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Essentialism: Basing decisions on beliefs

“The pleasure we get from all sorts of everyday objects is related to our beliefs about their histories.” — that’s a line from Paul Bloom’s book, How Pleasure Works.

It’s so obvious, yet I’d never thought of it like that before — not so precisely. Our pleasure with respect to objects is tied to beliefs. Just imagine how much you appreciate a Van Gogh painting after finding it to be a forgery — no matter how accurate — no matter how beautiful you thought it was before you found out.

Or, say you lost the wedding ring (and imagine it’s a mass-produced variety) — you would probably find that both you and your partner wouldn’t go out and buy a duplicate and think of it as “the same ring”.

Why do we treat these duplicates differently to their originals? It’s because of those beliefs.

Intangible beliefs and essentialism

That intangible set of beliefs around objects has a name in some circles — its essence. It turns out humans are natural essentialists: essentialism can be shown to occur from early childhood.

Essentialism skews how we reason — it creates reasoning biases — and of course it determines how we categorise things.

For example:

  • Essences can be lost. When that wedding ring was lost, it wasn’t just the physical ring that was lost — its essence was last as well. That’s why a physical duplicate just won’t cut it.
  • People believe that there is some unobservable property that causes things to be the way they are. For example, the butterfly is a butterfly even through its pupal stage. I suppose people are people even through their baby stage too — and wonder if essentialism plays a role in some people’s objection to abortion and the concept of a soul.
  • Essences can be transferred. For example, people would pay for Robbie William’s clothing. They’d pay even more if he wore them, and even more if he sweated in them.

Essentialism and eating

Human history has many examples of people believing they can acquire the essence of something by eating its embodiment. Think:

  • Chinese “medicine” and the belief that eating tiger penis would help with erectile disfunction.
  • Catholics believe that the Eucharist physically changes into the body of their Christ. (I understand that if you’re Catholic and don’t believe that, you’re not really Catholic.)
  • Cannibals
  • “Natural foods” — people think they’ll be healthier, more vital, more “attach whatever belief you’ve attached to natural” when they eat natural foods.

There is also evidence that our beliefs, this essentialism, play a role in our experience of the sensation (when eating, say). If you believe Perrier water tastes better than tap water, it probably will. There’s a feedback loop there, based on your essentialist beliefs. If you believe the Van Gogh authentic, you’ll appreciate it more.

Effort contributes to history

How much effort you put into something (or someone else put into something) affects our essentialist beliefs about the object. The effort adds to that history, adds to whether we like them or not. Some examples:

  • The Joshua Bell experiment — here the violinist played without the context of a big hall and much applause — without the context that contributes the history.
  • Apparently 1950 cake mixes were unpopular, not because of taste, but because they didn’t require much work. Just add milk. When folk had to instead beat and add an egg — expend effort — they became better products. This is called the IKEA effect (PDF) — “… labor leads to increased valuation only when labor results in successful completion of tasks”. (The paper is a good read.)


Essentialism is pretty interesting — it appears that we’re all natural essentialists — and there is evidence that we gain this essentialism at a pretty young age (see The Essential Child: Origins of Essentialism in Everyday Thought — I don’t have a copy, but it appears to be pretty interesting and relevant).

Thinking about how people construct histories of beliefs, and base their reasoning and even sensual pleasure on them, opens up doors to many human biases and behaviours.

Originally published on July 16, 2012.