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Insides and outsides: investigating preschoolers' understanding of biological and environmental aspects of essentialism with novel categories.


Four-year-old Isabella is said to have an understanding of gender constancy when she knows that, irrespective of the situation or superficial changes in appearance, she will always be a girl. Similarly, six-year-old Stefan is regarded as having ethnic constancy by knowing he will always be Belgian, regardless of where he is and what he wears. Notions of both gender identity and ethnic identity involve an understanding that, once established, these categorical memberships are unchangeable. This is consistent with psychological essentialist understandings concerning the 'true essence' of a person or object. In common parlance, 'You can take the girl out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the girl'. Or can you? Indeed, can you take the girl out of the girl? Although they may sound frivolous, these are not trivial questions. Rather, they highlight the basic issue addressed in the current research. That is, following biological and environmental changes, is a person perceived by others as retaining an essence of what s/he was before?

Psychological essentialism

Psychological essentialism is the belief that natural kinds and social categories possess (often unseen) defining qualities. It is this 'essence' that is shared by category members and gives them their identity (Gelman, 2003). Members of a category are therefore seen as sharing some underlying structure (even when invisible features compete with perceptual similarity); they are thought to have innate properties (that prevail over nurture); and categories are seen to have sharp and immutable boundaries. However, essentialist thinking is not always accurate. Although useful in providing information about groups, it can also serve to encourage and justify stereotyping and discriminatory beliefs by implying that certain properties--and identities--are natural, innate and fixed.

Essentialism in young children

Children as young as two years of age demonstrate essentialist thinking (Gelman & Coley, 1990). They use category membership to make inferences about important properties, such as correctly inferring characteristics from one category member to another even when category members are perceptually dissimilar but labelled as similar. For example, Gelman and Coley found that two-year-olds used the category label 'bird' to infer eating habits when shown pictures of a dodo and a bluebird, but did not extend this property to bats, which were more perceptually birdlike than the dodo. Gelman and colleagues' finding that preschoolers make inferences from non-obvious features, rather than outward appearances, is extremely robust (see Gelman, 1988; Gelman & Coley, 1990; Gelman, Collman & Maccoby, 1986).

Privileging underlying structure over perceptual features is, however, at odds with traditional cognitive theories of categorisation (e.g. Flavell, 1985; Piaget & Inhelder, 1966/1969) that emphasise young children's reliance on superficial, perceptual cues. In contrast, Gelman (2004) claims that young children find meaning and causal explanations precisely by looking beyond obvious perceptual features. In this way, essentialist thinking incorporates children's 'naive theories' about the world. These are the implicit theories that guide our understanding of the world (Murphy & Medin, 1985) and are often specific to particular domains (Hirschfeld & Gelman, 1994; Keil, 1989; Newman & Keil, 2008) including social groups (Hirschfeld, 1995, 2001). Nonetheless, appearances do provide crucial cues to an object's underlying essence (Gelman & Medin, 1993) and while perceptual similarity may be used to define category membership (e.g. Oakes, 1987), it is secondary to identifying the category's underlying essence and providing meaning to that categorisation (Gelman, 2004; Gelman & Markman, 1986).

Medin and Ortony (1989) proposed that one of the functions of essentialist thinking is to serve as a 'placeholder'. That is, it is possible to believe that a category possesses a meaningful, underlying essence, but not know what that essence is. Young children might know that deep, non-visible differences exist between, for example, lions and tigers, but have no idea as to what these differences are. In this way, essentialist thinking has 'inductive potential' in guiding expectations about category members (Gelman & Markman, 1986). This applies not only to physical characteristics and properties, but to beliefs about psychological traits (Heyman & Gelman, 2000).

