What is social essentialism and how does it develop?

Marjorie Rhodes, Kelsey Moty

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Social essentialism consists of the commonly held belief that certain ways of categorizing people (e.g., gender and race) reflect meaningful, fundamental distinctions found in nature—that some kind of category “essence” (e.g., something in their blood or their DNA) explains why groups of people (such as boys and girls) are different from one another. Yet as common as they are, essentialist beliefs can give rise to adverse consequences, including stereotyping and social prejudice. In this chapter, we examine the development of social essentialism. To begin, we briefly address the evidence that these beliefs are the result of developmental processes that unfold beginning in early childhood (and not something innate that children are born with). Then, we consider the nature of those processes; specifically, how basic processes underlying conceptual development give rise to different components of essentialist beliefs. We then address how different essentialist beliefs might be integrated into a coherent essentialist view of a category, and finally into a coherent essentialist view of a domain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Development of Social Essentialism
EditorsMarjorie Rhodes
PublisherAcademic Press Inc.
Number of pages30
ISBN (Print)9780128200865
StatePublished - 2020

Publication series

NameAdvances in child development and behavior
ISSN (Print)0065-2407


  • Conceptual development
  • Social cognition
  • Social essentialism
  • Humans
  • Child, Preschool
  • Stereotyping
  • Child Development
  • Prejudice
  • Social Cognition
  • Concept Formation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health


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