A central question in the cognitive sciences is the nature of concepts; in particular, the nature of concepts of meaningful and richly structured categories like tigers and gold (what I call “kinds”). Psychological essentialism proposes that children and adults represent kinds as possessing internal, naturalistic causes like genes and chemical make-up. However, children and adults also acknowledge kinds that are socially constructed: in particular, institutional kinds like money, academic departments, and lawyers. In sharp contrast to essentialism, participants reason that these entities exist because individuals continually recognize and enact their existence. Despite their unique features, socially constructed categories conform to general principles of kinds: e.g., They license generic statements, they have a reality distinct from their superficial appearances, and they support robust predictions and explanations. Consequently, they demand revision of current theory. Psychological essentialism fails to capture the breadth of ordinary categories: Participants reason that many kinds are entirely socially constructed rather than essential.
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