! Let’s pretend you are going to the park. Do you want to
invite this Zarpie to come to the park with you?”; scored “0” for “yes”, “1” for “no”; the other
item asked whether the child would like to play with a Zarpie at recess; items were totaled and
analyzed with binomial regression models); two questions about proximity (children were shown
an array of chairs with a Zarpie seated at one of them and told: “Let’s pretend you’re at the
movies. Oh look, a Zarpie! Let’s pick a seat. Where do you want to sit?” These items were
scored as the number of seats away from the target character and totaled; right next to the Zarpie
= 0, farthest seat away = 4; the other item was structurally identical and asked the child to pick a
seat in a school setting; items were analyzed with Poisson regression models); 2 outcome
attributions, in which children were asked to guess whether a Zarpie or non-Zarpie achieved a
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 24
positive outcome (e.g., “He is a Zarpie. He is not a Zarpie. Look – someone built the best
sandcastle! It was either this one, or this one! Who do you think built the best sandcastle?”;
scored 1 = non-Zarpie, 0 = Zarpie; analyzed with binomial regression models). All items were
scored so that higher numbers indicate more negative attitudes towards Zarpies.
Resource Allocation
Children also completed two resource allocation trials, one where they were asked to
allocate up to four stickers (e.g., “Look at this Zarpie. Go ahead and give as many stickers as you
want to the Zarpie”) and the other where they were asked to allocate up to six toy boats. Data
from the two trials were totaled and analyzed as in Study 1. As in Study 1, these are reported as
probabilities of withholding resources from Zarpies.
At the conclusion of the study, children were shown a book containing the Zarpie
illustrations, but with no accompanying text, and were asked to tell the story that they read at
home back to the experimenter. Children’s descriptions of each page were scored as “1” for
correctly describing the intended property and “0” for failing to do so. For example, for the item
in which children heard “Zarpies love to sing” or “This Zarpie loves to sing”, children received
credit for remembering the page if they mentioned singing (e.g., “she loves to sing” “she likes to
sing” “she sings”) but not if they mentioned a different behavior (e.g., “she’s yelling really
loud”). This measure allowed us to confirm that children remembered the book equally well in
both conditions. Memory for the described properties was excellent (above 98% correct) and did
not vary by condition.
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 25
As in Study 1, children in the generic language condition gave more essentialist
responses (M = .55, CI = .48, .62) than children in the specific language condition (M = .40, CI =
.33, .47), Wald χ2(1) = 9.41, p = .002, OR = 1.84, CI = 1.25-2.72. These findings are very similar
to Study 1 and to Rhodes et al. (2012), suggesting that although the procedure here differed
somewhat (as parents, instead of an experimenter, read the book to children), the manipulation
influenced children’s beliefs in the manner intended.
Inter-group attitudes and Resource Allocation
Children’s responses to the three measures of inter-group attitudes and the resource
allocation task are in Table 1. Children’s feelings towards Zarpies did not differ by condition as
assessed by any attitude measure (invitations, proximity, or outcome attribution, ps > .20). Yet,
as in Study 1, children gave fewer resources to the Zarpies in the Generic condition than in the
Specific condition; Wald χ2(1) = 25.54, p < .001, OR = 3.95, CI = 2.32-6.73. As shown in Table
2, the three measures of inter-group attitudes (the invitations measure, proximity measure, and
outcome measure) were all inter-correlated with one another, but none were correlated with
children’s resource allocation decisions.
Participant Variables
To consider the role of participant gender and age, we combined data across Studies 1
and 2 to increase our power to detect effects of these variables. Even in the combined data set,
there was not sufficient power to examine effects of child race or ethnicity; this is an important
area for future work. Although the procedures differed somewhat across the two studies, both
yielded very similar findings. In both studies, exposure to generic language increased children’s
essentialist beliefs and decreased their willingness to allocate resources across group boundaries,
but influenced no other measure of inter-group attitudes. Here we combined these data to test
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 26
whether the effect of the manipulation on these two variables (essentialism and resource
allocation) differed by participant age or gender.