At around four years of age, children's essentialist thinking undergoes refinement as their desire to provide meaning becomes integrated with their knowledge and experience. In a study by Gelman and Wellman (1991), four-year-olds maintained that kangaroos raised by goats would grow up to be good at hopping rather than climbing, while Hirschfeld and Gelman's (1997) preschool participants considered that adopted children would speak the language of their birth parents. Both of these examples reflect children's essentialist beliefs that certain properties are fixed at birth (innate) and will inevitably be realised, regardless of the environment. Commonly used 'adoption' or 'switched at birth' tasks (Gelman & Wellman, 1991; Hirschfeld, 1995) are, however, often confounded with the child's knowledge of categories and category members. To address this, recent studies investigating social essentialism and ethnicity with children as young as five, intentionally utilised self-relevant social categories (Birnbaum, Deeb, Segall, Ben-Eliyahu & Diesendruck, 2010; Deeb, Segall, Birnbaum, Ben-Eliyahu & Diesendruck, 2011). The current study aimed to avoid confounds associated with prior knowledge by employing features and abilities that could not unequivocally be attributed to one group or the other.

Essentialism and social categorisation

Despite their similarities however, the psychological processes of essentialism and categorisation are not the same. Importantly, not all categories are essentialised. We divide numerous aspects of the world into categories, but not all these groupings are thought to share underlying similarities, or have essences. Lakoff (1987) distinguished between 'natural kind' categories that often occur in nature and possess richly structured meaning, and 'artifact' categories that tend to be more arbitrary or artificial (Markman, 1989).

Natural kind categories are more likely to be essentialised (Gelman, 2003); they are treated as if they have some basis in nature rather than being notionally grouped together. Social categories, however, are neither natural kinds nor artifacts. While there is certainly some genetic ('natural') basis to gender categories, this is not the case for a social category such as 'teachers', nor even for racial categories (see Billinger, 2007 for a review on the social construction of race and ethnicity). Hirschfeld (1996) as well as Rothbart and Taylor (1992) argue that social categories are commonly treated as natural kinds even when better considered as artifacts. Essentialising social categories thus poses problems both for essentialist theorising, and for the actual treatment of social groups in ways that are both demeaning and detrimental.

Applications of essentialist beliefs

Indeed, essentialist explanations are often used as a way of explaining, and legitimising, inequalities between social groups (Haslam, Bastian, Bain & Kashima, 2006), and promoting intergroup agendas (see Morton, Haslam, Postmes & Ryan, 2006; Morton, Postmes, Haslam & Hornsey, 2009). This link between essentialist beliefs and prejudice and discrimination has been empirically supported across a variety of social domains including anti-gay attitudes (Haslam, Rothschild & Ernst, 2002), sexism (Haslam, Rothschild & Ernst, 2000; Morton et al., 2009), racism (Keller, 2005) and even occupational groups (Bastian & Haslam, 2006). Essentialist beliefs thus serve as both explanations of the social world and excuses for its inequalities.

Dimensions of essentialism

The strategic use of essentialist explanations for different social groups highlights the complex nature of essentialism. Although sometimes treated as a unitary construct (Demoulin, Leyens & Yzerbyt, 2006; Gelman, Heyman & Legare, 2007), distinct dimensions have been identified by a number of researchers. Notably, Haslam et al. (2000, 2002) used participants' ratings of social groups to distinguish between 'naturalness' (or biologically based essentialism) and 'entitativity' (the degree to which a category is perceived as uniform and exclusive). These distinctions reflect those found by Yzerbyt and colleagues (Yzerbyt, Corneille & Estrada, 2001; Yzerbyt, Rocher & Schadron, 1997), along with more recent work by Keller: belief in genetic determinism (BGD; Keller, 2005) and belief in social (environmental) determinism (BSD; Keller, 2008; Rangel & Keller, 2011). Put simply, this research suggests that essentialist beliefs comprise biological concepts (e.g. born, blood) and environmental/social concepts (e.g. preferences). These relate directly to the nature/nurture, or 'outsides'/'insides' aspects of essentialist reasoning.

'Insides' and 'outsides' is a particularly relevant distinction for work with children in distinguishing between psychological properties such as preferences (e.g. Rhodes & Gelman, 2008) and appearances, and harkens back to early work on essentialism in young children (Gelman & Wellman, 1991). Consequently, the biological/environmental distinction was used in this study. Although commonly used only as measures of essentialist thinking, the current study both measured and manipulated these dimensions to investigate the impact of each.

