Causal Heterogeneity in Social Essentialism: Shared Experiences and Shared Genes


We structure our lives around social groups – belonging to them and thinking about them. In this dissertation, I develop a new stereotype content measure to assess the attributes associated with groups in America today, propose and support a theory of sociocultural essentialism, and explore the strategic activation of sociocultural essentialism among members of marginalized groups. Together, these studies contribute to psychological research on the relationship between ontological belief and stereotyping, and their functions in society today. In the first chapter, I comprehensively update the adjective checklist, an existing measure to assess stereotype content about different groups in American society today. I first discuss the affordances and critiques of the measure and conduct a narrative review of its history, before generating a new measure integrating content from in-lab and online text sources. I then gather and use norming data to pick the best set of terms for inclusion in the measure and validate the resulting list. In the second chapter, I use the new adjective checklist measure to test the theory of sociocultural essentialism. I argue that existing research on essentialist beliefs about social categories have over-emphasized biogenetic beliefs and that the perception of shared social experience or common fate may similarly ground essentialist perceptions. I update an existing experimental task to test this proposition across six social domains, asking participants to attribute traits to an individual who had switched between two social groups in a given domain. Findings support the existence of sociocultural essentialist reasoning while also showing that participants’ ideas about the process of switching groups impacted attributions beyond the stereotype of each group. In the third chapter, I explore the role of sociocultural essentialism among members of marginalized groups. With LGB+ participants, I test whether reminders of group devaluation and group denial change levels of sociocultural and biogenetic essentialist thinking and whether changes in essentialist beliefs predict ingroup attitudes or support for policy change. Though the experimental manipulation failed to produce the expected differences in essentialist thinking, I discuss correlational and exploratory results suggesting that biogenetic and sociocultural essentialism play distinct roles in this population, and that reminders of group denial produce sociocultural essentialism among younger participants, while reminders of group devaluation do so among older participants. Finally, I review the three chapters and suggest future avenues for development of the research program.

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