We first tested for effects of participant gender on children’s essentialist responses and
resource allocation decisions. There were no main or interactive effects of gender on children’s
essentialism scores (ps > .15). However, girls (M = .24, CI = .20, .29) withheld more resources
than boys (M = .16, CI = .12, .20), Wald χ2(1) = 7.31, p = .007. The effect of condition remained
significant in this analysis, Wald χ2(1) = 21.16, p < .001 (Generic, M = .28, CI = .23, .33;
Specific, M = .13, CI = .10, .17), with no interaction between gender and condition, p = .4.
Further, the effect of condition was significant for both boys and girls examined separately, ps
< .05.
In the combined data set, we also tested for effects of participant age (younger children, n
= 47, M age = 5.0, SD = .20 years; older children, n = 47, M = 5.8 years, SD = .52 years; for ease
of interpretation, we did a median-split on age, but examining age as a continuous predictor
revealed a very similar pattern of results). Younger children (M = .46, CI = .41, .51) gave more
essentialist responses than older children (M = .38, CI = .33, .43), Wald χ2 (1) = 4.47, p = .04.
The effect of condition remained significant in this analysis, Wald χ2 (1) = 19.84, p < .001
(Generic, M = .50, CI = .45, .55; Specific, M = .34, CI = .29, .39). Age did not interact with
condition, p > .7, and the effect of condition was significant within each age group examined
separately, ps < .01.
For resource allocations, older children (M = .27, CI = .21, .32) withheld more resources
than younger children (M = .17, CI = .13, .21), Wald χ2 (1) = 8.62, p = .003. The effect of
condition remained significant in this analysis, Wald χ2 (1) = 23.14, p < .001 (Generic, M = .30,
CI = .26, .35; Specific, M = .14, CI = .11, .19). Age did not interact with condition, p > .50, and
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 27
the effect of condition was significant within each age group examined separately, ps < .05.
Overall, although these analyses revealed some baseline differences in children’s essentialist
beliefs and resource allocation decisions by gender and age, the effects of condition on children’s
essentialist beliefs and resource allocation decisions did not differ by these participant variables.
Further examination of children’s explanations
In the combined data set, we also used the explanations generated by children to consider
an alternate mechanism by which our condition manipulation could have influenced resource
allocation decisions. In particular, we considered that children in the Specific condition might
have been more likely to focus on the Zarpies as individual agents. If so, perhaps children are
more likely to share with people they think of as individual agents. As a preliminary test of this
possibility, we recoded the explanations that children generated as part of our essentialism
measures to obtain an indicator of the extent to which children thought of the characters as
individual agents.
As described earlier, on these items, children were shown a picture of a Zarpie and were
asked to explain the Zarpie’s behavior (e.g., “Why is this Zarpie climbing a tall fence?”). In our
main coding (as reported above), the “scope” score focused on the extent to which children
referenced the category as exerting a causal force (e.g., “Because Zarpies love to climb”). In that
scheme, everything that did not reference the category received a score of “0” for “scope”; this
included explanations that referenced the individual agent (e.g., “because he loves to climb”) and
those that did not (e.g., “because it is a nice day”) together. Thus, to get a measure of the extent
to which children were thinking of the characters as individual actors, we recoded these data for
whether children referenced the individual agent as causal. Children were indeed more likely to
do so in the Specific condition than the Generic condition, Wald χ2 (1) = 30.34, p < .001
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 28
(Generic, M = .48, CI = .40, .56; Specific, M = .80, CI = .73, .86). However, this score did not
correlate with their resource allocation decisions, r(93) = -.10, ns. Though a preliminary test of
this issue, we think these data are consistent with the account that the reported effects on
resource allocation are driven more by increased essentialism in the Generic condition than in
increased individual-thinking in the Specific condition.
Study 2 replicated several key findings of Study 1. We once again found that exposure to
generic language about a novel social category (a) increases essentialist beliefs and (b) decreases
children’s willingness to allocate resources to members of that group. Further, the effect of
condition on children’s resource allocation decisions held up even when children were not
exposed to any negative information about group members. Yet, even with more exposure to
generic language over a longer period of time and a wider range of measures of children’s intergroup attitudes, we consistently found that children in the Generic condition did not hold more
negative attitudes towards Zarpies. Further, we found that while our three measures of children’s
attitudes towards Zarpies were correlated with one another, none correlated with their resource
allocation decisions. These findings support the proposal that resource allocation decisions and
children’s social attitudes depend on different underlying processes, with the process underlying
children’s resource allocation decisions being particularly susceptible to essentialist beliefs.
