Magical belief and essentialism

Posted on March 6, 2007

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Bruce Hood, a developmental psychologist at Bristol University, is working on what sounds like a very interesting line of research:

In a new line of work, Professor Hood has been examining how children’s normal intuitive theories underpin adults’ magical beliefs – the notion that there are patterns, forces and essences operating in the world that are categorically unsupported by rational scientific models. For example, essentialism is the controversial notion that humans infer an unobservable property or essence that defines the category membership of an individual to a group. To date most work has focused on essentialism in the domain of biology, as this field is rich with taxonomic boundaries of varying degrees of clarity.

Recently, researchers have come to regard essentialism as a more general principle for inferring characteristic invisible properties of artifacts. It partly explains why we value authentic and original items more than identical duplicate such as art treasures or sentimental objects. We are currently measuring children’s and adults’ attitudes to original items and perceived identical duplicates using behavioural and physiological measures.

Hood is collaborating with Susan Gelman who is at the University of Michigan and who has done a lot of work on essentialism. Obviously, their research is going to be interesting for me as it offers another way of explaining why people are superstitious and, what is more, offers a way which may fit in with the idea that superstition is a by-product of bounded cognitive abilities. However, I think that Gelman’s work also be interesting to me in terms of its implications for philosophy of language and epistemology. So, apart from The Essential Child, in which she discusses the essentialism work and which I definitely need to read, I suspect that I will also try and get my hands on Mapping the Mind – Domain Specificity in Cognition and Culture, a book she co-edited a few years earlier.

I hope that Gelman’s book also looks at essentialism in evolutionary terms – trying to understand how essentialist intuitions could be evolutionarily stable – that, after all, is one of the main questions I find interesting in respect to superstition.

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