The present study

This study examined biological and environmental aspects of essentialist thinking among preschool children. Avoiding a clear distinction between people and animals (see Taylor, Rhodes & Gelman, 2009), the study utilised novel toy characters that resembled animals but possessed human characteristics and preferences. These characters were neither members of a natural kind category per se, nor were they from an obviously artifactual category. In this way, they resembled as closely as possible the way social categories are perceived in the world. Members of a social group often exhibit some perceptual similarity, along with behavioural and/or psychological likeness. They can also share cross-category physical and psychological similarities with members of other social groups.

In both manipulating and measuring biological and environmental aspects of essentialism, the current study sought to explore the relative importance of these two dimensions. Specifically, if biological features were more important, stronger essentialist beliefs were expected in conditions where biological features of the target character remained unchanged than when biological features underwent transformations. Similarly, if environmental features were more important, stronger essentialist beliefs would be found in those conditions where environmental features remained constant.

Our aims, therefore, involved a thorough examination of these two major essentialist dimensions. In doing so, we hoped to ascertain whether essentialist thinking in preschool children simply represents their (pre)conceptions of their world or, importantly, whether contextual changes interact with this understanding. In line with the increasing evidence in social psychology, and consistent with theoretical propositions in social-developmental psychology (e.g. Bigler & Liben, 2006), we predicted that, in the current study, this would manifest itself in differential responses by the children consistent with the different (biological and/or social) aspects.



Forty boys and 24 girls participated in this interactive study (M age = 50.40 months, SD = 7.42). The children were recruited from three university-based childcare centres in Canberra, Australia. The majority of these children, therefore, had at least one parent engaged in work or study at university. Written parental consent was obtained for each participant, which included the opportunity for each parent to provide information on the child's ethnicity. Forty-seven parents chose to answer this question, with the majority of these (n = 38) self-reporting as 'Australian' and the remaining reporting coming from one of six different ethnic backgrounds. All children were able to speak and understand English.


The study involved a 2 (biological consistency: high/low) x 2 (environmental consistency: high/low) x 2 (time of measurement: pre-/post-manipulation) mixed factorial design, with time of measurement the within-participants factor. Participants were randomly assigned to one of the four between-participants experimental conditions.

Materials and procedure

Each child participated individually, and was first introduced to the two female experimenters, asked if s/he would like to participate, and taken to a quiet area in the day-care centre. The child was then seated in front of a felt play-mat that was decorated with two felt trees, one with apples and the other with oranges. Along the centre of the mat, closest to the child, was a pretend day-care centre with a playground, while further away was a forest of trees. Scattered on the play-mat were three large green pipe-cleaner 'magic worms', three small green 'worms', three large yellow and three small yellow 'worms'. These were said to represent child and adult worms, respectively, and it was these 'magic worms' that served as the social category members about which the children would make their judgements.

Once the child was seated, one of the experimenters sat opposite the child and acted as 'storyteller', while the second experimenter sat further away to record the responses. The child was told that s/he was going to play a game and hear a story about the worms, but was first asked to divide the worms into two piles, as the worms had 'become all mixed up'. The recorder noted whether the child sorted according to colour or size, and whether the child could name the colours when asked. This task also served as a manipulation check, as the study relied on children being able to distinguish between yellow and green.

After the introduction of the yellow/green biological dimension, the storyteller introduced the environmental dimension, informing the child that the yellow worms liked to eat oranges while the green worms liked to eat apples. Removing all other worms from sight, the storyteller then took one small yellow worm that was to become the focus of the story and gave it a name consistent with the gender of the participant. The child was then asked four baseline biological questions, two referring to current state and two to future states: (1) 'What colour are Boris'/Belinda's outsides?' (2) 'What colour are Boris'/Belinda's insides?' (3) 'What colour will Boris'/ Belinda's outsides be when s/he is grown up?' and (4) 'What colour will Boris'/Belinda's insides be when s/he is grown up?' Children's responses to each of these questions were recorded as 'yellow', 'other' (e.g. purple, 'stripy'), and 'green'. Similar to Gelman and Heyman (1999), these responses were coded, respectively, on a scale from 1 to 3, with a value of 1 representing the most essentialist response and 3 the least essentialist response. Following these questions, children were asked to indicate the colour of the worm on a 10-point colour scale (ranging from bright yellow through to bright green). This task was always administered by the second experimenter and required the child to turn away from the physical stimulus, thereby making his/her judgement from memory.The 'outsides' baseline measure and the colour scale also served as manipulation checks to confirm that children understood and remembered the original information provided.