For Study 2, we asked parents to read the book to children at home prior to the testing
session, as was done by Gelman et al. (2010). Although this method differed from Study 1 (and
Rhodes et al., 2012), we found similar effects of language condition on essentialist beliefs as in
Study 1 and Rhodes et al. (2012), suggesting that parents administered the manipulation with
sufficient fidelity to produce the intended effects. The very similar patterns across Studies 1 and
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 29
2, as well as the lack of correlations between children’s and parents’ attitudes towards Zarpies
(as discussed above), indicate that the read-at-home procedure did not bias children’s responses
in a problematic manner. Further, the read-at-home procedure had the added benefit that the
experimenter in Study 2 was blind to the child’s condition while administering the dependent
measures (which was one limitation of Study 1).
Study 3
In Studies 1 and 2, we manipulated children’s essentialist beliefs about a novel group of
people—Zarpies. Zarpies were presented as an out-group (as presumably children would realize
that they themselves are not Zarpies), but we did not highlight this out-group status. Thus, one
open possibility is that essentialist beliefs would lead to more negative attitudes towards a novel
group if the out-group status of that group were made more salient to children. In Study 3, we
tested this possibility by highlighting the out-group status of Zarpies in both specific and generic
language conditions, by assigning children to their own, different novel in-group—Gorps.
Children received the same generic or specific input about Zarpies as in Studies 1-2; thus we
manipulated essentialist beliefs about the out-group only (not about the in-group). Children then
completed measures of inter-group attitudes and behavior similar to those in Studies 1-2.
Consistent with prior work, we expected children to hold biased attitudes in favor of their
own groups in both conditions of this study; that is, we expected them to prefer to invite
members of their own group, to say they would sit closer to members of their own group, and to
share more resources with their own group members. Previous work has shown that children of
these ages readily show such biases based on new, arbitrary group memberships to which they
are assigned in experimental settings (Dunham et al., 2011; Patterson & Bigler, 2007). Our key
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 30
question was whether essentialist beliefs—induced by generic language—would accentuate these
group biases.
In Study 3, we also aimed to pinpoint more precisely the component of essentialist beliefs
that leads children to withhold resources from out-group members. In particular, we focused on
the component of essentialist beliefs that entails viewing the boundaries between social groups as
strict, absolute, and inflexible (No et al., 2008; Rhodes & Gelman, 2009). Among adults, this
component of essentialism is thought to decrease expectations of inter-group interactions
(Zagefka et al., 2012). Similarly, among somewhat older children (age 11), the tendency to view
personalities as fixed (similar to an essentialist belief) was associated with less desire to interact
with out-group members (Levy & Dweck, 1999). As resource allocation decisions often depend
on expectations of social reciprocity (Dunham et al., 2011; Renno & Shutts, 2015; Yamagishi,
Jim, & Kiyonari, 1999), we hypothesized that this component of essentialism—viewing
boundaries as strict, absolute, and inflexible—would be particularly important for explaining the
relation between essentialism and resource allocation behavior observed in Studies 1 and 2. From
this perspective, essentialism makes people more likely to view the boundary between their own
group and an essentialized out-group as absolute, and thus decreases expectations of future
opportunities for reciprocity, and consequently, decreases willingness to allocate resources
across group boundaries.
In Studies 1 and 2, however, only one of three essentialism measures—the “scope” score
derived from the explanation measure—directly taps this component of essentialism (as
described by Gelman et al. 2010). The other two measures (the “cause” score derived from the
explanation measure and the inheritance questions) instead assess aspects of essentialist beliefs
that relate to viewing category-linked properties as caused by intrinsic, innate qualities. Thus, in
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 31
Study 3, we added an additional measure of children’s beliefs about category boundaries, so that
we could statistically test which component of essentialist beliefs best explains the relation
between essentialism and resource allocation decisions.
