Fellow 2012-13

Andrei Cimpian


The Inherence Heuristic as a Source of Essentialist Thinking

During his Center appointment, Professor Cimpian will first characterize the inherence heuristic, a basic psychological process that he proposes is involved in reasoning about the world. He will then demonstrate that this heuristic is a potential source of essentialist thinking, the common belief that categories of things in the world (e.g., cats, men) cohere by virtue of a deep underlying “essence.”

The inherence heuristic is the tendency of people to view the current reality as stable, unchangeable, and natural rather than as the result of a complex set of historical circumstances. In a sense, this heuristic imposes a sort of blindness or insensitivity to the counterfactual possibilities, to what might have been instead of what actually is. To investigate this psychological process, Professor Cimpian plans to (a) develop and validate a scale that measures individual differences in the tendency to use the inherence heuristic, (b) provide evidence that this scale correlates with measures of essentialist thinking, and (c) demonstrate that experimental manipulations designed to lessen the use of the inherence heuristic also lessen essentialism.

A second set of studies will explore the developmental course of the inherence heuristic and its relationship to essentialism. Anecdotally, children seem much more prone than adults to the use of this heuristic. For many children the rules and patterns of everyday life seem to take on a life of their own, to the point where even minor violations prompt strong reactions. Professor Cimpian will examine these developmental questions with cohorts of adults and 4- to 7-year-old children.

This project is the first to describe and provide evidence for the inherence heuristic in human thinking. Through the hypothesized relationship between the inherence heuristic and essentialism, the research is also likely to have significant practical implications: essentialist inferences and beliefs form the basis of many undesirable aspects of our society, including stereotyping and prejudice.