Cultural transmission of social essentialism

Marjorie Rhodes, Sarah Jane Leslie, Christina M. Tworek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Social essentialism entails the belief that certain social categories (e.g., gender, race) mark fundamentally distinct kinds of people. Essentialist beliefs have pernicious consequences, supporting social stereotyping and contributing to prejudice. How does social essentialism develop? In the studies reported here, we tested the hypothesis that generic language facilitates the cultural transmission of social essentialism. Two studies found that hearing generic language about a novel social category diverse for race, ethnicity, age, and sex led 4-y-olds and adults to develop essentialist beliefs about that social category. A third study documented that experimentally inducing parents to hold essentialist beliefs about a novel social category led them to produce more generic language when discussing the category with their children. Thus, generic language facilitates the transmission of essentialist beliefs about social categories from parents to children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)13526-13531
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number34
StatePublished - Aug 21 2012


  • Cognitive development
  • Conceptual development
  • Generic language
  • Social categorization
  • Social cognition

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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