Participants included 33 children (10 male, 23 female; M age = 5.16, range = 4.5-6.0;
58% White, 12% Black, 9% Hispanic, the remainder did not provide this information) recruited
from and tested at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan or a private preschool.
Group Introduction
First, children were introduced to two novel groups and given their group assignment, as
Today we are going to talk about two groups of kids called Zarpies and Gorps. Here are
some Zarpies – they are wearing yellow. Here are some Gorps – they are wearing green.
First we have to figure out which group you should go in. Let me ask you some
questions to see which group you should go in. Which do you like better, cookies or
cupcakes? (Regardless of answer): Okay, great, these kids who are Gorps like (child’s
answer) better too. I think you should be in the Gorp group, but let me ask you one more
question to be sure. Which do you like better, swimming or playing outside? (Regardless
of answer): Okay, great, these kids who are Gorps like (child’s answer) better too. You
are definitely in the Gorp group. Here, take this green sticker to show that you are in the
Gorp group. And let me give you this green scarf to remind us that you are in the Gorp
group too. Here are some Zarpies and here are some Gorps. Can you point to someone
who is in your group? And how about someone who is not in your group?
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 32
If children failed to accurately point to an in-group or out-group member, the experimenter
reminded the child, “You are in the Gorp group. Here are some Zarpies and here are some
Gorps” and re-asked these questions. Subsequently, the experimenter said, “Now we are going to
read a story about some Zarpies. Remind me, are you a Zarpie? That’s right, you are not a
Zarpie, you are a Gorp. Let’s read this book about some Zarpies then we’ll answer some
questions about some Zarpies and some Gorps.” The experimenter then read the Zarpie book
used in Studies 1-2 twice to the child (as specified by the child’s condition, n = 19 Generic, n =
14 Specific). After the book reading, the experimenter said, “Now we’re going to answer some
questions about some Zarpies and some Gorps. Remind me, are you a Zarpie or a Gorp? That’s
right, you are a Gorp.”
Essentialism Measures
Children completed the measures of essentialist beliefs used in Studies 1-2. Also, to
begin to pinpoint the features of essentialist beliefs that might shape children’s resource
allocation decisions, we included an additional measure of children’s beliefs that the boundaries
between categories are discrete and objective. In particular, children were asked an additional
follow-up question after each inheritance item, asking whether they would also endorse the
alternate offered property. For example, if the child responded that the grown-up child would
flap its arm when it is happy, like the Zarpie mom, the follow-up question would be, “Do you
think the child might also clap its hands when it is happy, like the Gorp mom?” Rejecting the
alternate property on these items (scored “1”) indicates that children reject the possibility that the
grown-up child in the vignette might display the properties of both groups, and thus that they
believe the boundaries between groups are discrete and absolute (Taylor et al., 2009). To
increase our power to detect effects of these judgments, we increased the number of inheritance
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 33
items for this study from 2 to 3. For analyses, we first examined the essentialism composite used
in Studies 1-2, including the explanation items and initial responses to the inheritance questions,
in order to facilitate comparisons across studies. Subsequently, we test the extent to which a
composite score measuring children’s beliefs about category boundaries (consisting of the sum
of the scope score and the new measure of beliefs about the discreteness of categories) and a
composite score measuring children’s beliefs about intrinsic causes (consisting of the sum of the
cause score and the inheritance measure) account for the effect of condition on children’s
Inter-group attitudes and Resource Allocation Measures
Next, children completed adapted versions of two of the inter-group attitudes measures
used in Study 2—the invitations measure and the proximity measure—along with a measure of
their resource allocation decisions. Children were asked about two items each for all three
measures, and for each one, were asked to choose between an in-group member and an out-group
member (e.g., Invitations: “Do you want to invite this Gorp to go to the circus with you, or do
you want to invite this Zarpie to go to the circus with you?”; Resource allocation: “Look at this
Gorp, and look at this Zarpie. Go ahead and give as many trains as you want to the Gorp and as
many trains as you want to the Zarpie.” Seat distance: “Let’s pretend you’re outside. Oh look, a
Gorp and a Zarpie! Let’s pick a seat. Where do you want to sit?” For the resource allocation task,
children completed two trials, one where they were asked to distribute four resources (e.g., toy
boats) and one in which they were asked to distribute six resources (e.g., toy trains). Although
children were not required to distribute all resources to one group or the other, they chose to do
so in practice. These items are reported as probabilities of items withheld from the out-group (as
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 34
in previous studies); in this case, then, higher probabilities withheld from the out-group means
that more items were given to the in-group.