Following these four questions were two baseline environmental questions: (1) 'What does Boris/Belinda like to eat?' and (2) 'What will Boris/Belinda like to eat when he/she is grown up?' Responses to these questions were recorded as 'oranges', 'other' (e.g. lollies), and 'apples'. As with the biological questions, these responses were coded, respectively, on a scale from 1 to 3.

The next part of the study involved the manipulation of the two independent variables. Each part of the story was simultaneously told and acted out using the props described. Belinda/Boris was first said to travel to the forest (i.e. social/ environmental neutral territory) where s/he found some berries. These berries provided the basis for the introduction of the biological consistency manipulation. Toward this end, the worm was said either to: (1) simply count the berries (high biological consistency condition), or (2) eat the berries and turn green (low biological consistency condition). In the latter condition, the original yellow pipe cleaner worm was replaced by a green one; in the former condition, the original 'worm' was not replaced.

The story continued with Boris/Belinda being said to get lost on his/her way home. This provided the basis for the introduction of the environmental consistency manipulation. Specifically, the worm was said either to: (1) find his/her way back home to live with the other yellow worms (high environmental consistency condition), or (2) was found, and adopted, by green worms and went to live with them (low environmental consistency condition).

The above questions were then asked a second time, to enable us to observe any changes/consistency in responses as a function of our experimental manipulations. Consistently responding 'yellow', for example, even after the worm changed colour would indicate more essentialist-type thinking.

Upon conclusion of the study, each child was thanked for his/ her participation, given a sticker to take home, asked what his/ her favourite colour was, and returned to the group play area.


Manipulation checks

Approximately half the children immediately sorted the worms by colour, and two children initially sorted by size. All, however, were able to sort by colour with prompting. All children demonstrated a good knowledge of colours and were able to identify and label both green and yellow. Participants' favourite colours were mostly blue, green, pink, red and yellow, which were found to be evenly distributed across experimental conditions (precluding a potential experimental confound of identification with one of the--yellow or green--social categories).

Biological essentialism

A 2 (biological consistency) x 2 (environmental consistency) x 2 (participant gender) x 2 (pre-/post-manipulation) x 2 (current state/future state) x 2 (judgements of insides vs. outsides) mixed analysis of variance (ANOVA) was conducted on participants' responses to the biological questions. Significant main effects were found for biological consistency (F(1,56) = 43.46, p < 0.001, partial [eta]2 = 0.44), for pre-/post-manipulation (F(1,56) = 43.28, p < 0.001, partial [eta]2 = 0.44), for current/future state (F(1,56) = 29.11, p < 0.001, partial -2 = 0.34), and for judgements of insides and outsides (F(1,56) = 9.33, p < 0.01, partial [eta]2 = 0.14). Although several lower-order interaction effects were found, for ease of interpretation we describe only the higher-order, most inclusive interactions.

Figure 1 shows the interaction between pre-/post-manipulation, biological consistency, and environmental consistency, F(1,56) = 4.44, p < 0.05, partial -2 = 0.07. Whereas high biological consistency led the children to essentialise the target more (at post-manipulation) regardless of environmental consistency, children rationally recognised the worm's changes under low biological consistency. However, the three-way interaction was clearly driven by the greatest increase in essentialising the target in the high environmental consistency/low biological consistency condition rather than the low environmental consistency/low environmental consistency condition. Possible explanations for this are considered in the discussion.

