The influence of linguistic form and causal explanations on the development of social essentialism

Josie Benitez, Rachel A. Leshin, Marjorie Rhodes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Generic descriptions of social categories (e.g., boys play baseball; girls have long hair) lead children and adults to think of the referenced categories (i.e., boys and girls) in essentialist terms—as natural ways of dividing up the world. Yet, key questions remain unanswered about how, why, and when generic language shapes the development of essentialist beliefs. The present experiment examined the scope of these effects by testing the extent to which generics elicit essentialist beliefs because of their linguistic form or because of the causal information they convey. Generic language led children (N = 199, Mage = 6.07 years, range = 4.5–7.95) to essentialize a novel social category, regardless of the causal information used to describe category-property relations (either biological or cultural). In contrast, both linguistic form and causal information influenced adults' (N = 234) beliefs. These findings reveal a unique role of linguistic form in the development and communication of essentialist beliefs in young children.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105246
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Causal reasoning
  • Cognitive development
  • Generic language
  • Social categorization
  • Social essentialism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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