As in Studies 1-2, children in the Generic condition gave more essentialist responses (M
= .60, CI = .53, .67) than children in the Specific condition (M = .33, CI = .25, .41), Wald χ2 (1)
= 21.62, p < .001, OR = 3.14, CI = 1.94-5.09.
Intergroup Attitudes
Children showed in-group biases on both measures of inter-group attitudes, but the extent
of these biases did not vary by language condition. Children reliably invited their in-group
member over their out-group member (M = .78, CI = .66, .87), Wald χ2 (1) = 15.74, p < .001 (OR
= 3.13, CI = 1.78, 5.49; responses did not vary by condition, Wald χ2 (1) = 2.51, p = .11,
Generic, M = .68, CI = .52, .81; Specific, M = .86, CI = .68, .95). They also chose to sit farther
away from the out-group member (and thus closer to the in-group member) than expected by
chance (M = 1.35, SD = .59, t(32) = 3.38, p < .002; again, responses did not vary by condition, t
(31) = 1.44, p = .16; Generic, M = 1.47, SD = .49; Specific, M = 1.18, SD = .70).
Resource Allocation
Overall, children gave fewer resources to the out-group (and therefore designated more to
the in-group) than expected by chance (M = .39, CI = .34, .45), Wald χ2 (1) = 14.62, p < .001.
Consistent with Studies 1 and 2, however, children’s resource allocations differed by condition.
Children gave fewer resources to the Zarpie (and thus more to the Gorp) in the Generic condition
(M = .35, CI = .28, .42) than in the Specific condition (M = .46, CI = .38, .54), Wald χ2 (1) =
4.05, p = .04. (OR = 1.58, CI = 1.01, 2.47).
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 35
Further, analyses using the Process Procedure in SPSS confirmed that children’s beliefs
about the discreteness of category boundaries mediated the effect of condition on the proportion
of resources withheld from Zarpies, whereas their beliefs about the innate or intrinsic nature of
category-linked properties did not. In particular, these analyses confirmed a significant indirect
effect of condition on withholding resources from Zarpies via the category-boundaries measure
(standardized indirect effect = .17, CI = .0003, .48), with category-boundaries accounting for
approximately 70% of the variance (ratio of indirect effect to total effect = .71). In contrast, the
indirect effect via beliefs about the innate nature of category properties was not significant
(standardized indirect effect = -.06, CI = -.25, .03).
Study 3 replicated the findings of Studies 1-2 indicating that exposure to generic
language increases essentialist beliefs about a new social category (as evidenced by increased
essentialism in the Generic than Specific condition), extending this finding to instances when the
out-group status of this group is made more salient to children. We also replicated the finding
that inducing essentialist beliefs leads children to share fewer resources with out-group members.
Further, we conceptually replicated the findings of Dunham et al. (2011) and others, who have
found that children rapidly develop in-group preferences, even for novel social groups—children
in this study preferred to affiliate with members of their own groups (on the “invitations”
measure), sat closer to their in-group members than out-group members (on the “proximity”
measure), and also designated more resources to their in-group members when asked to choose
between allocating to in-group and out-group members. That we found in-group bias on all of the
measures, including two of the measures of social preference used in Study 2, shows that all of
the measures used here were indeed sensitive to variation in children’s beliefs. Nevertheless,
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 36
essentialism influenced only responses on the resource allocation task—we once again replicated
the null results from Studies 1 and 2 regarding the effect of essentialism on children’s intergroup attitudes, even when the out-group status of Zarpies was highlighted. Study 3 also revealed
that variation in the extent to which children perceived the boundaries between Zarpies and
Gorps as absolute and discrete accounted for the relation between their assigned condition and
their resource allocation decisions.
