Monday, January 13, 2014

"Essentialism": A new stick to beat conservatives with

This latest fashion in psychological research was brought to my attention in an article by Matthew Hutson, a journalist with some qualifications in psychology.  I made some rather scathing comments on Hutson's article here.  In reply, Hutson referred me to the academic journal article which was the chief underpinning of his thinking.  The article is "Social Class Rank, Essentialism, and Punitive Judgment" by Kraus & Keltner (2013).  I thought I might offer a brief evisceration of it.

Essentialism seems primarily to mean belief in genetic determination.  If you believe that a peron is as he is because of his genes, you are an essentialist.  By that criterion conservatives are likely to be essentialists.  And the authors clearly think essentialists are a bad lot.  So who are these essentialists?  In good Marxist fashion, the authors say that your social class position determines that.  So they selected some statements to the effect that your class position was largely genetically determined and correlated that with your opinion of your own class position.  I myself found that your subjective estimation of your social class position was a powerful predictor of other class-related variables back in 1971, so I have no quarrel with them on that score.

What they found in their Study I and Study II was however quite contrary to the Marxist theory.  They found that there was virtually no overlap (a 4% overlap; r = .20) between their measures and your social class.  High social class people were almost equally divided over whether class was genetically determined or not.  So class was NOT behind "essentialist" beliefs.

That might have stopped our dynamic duo but it did not.  In Study III they  looked for other things behind "essentialism".  The disappointing results of their first two studies do however seem to have disheartened them.  Their next experiment was very low quality indeed.  They told a small group of students some lies and then asked them questions about how strongly they would punish certain offences.  If they were serious about measuring punitiveness, they might have used my approach instead of the very ad hoc approach they did use.  Be that as it may, however, the main effect in their analysis was not even statistically significant, let alone meaningful.

Not discouraged, however, they went on to study 4, in which they used tricks to change what class people thought they belonged in.  They then examined how these "manipulated" class perceptions related to punitiveness.  They found some weak effects on type of punishment desired by people in these "manipulated" classes.  In other words, even by abandoning reality altogether they still could not find much in the way of class effects.

With such disappointing results, you will be surprised at their conclusion:

"Social class is a primary determinant of rank in human social
hierarchy, and it profoundly shapes perceptions of the social environment".

Their data if fact warrant the following conclusion:

"Social class is a primary determinant of rank in human social
hierarchy, but it negligibly shapes perceptions of the social environment"

They knew what they were going to conclude from the beginning and stuck with that.  All the experimentation they did was just window dressing that they did not even believe in themselves.  There is no evidence at all that essentialists are the bad guys they were intended to be

Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).

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