The interaction between pre-/post-manipulation, environmental consistency and judgements of insides and outsides, F(1,56) = 8.47 p < 0.01, partial [eta]2 = 0.13, is shown in Figure 2. As can be seen, with low environmental consistency (i.e. when the yellow worm was adopted by green parents), children considered its outsides to have changed colour while its insides remained relatively unchanged. Unexpectedly, with high environmental consistency (when the yellow worm never lived with green worms), children reported changes in both insides and outsides. Again, possible explanations for this are considered in the discussion.

Figure 3 presents the interaction between pre-/post-manipulation, biological consistency, judgements of insides and outsides, and judgements of current/ future states, F(1,56) = 6.53, p < 0.05, partial -2 = 0.10). Clearly, under low biological consistency (i.e. when the yellow worm actually became green), children recognised this colour change both in current and future states. This change was particularly pronounced on judgements of outsides, but was also maintained on judgements of insides. There was, therefore, little expression of essentialist thinking under this low biological consistency. In contrast, under high biological consistency, there was little or no real change in judgements except for the dramatic outsides essentialisation for the worm's future state. This shift was likely driven by the relatively high levels of expected (i.e. future) colour change at baseline measurement.

Biological essentialism: Colour scale

A 2 (biological consistency) x 2 (environmental consistency) x 2 (participant gender) x 2 (pre-/post-manipulation) mixed ANOVA was conducted on participants' responses to the colour-scale questions. Four statistically significant effects emerged from this analysis.

Significant main effects for biological consistency (F(1,56) = 8.70, p < 0.01, partial [eta]2 = 0.13) and pre-/post-manipulation (F(1,56) = 14.36, p < 0.001, partial [eta]2 = 0.20) were qualified by a biological consistency by pre-/post-manipulation interaction (F(1,56) = 22.16, p < 0.001, partial [eta]2 = 0.28). Under low biological consistency (i.e. when the worm actually changed from yellow to green), children's judgements of the worm's colour changed from pre- (M = 2.75, SEM = 0.34) to post-manipulation measurement (M = 5.53, SEM = 0.40). Under high biological consistency, however, there was a trend toward essentialism from pre- (M = 3.09, SEM = 0.34) to post-manipulation measurement (M = 2.79, SEM = 0.40).

This two-way interaction was further qualified by participant gender, F(1,56) = 5.11, p < 0.05, partial [eta]2 = 0.08. That is, the two-way interaction was more pronounced by girls than by boys (see Figure 4).

Environmental essentialism

A 2 (biological consistency) x 2 (environmental consistency) x 2 (participant gender) x 2 (pre-/ post-manipulation) x 2 (current state/future state) mixed ANOVA was conducted on participants' responses to the environmental questions (there was one missing value in this analysis). Four statistically significant effects emerged.

Main effects for pre-/post-manipulation (F(1,55) = 6.86, p < 0.05, partial [eta]2 = 0.11) and current/ future state (F(1,55) = 4.63, p < 0.05, partial [eta]2 = 0.09) were qualified by a pre-/post-manipulation by current/future state interaction (F(1,55) = 4.68, p < 0.05, partial [eta]2 = 0.08). This interaction reflects children's relatively accurate responses regarding the worm's current eating preferences at baseline measurement (M = 1.42, SEM = 0.11), but judgements (or expectations) of change in all other conditions (M post-manipulation/current state = 1.96, SEM = 0.13; M baseline/future state = 1.87, SEM = 0.13; M post-manipulation/future state = 1.94, SEM = 0.12).

Most relevant to our theoretical analysis, an interaction emerged between biological consistency and pre-/post-manipulation, F(1,55) = 10.66, p < 0.01, partial [eta]2 = 0.16. Whereas children expected a change in preferences from pre- (M = 1.57, SEM = 0.13) to post-manipulation (M = 2.25, SEM = 0.15) under low biological consistency, there was a slight trend toward essentialism from pre- (M = 1.73, SEM = 0.13) to post-manipulation (M = 1.65, SEM = 0.15) under high biological consistency.


