The final topic has to do with how concepts fit with our broader knowledge of the world. We have been talking very generally about people learning the features of concepts. For example, they see a number of birds and then learn that birds generally have wings, or perhaps they remember bird exemplars. From this perspective, it makes no difference what those exemplars or features are—people just learn them. But consider two possible concepts of buildings and their features in Table 2.


Table 2. Examples of two fictional concepts

Imagine you had to learn these two concepts by seeing exemplars of them, each exemplar having some of the features listed for the concept (as well as some idiosyncratic features). Learning the donker concept would be pretty easy. It seems to be a kind of underwater building, perhaps for deep-sea explorers. Its features seem to go together. In contrast, the blegdav doesn’t really make sense. If it’s in the desert, how can you get there by submarine, and why do they have polar bears as pets? Why would farmers live in the desert or use submarines? What good would steel windows do in such a building? This concept seems peculiar. In fact, if people are asked to learn new concepts that make sense, such as donkers, they learn them quite a bit faster than concepts such as blegdavs that don’t make sense (Murphy & Allopenna, 1994). Furthermore, the features that seem connected to one another (such as being underwater and getting there by submarine) are learned better than features that don’t seem related to the others (such as being red).

Such effects demonstrate that when we learn new concepts, we try to connect them to the knowledge we already have about the world. If you were to learn about a new animal that doesn’t seem to eat or reproduce, you would be very puzzled and think that you must have gotten something wrong. By themselves, the prototype and exemplar theories don’t predict this. They simply say that you learn descriptions or exemplars, and they don’t put any constraints on what those descriptions or exemplars are. However, the knowledge approach to concepts emphasizes that concepts are meant to tell us about real things in the world, and so our knowledge of the world is used in learning and thinking about concepts.

We can see this effect of knowledge when we learn about new pieces of technology. For example, most people could easily learn about tablet computers (such as iPads) when they were first introduced by drawing on their knowledge of laptops, cell phones, and related technology. Of course, this reliance on past knowledge can also lead to errors, as when people don’t learn about features of their new tablet that weren’t present in their cell phone or expect the tablet to be able to do something it can’t.

One important aspect of people’s knowledge about categories is called psychological essentialism (Gelman, 2003; Medin & Ortony, 1989). People tend to believe that some categories—most notably natural kinds such as animals, plants, or minerals—have an underlying property that is found only in that category and that causes its other features. Most categories don’t actually have essences, but this is sometimes a firmly held belief. For example, many people will state that there is something about dogs, perhaps some specific gene or set of genes, that all dogs have and that makes them bark, have fur, and look the way they do. Therefore, decisions about whether something is a dog do not depend only on features that you can easily see but also on the assumed presence of this cause.


Although it may seem natural that different species have an unchangeable “essence,” consider evolution and everything’s development from common ancestors. [Image: Marc Dragiewicz,, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0,]

Belief in an essence can be revealed through experiments describing fictional objects. Keil (1989) described to adults and children a fiendish operation in which someone took a raccoon, dyed its hair black with a white stripe down the middle, and implanted a “sac of super-smelly yucky stuff” under its tail. The subjects were shown a picture of a skunk and told that this is now what the animal looks like. What is it? Adults and children over the age of 4 all agreed that the animal is still a raccoon. It may look and even act like a skunk, but a raccoon cannot change its stripes (or whatever!)—it will always be a raccoon.

Importantly, the same effect was not found when Keil described a coffeepot that was operated on to look like and function as a bird feeder. Subjects agreed that it was now a bird feeder. Artifacts don’t have an essence.

Signs of essentialism include (a) objects are believed to be either in or out of the category, with no in-between; (b) resistance to change of category membership or of properties connected to the essence; and (c) for living things, the essence is passed on to progeny.

Essentialism is probably helpful in dealing with much of the natural world, but it may be less helpful when it is applied to humans. Considerable evidence suggests that people think of gender, racial, and ethnic groups as having essences, which serves to emphasize the difference between groups and even justify discrimination (Hirschfeld, 1996). Historically, group differences were described by inheriting the blood of one’s family or group. “Bad blood” was not just an expression but a belief that negative properties were inherited and could not be changed. After all, if it is in the nature of “those people” to be dishonest (or clannish or athletic…), then that could hardly be changed, any more than a raccoon can change into a skunk.

Research on categories of people is an exciting ongoing enterprise, and we still do not know as much as we would like to about how concepts of different kinds of people are learned in childhood and how they may (or may not) change in adulthood. Essentialism doesn’t apply only to person categories, but it is one important factor in how we think of groups.


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Knowledge by Philip Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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