Moral Essentialism and Generosity Among Children and Adults

Heiphetz, Larisa A.

Children and adults view many characteristics in an essentialist way—as innate, immutable, and biological. Prior work has typically investigated essentialism regarding broad domains (e.g., gender rather than maleness/femaleness). Using the example of morality, the current work asked whether individuals view different components of one domain (goodness/badness) differently and whether such views might influence behavior. Five- to eight-year- olds reported more essentialism than adults; however, both children and adults viewed goodness in more essentialist terms than badness. Although views of morally relevant characteristics in general did not significantly predict generosity (Study 1), essentialist views of the recipient did influence generosity (Studies 2-3). Adults shared fewer resources than would be expected by chance with people whose badness was described in essentialist terms (and consequently more resources than would be expected by chance with people whose badness was described in non-essentialist terms), an effect that did not appear to be driven by demand characteristics and that persisted even when both descriptions explicitly noted that the character would always remain bad. Although adults reported less essentialism than children, essentialist descriptions appeared to influence their behaviors more. This work highlights the need to investigate essentialism regarding specific domain components (e.g., goodness/badness) in addition to the domain overall (e.g., morality), partially because essentialism impacts behavior differently across components. Findings also suggest that emphasizing situational factors contributing to wrongdoing and a transgressor’s ability to change may benefit people when they have committed moral violations.


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Journal of Experimental Psychology: General

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March 19, 2019