This study investigated four-year-olds' understanding of biological and environmental aspects of essentialist thinking by comparing situations where one or both of these dimensions either remained stable or underwent change. Despite the complexity, child participants differed in both their responses to, and their ratings of, biological and environmental dimensions. Importantly, while there was evidence of essentialist thinking, this did not occur uniformly across manipulations or dimensions. This points to the flexibility, and sophistication, of children's (categorical) understanding (see also Grace, David & Ryan, 2008), along with the success of our experimental manipulations.

All children were clearly able to recognise the external colour of the target character. Consistent with Gelman and colleagues (Gelman & Coley, 1990; Gelman, et al., 1986; Gelman & Wellman, 1991), an external colour change did not automatically lead to a corresponding change in the perceived 'insides' of the worm, although there were times when changes in perceived 'insides' and 'outsides' co-occurred.

Biological and environmental essentialism

This study aimed to determine whether changes in biological features would impact more on biological measures and, similarly, if changes in environmental features would be most evident on environmental measures. Somewhat surprisingly, the majority of findings concerned measures of biological, rather than environmental/social essentialism. That is, contextual changes (whether biological or environmental) were more likely to impact upon perceptions of the target character's internal and/or external features (i.e. what colour they would appear), than they were to influence the target's preferences (i.e. what they would like to eat).

Changes in biological features (appearance) did lead to higher levels of essentialising, although this was somewhat dependent upon changes also occurring in the environment (e.g. going to live with a different group). Children exposed to a change in the target's external appearance demonstrated lower levels of essentialising after the physical change. Although this is not surprising, importantly it decreased further following a subsequent change in the target character's social environment. In other words, when there were no changes in physical appearance, children considered that the target character would retain his/her essentialist features; when there were changes in physical appearance, this defining 'essence' was no longer maintained. Moreover, when a change in external appearance was accompanied by a change in the social environment, the target's 'essence' was even less likely to be maintained. Consistent with our predictions, therefore, contextual changes were reflected in the children's understanding, or perceptions, of the target category member.

Essentialist expectations

Interestingly, when the target character changed colour, the least essentialising occurred when the target returned to live with his/her original group. It is in this situation, however, that a major anomaly occurs. When a category member changes his/her appearance, yet continues his/her original affiliations, we could expect a level of inconsistency in how s/he is perceived. Conversely, when one's appearance changes and one's lifestyle preferences become consistent with the new appearance, this seems to 'fit' with the change that occurred (Brown & Turner, 2002; Oakes, 1987). Precisely this situation occurs in the extreme cases of gender reassignment, and other appearance-altering procedures. One very public example was that of Michael Jackson, whose skin colour dramatically changed throughout the course of his life. This appearance change, while maintaining his African-American identity led to much speculation on the reasons why he underwent these physical changes. If adults find difficulty in explaining such a discordant sequence of events, it is not surprising that children might be confused when presented with a somewhat analogous situation (as occurred in the current study). The situation also points to the fact that changes in one domain (e.g. physical appearance) can lead to an expectation of change in other domains (e.g. Rhodes & Gelman, 2008).

It is these expectations that may explain children's differential perceptions of the current and future states of the target character. In the current study when children were asked about 'insides', there was little change between current and future (i.e. when the worm was grown up) states in all conditions (except when the target changed appearance and questions referred to the current state). In contrast, when questions concerned the target's 'outsides', relatively large differences occurred (between current and future) between worms whose appearance did and did not change. Consistent with Gelman (2003), preschoolers use available information to make sense of their world. They do so in the absence of causal understanding or comprehensive explanatory frameworks.

Interestingly, the highest levels of essentialism were observed when questions about the future referred to 'outsides' and when the external appearance of the character remained the same. Again it is suggested that congruence in contextual features leads to expectations that this will be maintained into the future, whereas incongruence raises questions, and potentially reduces our ability to anticipate future states.