General Discussion
These studies examined how essentialist beliefs influence children’s inter-group attitudes
and behaviors. In three studies, essentialist beliefs related to children’s resource allocation
decisions. In Study 1, children induced to hold essentialist beliefs about a novel group shared
fewer resources with group members after hearing about instances of negative behavior on the
part of specific individual group members. In Study 2, children induced to hold essentialist
beliefs withheld resources even though they had not been exposed to such instances of negative
behavior. In Study 3, children with essentialist beliefs again withheld more resources when the
group in question was presented as an explicit out-group. Yet, in no study did children seem to
feel more negatively towards Zarpies as a function of essentialism. This pattern is consistent with
the possibility that essentialism influences inter-group behavior by increasing beliefs about the
discreteness of category boundaries (see Gaither et al., 2014), thus making children more likely
to consider a person’s out-group status when making judgments about social reciprocity (see
Dunham et al., 2011; Paulus & Moore, 2014; Yamagishi et al., 1999).
These data are the first to reveal that the development of essentialist beliefs about an
entirely novel group has immediate negative consequences for children’s inter-group behavior.
Previous research has documented correlations between children’s essentialist beliefs about
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 37
familiar social categories and some other aspects of inter-group cognition (e.g., correlations
between racial essentialism and endorsing racial stereotypes; Levy & Dweck, 1999; Pauker et al.,
2010), and Diesendruck & Menahem (2015) found that increasing children’s essentialist beliefs
about familiar groups influenced their implicit attitudes in some cases. While very informative,
this prior work leaves open questions regarding whether essentialist beliefs play a causal role in
the development of these negative features of social cognition, whether essentialism alone is
sufficient to cause negative social outcomes (or whether it does so only when it interacts with
other aspects of children’s knowledge and experiences with familiar categories), and whether the
negative consequences of essentialism for inter-group relations extend beyond increased
stereotyping. Our experimental approach with novel groups allowed us to address these
questions. We found that inducing essentialist beliefs in children—even if they were provided
with no negative information about a new group—immediately led children to be less willing to
share resources across group boundaries. Thus, we provide the first evidence that essentialism
plays a causal role in the development of some negative inter-group phenomena, that such
phenomena extend beyond stereotyping to influence resource allocation decisions, and that
essentialism alone is sufficient to produce these effects.
These data also reveal, however, that essentialism might play a more limited role in the
development of some inter-group phenomena than suggested by previous theorizing (Allport,
1956). In particular, across three studies and multiple measures, we found no evidence that
essentialism led children to hold negative attitudes towards members of essentialized out-groups.
Thus, essentialism alone does not seem sufficient to lead to social prejudice, at least in early
childhood. These findings do not preclude the possibility, however, that essentialism plays a
causal role in the development of prejudiced attitudes via more complex social or developmental
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 38
phenomena than we considered here. For example, essentialism could contribute to prejudice in
the context of status differences between groups, once children accumulate personal experience
with in-group and out-group members, or if children are explicitly exposed to negative
stereotypes (Bigler & Liben, 2007; Cimpian & Salomon, 2014; Birnbaum et al., 2010; see also
Rutland, Killen, & Abrams, 2010). Our findings only suggest that essentialist beliefs—on their
own—do not immediately lead to the development of negative feelings towards out-group
members; they do not preclude the possibility that essentialism contributes to social prejudice in
the context of children’s broader experiences (see Leslie, in press). Experimentally testing how
essentialism interacts with other types of information (e.g., information about status differences,
negative stereotypes, and so on) is an important direction for future research.
Revealing that essentialist beliefs—alone—influence resource allocation decisions but do
not elicit negative feelings towards out-group members provides some insight into the
mechanisms underlying these various inter-group phenomena. In particular, these findings are
consistent with proposals that resource allocation decisions in inter-group contexts do not reflect
simple social preferences (Renno & Shutts, 2015; Yamagishi et al., 1999). In three studies, our
essentialism manipulation consistently affected resource allocation decisions but not social
preferences, suggesting that different processes underlie these phenomena. More directly,
although our multiple measures of social preferences (e.g., choices about proximity, decisions to
issue invitations, and outcome predictions) were correlated with one another, in no study did any
of these attitude measures correlate with children’s allocation decisions. Rather, we propose that
essentialism influences such decisions by increasing the extent to which children view the
boundaries between groups as discrete and absolute, and therefore the likelihood that they
incorporate such boundaries into their expectations of social reciprocity.
