Psychological Existentialism

 – Alisha

There’s a concept called psychological essentialism, which is a tool we use to reason about the world.

There are three tenants to psychological essentialism:

Certain categories are real and only discovered by humans- that is, they are not human constructs, but facts of nature.
Some unobservable property causes a group of things to be the way they are, and,
Our words and out language faithfully reflect the true reality of the world.

Essentialism has always been a contentious subject. Essentialism when applied to humans is particularly dangerous. The origin of such a concept is at the heart of many debates, but we do know that language, and in particular labels, promotes the essentialist mindset.

Essentialism is how we simplify the world around us; make it more comprehensible. Like generalizing. Like stereotyping. Like prejudicing. Evolutionarily speaking, these cognitive shortcuts have their benefits: less brainpower needed figuring out the intricacies of other peoples’ psychologies, and more time to do useful things, like, uh, sharpen picks or gather berries. Most of these snap judgements do us no direct harm, anyways.

But there’s no place for that in our world today.

Consider the following study by S.A. Gelman and G.D. Heyman: children are introduced to fictional characters with uncommon attributes. One of the characters is named Rose, and she really loves carrots. The carrot-loving attribute is described either by a verb predicate, or a noun (i.e. Rose either “eats carrots all the time” or is “a carrot-eater”). Then, the children are asked how enduring they thought this characteristic (carrot-eating) was for Rose. Those children who were introduced to Rose as a “carrot-eater”, i.e. a direct noun label, were much more likely to think of her affinity as an enduring trait than the children who were exposed to the verb predicate. Their understanding of Rose is now coloured by her label, ‘carrot-eater’. This study was a child-friendly way of revealing how early in development labels and categories impact how we see the world. It demonstrated the power labels have to stick in our psyche, and influence how we perceive people.

Bringing it to the issues we face today- what if we were taught early in childhood that a certain group of people are associated with desirable qualities, qualities that don’t change across time? What if we assigned labels to other groups and assumed they were inherently, essentially, naturally, inferior? An essentialist take on differences between social statuses of different groups would be to say one group is superior because they naturally, immutably, are. Under those paradigms, people born into privilege have no obligation to consider the inequities of their society. They may believe another disadvantaged group is where they are because that’s just how it is.

Labels and stereotypes confine people to rigid identities based on one factor alone. They ignore the rich spectrum of characteristics and experiences every single individual has. Prejudice provokes isolation and hatred, it prevents collaboration and mutual gain. It robs us of opportunity to learn from amazing people, it stops conversations.

That’s why I’m proud to be part of an initiative such as ours. With as little as a conversation between two strangers who put aside their differences and genuinely listen, the world becomes a little kinder. With this organization, and with everything in life, I hope we can open our minds, and be brave enough to be open to the possibility of change.

Also- a slightly related, slightly unrelated web comic:*, by The Oatmeal.

*Kid-friendly version