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Putting people and things into categories

Putting people and things into categories is something we all do. It’s a useful shortcut but reveals biases. And it plays a role in everything from ethnic violence to childhood development.

The Browser’s excellent five-books interview with Susan Gelman:

People have all kinds of cognitive biases, ways that we look at the world that are not quite in tune with reality, shortcuts that we use to make sense of the world. Essentialism is one of those and seems to be really pervasive. It’s how we think about everyday categories around us, like women or dogs or gold, or social categories, like different races or ethnicities. We tend to think that if we have a word for these categories, that it’s real and based in nature, that it’s not constructed by humans, but is really out there. We think that it has some deep, underlying basis and that if we look hard enough, we’ll be able to learn something about that deep underlying something that all members of the category have in common. That’s why it’s called essentialism, because that underlying something, that makes a Jew a member of that category, for example, is the essence.

Essentialism has a lot of positive implications. You could say it’s one of the motivators for science. One of the reasons why we keep looking and digging for non-obvious similarities within a category is that we have this optimistic belief that the world has a lot of structure to it.

Gelman recommends reading:

The Mismeasure of Man: This is a classic book. It was published in 1981 and got a lot of attention when it came out. Gould just does this beautiful job of laying out the “biology as destiny” idea – and then ripping it to shreds. It’s a historical view, he’s talking about the foundations – he wasn’t trying to capture current day psychology. You can think about it as how intelligence is viewed as this single thing that has an underlying essence.

The Bad Seed: It’s really essentialism personified. What makes it essentialism is that this girl, who outwardly seems very sweet and innocent, in actuality is bad to the core. So there’s this appearance/reality distinction that is a big piece of essentialism. … It’s a fiction, but it’s one that resonates with people. This is not supposed to be a work of science fiction.

How Pleasure Works: He’s a world-class scientist, and he’s also very good at taking sophisticated scientific ideas and portraying them to a broad audience. This book is a wonderful example of that. He’s really interested in how pleasure works, and he says, upfront, that his view is rooted in essentialism. So he says that we like what we like, not, as you might think, because of what it presents to our senses. It’s not just how something tastes or how it looks. Instead, it’s all filtered through our beliefs about what the item is, and that that has to do with essentialism. For example, two cups of water might look identical, but if I’m told that one of them came from a cold, pure mountain spring, and the other came out of a tap in New York City, I’m going to like the one that I think came out of the mountain spring more.

The Edge of Islam: This is definitely the most challenging book on my list. It’s not an easy read. Janet McIntosh is a cultural-linguistic anthropologist and she did her fieldwork in a little town in Kenya where there are two ethnic groups that she looked at, the Swahili and the Giriama. What’s really cool about it is that she shows how essentialism works in a culture that’s really different from a middle-class, developed world context.

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success Praise, for example, turns out to be a really bad thing, because it fosters a fixed mindset. If you praise someone for how they do, then they lose interest in that activity. This is based on experiments with kids. They’re less likely to continue with the activity that they’re praised for, because they’re vulnerable then. They don’t want to try it again and maybe they won’t be as good. Then they’ll have a negative self-view. Then there is a whole thing about effort. If you have a fixed mindset, you think, “Well I’d better not put in a lot of effort, because if I put in a lot of effort and I still don’t do well, it really means I’m no good.” But if you have a growth mindset, you think, “Well, I’d better put in more effort and I’ll do better and I’ll learn and I’ll grow.” The last piece of the whole thing is that she’s found that if you make people aware of these differences and you give them enough input about it, you can move people from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

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Susan Gelman is professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. She won the Eleanor Maccoby Book Prize for her most recent book, The Essential Child.