Measuring essentialism

A novel feature of this study involved asking children to indicate the actual colour of the worm on a physical colour scale. While children clearly recognised physical changes when they occurred, the striking finding was that girls, in particular, perceived the worm to become either more yellow or more green following the manipulations than it appeared at baseline measures. Given that the actual colour of the worms (either yellow or green) remained constant, this measure clearly detected the subtleties of their perceptions of intergroup differences. This measure highlights how psychological perceptions of difference can be manifested in physical (and ultimately behavioural) judgements of such differences. In the case of stereotyping and prejudice, for example, we can thus see how contextual changes lead to increased expectations of stereotypical attitudes and, potentially, to the behavioural consequences of prejudice and discrimination (Bigler & Liben, 2006; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Recent evidence on adoption of 'colour-blind' attitudes to racism, for example, are ineffective in reducing racial bias (Pahlke, Bigler & Suizzo, 2012). In the absence of explanations, young children expect and create explanations for difference.

The current study's findings on environmental measures are consistent with this interpretation. While there was a tendency for children to essentialise from pre- to post-manipulation when there was no change in outward appearance (high biological consistency), there was an expectation of change in the future when the appearance changed (low biological consistency). It is suggested, therefore, that changes in biological features (external appearance) led to expectations of attitudinal (preferences or lifestyle) changes.

Returning to our opening examples of Isabella and Stefan, it may be the case that the development of gender and ethnic constancy (and essentialism) occurs, in part, because of the consistency in these social categories in the children's social environments. Girls rarely actually become boys, and though people sometimes change residence and citizenship, a full appreciation of the intricacies involved is unlikely before adolescence or adulthood. While beyond the scope of the present findings, the situation faced by some of the child participants in the current study (especially those in low consistency conditions) can be seen to mirror these complex circumstances. What cannot be denied, however, is that the child participants in the current study did not respond to these situations in simple automatic, or even systematic ways. Rather, their responses can be seen to reflect their developing understanding of the complex nature of intergroup relations. People move towns, cities and even countries. Young children see evidence of this and attempt to make sense of the implications for those involved.

Dimensions of essentialism

The current findings also add to the growing body of evidence regarding the existence of two independent, yet complementary, dimensions of essentialism. Consistent with findings in social psychology (in particular, Keller, 2005, 2008), we suggest that both biological and environmental/ social features of categories (and category members) impact upon both biological and environmental/social understandings, but this relationship is not straightforward. More precisely identifying the nature of these relationships is certainly a direction worth pursuing.

Overall, the current study demonstrates essentialist thinking among four-year-olds with an intentionally derived novel category that was neither a natural kind nor an artifact category. Our aim was to experimentally create a category that would resemble a social category, but would not be laden with preconceived notions linked with existing categories. While this was a successful starting point in such an investigation, we acknowledge the need to include a wider variety of categories in order to further substantiate our claims.

Implications for early childhood professionals

An important implication of the current findings is the incorporation of essentialist explanations into understandings of prejudice. The use of essentialist terms such as 'blood' and 'genes' in perpetuating racial, religious, sexual and other intolerances (Gil-White, 2001) is testament to the power of such beliefs and/or explanations. That such explanations are adopted by both majority (Bastian & Haslam, 2006) and minority (Morton et al., 2009) groups at various times, further suggests that essentialising is not merely a reflection of one's understanding, but that such understanding (or explanation) can be modified, and mobilised, in accordance with political and other motivators of social change.

Critical for early childhood professionals is that this flexibility is evident in four-year-olds. Undoubtedly children are exposed to a range of views regarding the in/stability of gender, ethnicity and countless other social categories. The current findings suggest that continuing and challenging these assumptions early may provide a key to maintaining flexibility with regard to such categories throughout life.


This research was supported in part by an Australian Research Council Grant (DP 0878905).

End notes

Gelman and Heyman (1999) used 0, 0.5 and 1 to represent most to least essentialist. They justified the use of such a continuous scale saying that inferences made from a given property could reasonably be considered essentialist, whereas responses elicited by the alternative category indicate active non-essentialism. Undecided responses fall mid-way between the two as any response (if given) would be invented rather than inferred from the information provided.


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Diana Grace

University of Canberra

Melissa Straiton

Willow Hewett-Reeves

Michael J. Platow

Australian National University
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Author:Grace, Diana; Straiton, Melissa; Hewett-Reeves, Willow; Platow, Michael J.
Publication:Australasian Journal of Early Childhood
Article Type:Report
Date:Feb 1, 2015
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