Group Identity Essentialism and the Endorsement of Social Hierarchies

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* Article: Essentialism Promotes Racial Prejudice by Increasing Endorsement of Social Hierarchies. By Tara M. Mandalaywala, David M. Amodio, Marjorie Rhodes. Social Psychological and Personality Science, Vol 9, Issue 4, 2018 [1]



Why do essentialist beliefs promote prejudice? We proposed that essentialist beliefs increase prejudice toward Black people because they imply that existing social hierarchies reflect a naturally occurring structure. We tested this hypothesis in three studies (N = 621). Study 1 revealed that racial essentialism was associated with increased prejudice toward Blacks among both White and Black adult participants, suggesting that essentialism relates to prejudice according to social hierarchy rather than only to group membership. Studies 2 and 3 experimentally demonstrated that increasing essentialist beliefs induced stronger endorsement of social hierarchies in both Black and White participants, which in turn mediated the effect of essentialism on negative attitudes toward Black people. Together, these findings suggest that essentialism increases prejudice toward low-status groups by increasing endorsement of social hierarchies and existing inequality.


Steven J. Lawrence:

"In the 2017 paper, “Essentialism Promotes Racial Prejudice by Increasing Endorsement of Social Hierarchies”, researchers shine a bright light on the connections between and among group identity essentialism, prejudice, and social hierarchies through several controlled studies.

The focus of the study was on anti-Black attitudes, examining the links between group identity essentialism, social hierarchy endorsement, and how they are linked with “negative attitudes toward lower status social groups”. The study involved both Black and white participants.

In the earlier phases of the study, the authors discovered a connection between essentialism and “belief-based prejudice”.

Essentialism causally increased prejudice by enhancing endorsement of social hierarchies. Among all participants, the induction of essentialism led to greater endorsement of social hierarchies, and, in White participants, to stronger prejudice toward Blacks. These findings provide new evidence that the manipulation of essentialist thinking can alter belief-based prejudice. Furthermore, the effect of essentialism on prejudice in White participants was mediated by changes in hierarchy endorsement, providing initial support for the hypothesis that essentialism increases prejudice toward Blacks by increasing endorsement of existing social hierarchies.

These findings seem to indicate that when group identity essentialism is formally introduced as a legitimate belief on any scale, the justification for the existence of social hierarchies is thus also introduced, and for those who already have essentialist beliefs about a specific identity group, the justification for the existence of social hierarchies is further reinforced.

An important aspect of the study’s findings is that, depending on the context, the recognition and adjustments for the causal relationships between all three elements—essentialism, prejudice, endorsing social hierarchies—can be applied to a wide variety of identity groups.

On the impact of these relationships on the continuation of oppressive systems through the perpetuation of existing social hierarchies, the authors conclude the following:

These results revealed a causal effect of essentialism on social hierarchy endorsement, which in turn explained the effect of essentialism on prejudice. These findings suggest that by leading individuals to view social hierarchies as objectively determined and natural, essentialism increases the tendency to endorse, and perhaps perpetuate, existing hierarchies through continued prejudice toward lower status social groups.

Most interesting of all in terms of the major themes in the book Cynical Theories, this study confirms the presence of “Black in-group devaluation” among some Blacks and how this self-devaluation is related to anti-Black attitudes on the societal level.

The authors of this study make it clear that the distinctions between what I’m calling group identity essentialism and prejudice (negative attitudes) are real. One can conceivably believe something negative about an entire identity group without having negative feelings towards that group. This also means that one can conceivably believe something negative to be true about their own identity group without having negative feelings towards their own group.

But, the key components to recognize are that:

a) the endorsement of social hierarchies effectively leads to negative attitudes (prejudice) towards other groups and/or one’s own group and

b) the endorsement of social hierarchies is directly caused by the essentialist beliefs themselves, which means that essentialist beliefs always carry potentially negative consequences.

The authors put it this way:

Our research additionally offers a new explanation for why Black individuals sometimes express negative attitudes toward their own group. That is, essentialism—a domain-general cognitive tendency that does not directly pertain to attitudes—can be readily applied to beliefs about race in a way that may lead Black individuals to devalue their racial group through endorsement of social hierarchies.

In the end, the authors conclude that this study can provide some insight into the actual mechanisms through which group identity essentialism perpetuates itself, including the anti-Black prejudice that is expressed against Blacks from outside groups, and the way that this essentialism is experienced by some Blacks against their own group.

The chief mechanism is the endorsement of the concept and practice of social group hierarchies, which the authors suggest can help us understand the negative attitudes some people hold against other social groups:

By elucidating the role of [social] hierarchy endorsement, our findings identify an unexamined source of Black in-group devaluation and suggest a new approach to buffering Black individuals from its effects. Moreover, while this study focused on anti-Black attitudes, the links between essentialist beliefs, hierarchy endorsement, and negative attitudes toward lower status social groups suggests that this general framework might explain negative attitudes toward other social groups perceived to be low status as well. [Italics and bold emphasis, mine]

Looking at the long view, in light of these studies, and with regard to the rapid proliferation of identitarian ideologies across the political spectrum in recent years, it has become clear to scholars and to the general public that group identity essentialism has become a big problem that we must all acknowledge and work together to find solutions for.

And given the accelerant of social media rage and the tribal in-group signaling that comes with that rage, it’s fair to say that our world is in serious trouble. What potentially makes this so much worse is the shallow thinking that has resulted from social media rage and addiction and the loss of the kind of concentration and deep cognitive study that genuine understanding has always required. It is not an overstatement to say that if we do not find a way out of this problem, we may eventually find ourselves and our societies well past the point of return as we fall ever deeper into the rabbit hole of scorched earth politics and extreme protest in place of collaboration, hope, charity and human kindness." (