​Johannes Keller’s invited talk on essentialist lay theories

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On Friday, December 18th, Johannes Keller, Chair of Social Psychology from Ulm University (Germany) gave a talk on “What makes people who they are? According to essentialist lay theories the answer is: Genes, social environment, and spiritual forces”. 

Below you can find an abstract describing main points of the talk.

When explaining what makes other persons who they are, people tend to refer to an underlying nature which is held accountable for observable characteristics. This tendency to explain individuals’ features by referring to essential properties has been termed psychological essentialism. Recent research indicates that the endorsement of essentialist lay-theories is associated with important consequences such as stereotyping and prejudice. However, research on the specific bases of lay-people’s essentialist explanations is relatively sparse.

Our research aims at differentiating distinct forms of essentialist lay-theories and at analyzing correlates and consequences of these lay-beliefs. We argue that three distinct lay-theoretical perspectives are well represented in people’s essentialist beliefs. First, essentialist lay-explanations can be based on the belief that personal characteristics are genetically determined (genetic determinism). Second, essentialist lay-theorizing can reflect the belief that systematic influences of the social environment permanently shape the character of target persons (social determinism). Third, essential properties can be related to spiritual forces (e.g. god) reflecting a belief in metaphysical determinism.

We developed instruments to assess and methods to manipulate these distinct components of essentialism. Results of several studies indicate that (1) the dimensions are largely independent, (2) associated with indicators of fundamental epistemic and ideological motives, and (3) endorsement of each lay-theory is associated with important social-cognitive consequences (e.g., stereotyping and prejudice).