Illusory Essences: A Bias Holding Back Theorizing in Psychological Science
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionPerspectives on Psychological Science. 2021 10.1177/1745691621991838
The reliance in psychology on verbal definitions means that psychological research is unusually moored to how humans think and communicate about categories. Psychological concepts (e.g., intelligence, attention) are easily assumed to represent objective, definable categories with an underlying essence. Like the “vital forces” previously thought to animate life, these assumed essences can create an illusion of understanding. By synthesizing a wide range of research lines from cognitive, clinical, and biological psychology and neuroscience, we describe a pervasive tendency across psychological science to assume that essences explain phenomena. Labeling a complex phenomenon can appear as theoretical progress before there is sufficient evidence that the described category has a definable essence or known boundary conditions. Category labels can further undermine progress by masking contingent and contextual relationships and obscuring the need to specify mechanisms. Finally, we highlight examples of promising methods that circumvent the lure of essences and suggest four concrete strategies for identifying and avoiding essentialist intuitions in theory development.