Structural Thinking about Social Categories: Evidence from Formal Explanations, Generics, and Generalization

AbstractMost theories of kind representation suggest that people posit internal, essence-like factors believed to underlie kind membership and the observable properties of members. Across two studies (N = 234), we show that adults can construe properties of social kinds as products of both internal and structural (stable external) factors. Internalist and structural construals are similar in that both support formal explanations (i.e., “category member has property P due to category membership C”), generic claims (“Cs have P”), and a particular pattern of generalization to individuals when the individuals’ category membership and structural position are preserved. Our findings thus challenge these phenomena as signatures of essentialist thinking. However, once category membership and structural position are unconfounded, different patterns of generalization emerge across internalist and structural construals, as do different judgments concerning category definitions and property mutability. These findings have important implications for reasoning about social kinds.

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