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 39
Further, these data may help to distinguish various theoretical models of why
essentialism often correlates with prejudice among adult populations. One perspective in adult
social psychology has suggested that essentialism leads to prejudice because it increases
perceptions of group differences, perhaps leading people to view in-group and out-group
members as fundamentally distinct kinds of people and thus to dehumanize out-groups (Leyens
et al., 2001) and attribute group differences to biological or immutable factors (Keller, 2005).
Although we did not directly measure perceptions of group differences here, the present data are
difficult to reconcile with this perspective, which predicts that essentialism should lead directly
to prejudice. Children in the present studies who were induced to hold essentialist beliefs viewed
category-linked properties as innately determined and immutable, expected such properties to be
shared across group members, and viewed intrinsic factors as responsible for category-typical
behaviors. Yet, these beliefs, alone, did not lead them to feel more negatively towards members
of the essentialized group. Thus, essentialism does not appear to lead directly to prejudice via
mechanisms that relate solely to emphasizing group difference or attributing such differences to
immutable or biological causes. Alternate perspectives on why essentialism might relate to social
prejudice among adult populations depend more on how essentialism relates to other features of
social experience, or on how essentialism might be used to explain status differences or other
features of the social environment, and are more commensurate with the present data (Morton,
Hornsey, & Postmes, 2009; Pettigrew, 1979; Rangel & Keller, 2011; Verkyuten, 2003). Here
too, though, the present data suggest a more complex story than might have been assumed. Even
when children essentialized a social outgroup and were presented with evidence that members of
that group engage in negative behaviors such as stealing, essentialism still did not predict
increased prejudice. While not yet definitive, this suggests that children do not assume that all
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 40
behaviors associated with an essentialized group are deep properties of the group such that they
would be expected to generalize broadly.
The present research suggests several key directions for future work. For example, no
prior work has examined how essentialist beliefs relate to children’s social attitudes (e.g.,
prejudice) or inter-group behavior (e.g., resource allocations) for categories that they encounter
in their daily lives (prior work in this area has instead focused on stereotyping; Levy & Dweck,
1999; Pauker et al., 2010). In future work, it would be useful to combine experimental studies—
like those performed here—with studies examining how children’s pre-existing essentialist
beliefs about particular groups (e.g., their levels of racial essentialism) predict similar behaviors.
Such an approach, combined with more detailed examination of the underlying processes than
was conducted here, could eventually reveal the mechanisms that contribute to the development
of the most virulent forms of social prejudice. Further, it would be useful to expand the age
ranges included, to consider how the processes that underlie inter-group attitudes and behaviors
change across age. Finally, it will be very helpful to include more diverse subject populations, as
the relation of essentialist beliefs to various inter-group phenomena likely depends on children’s
own experiences in essentialized groups (see Kinzler & Dautel, 2011; No et al., 2008).
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 41
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Table 1. Children’s inter-group attitudes and behaviors by condition, Study 2.
Generic Condition
Specific Condition
M = .48 (CI = .35-.61)
M = .46 (CI = .33-.60)
Average number of seats away from
M = 1.46 (CI = 1.14-
M = 1.74 (CI = 1.39-
Zarpie (out of 4 possible)
Probabilities of attributing the positive
M = .61 (CI = .48-.73)
M = .70 (CI = .56-.81)
M = .26 (CI = .21-.31)
M = .08 (CI = .05-.12)
Probabilities of withholding invitations
from Zarpies
outcome to a non-Zarpie
Probabilities of withholding resources
from Zarpies*
*Probabilities of withholding resources from Zarpies differed by condition, p < .001
Essentialism and Inter-group Relations 53
Table 2. Correlations among measures of inter-group attitudes and behaviors, Study 2.
**p < .01; m p = .07

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