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The Inherence Heuristic: An Intuitive Means of Making Sense of the World, and a Potential Precursor to Psychological Essentialism

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We propose that human reasoning relies on an inherence heuristic, an implicit cognitive process that leads people to explain observed patterns (e.g., girls wear pink) in terms of the inherent features of their constituents (e.g., pink is an inherently feminine color). We then demonstrate how this proposed heuristic can provide a unified account for a broad set of findings spanning areas of research that might at first appear unrelated (e.g., system justification, nominal realism, is-ought errors in moral reasoning). By revealing the deep commonalities among the diverse phenomena that fall under its scope, our account is able to generate new insights into these phenomena, as well as new empirical predictions. A second main goal of this paper, aside from introducing the inherence heuristic, is to articulate the proposal that the heuristic serves as a foundation for the development of psychological essentialism. More specifically, we propose that essentialism-which is the common belief that natural and social categories are underlain by hidden, causally powerful "essences"-emerges over the first few years of life as an elaboration of the earlier, and more open-ended, intuitions supplied by the inherence heuristic. In the final part of the paper, we distinguish our proposal from competing accounts (e.g., Strevens' K-laws) and clarify the relationship between the inherence heuristic and related cognitive tendencies (e.g., the correspondence bias). In sum, this paper illuminates a basic cognitive process that emerges early in life and is likely to have profound effects on many aspects of human psychology.
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The inherence heuristic: An intuitive
means of making sense of the world,
and a potential precursor to
psychological essentialism
Andrei Cimpian
Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, Champaign, IL 61820
acimpian@psych.illinois.edu
http://psychology.illinois.edu/people/acimpian
Erika Salomon
Department of Psychology, University of Illinois, Champaign, IL 61820
salomon3@illinois.edu
http://www.erikasalomon.com
Abstract: We propose that human reasoning relies on an inherence heuristic, an implicit cognitive process that leads people to explain
observed patterns (e.g., girls wear pink) predominantly in terms of the inherent features of their constituents (e.g., pink is a delicate color).
We then demonstrate how this proposed heuristic can provide a unied account for a broad set of ndings spanning areas of research that
might at rst appear unrelated (e.g., system justication, nominal realism, isought errors in moral reasoning). By revealing the deep
commonalities among the diverse phenomena that fall under its scope, our account is able to generate new insights into these
phenomena, as well as new empirical predictions. A second main goal of this article, aside from introducing the inherence heuristic,
is to articulate the proposal that the heuristic serves as a foundation for the development of psychological essentialism. More
specically, we propose that essentialism which is the common belief that natural and social categories are underlain by hidden,
causally powerful essences emerges over the rst few years of life as an elaboration of the earlier, and more open-ended, intuitions
supplied by the inherence heuristic. In the nal part of the report, we distinguish our proposal from competing accounts (e.g.,
Strevenss K-laws) and clarify the relationship between the inherence heuristic and related cognitive tendencies (e.g., the
correspondence bias). In sum, this article illuminates a basic cognitive process that emerges early in life and is likely to have profound
effects on many aspects of human psychology.
Keywords: correspondence bias; development; essentialism; explanation; inherence heuristic; isought problem; nominal realism;
system justication
1. Introduction
The ability to identify and exploit the predictable aspects of
a complex environment is, without doubt, part of what
makes humans such a successful species (e.g., Murphy
2004; Saffran et al. 1996; Zhao et al. 2013). Even the youn-
gest members of our species are able to detect the broad
patterns that characterize their world: that boys wear blue
and girls wear pink, that orange juice is consumed for
breakfast, that giraffes are called giraffes, and so on. In
the present article, we propose that people often make
sense of such regularities via a simple rule of thumb the
inherence heuristic. This fast, intuitive heuristic leads
people to explain many observed patterns
1
in terms of
the inherent features of the things that instantiate these
patterns. For example, one might infer that girls wear
pink because pink is a delicate, inherently feminine color,
or that orange juice is consumed for breakfast because its
inherent qualities make it suitable for that time of day. As
is the case with the output of any heuristic, such inferences
can be and often are mistaken. Many of the patterns
that currently structure our world are the products of
complex chains of historical causes rather than being
ANDREI CIMPIAN is Associate Professor of Psychology
and a 20122013 Fellow of the Center for Advanced
Study at the University of Illinois at UrbanaCham-
paign. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University
in 2008. His research focuses on the development of
human concepts about natural and social categories, as
well as on the development of beliefs about ability and
achievement.
ERIKA SALOMON is a Ph.D. student in the Department
of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana
Champaign. She studies the cognitive roots of psycho-
logical essentialism and the social origins of environ-
mental attitudes. She is a recipient of the Clean
Energy Education Fellowship from the Graduate
College at the University of Illinois.
BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2014) 37, 461527
doi:10.1017/S0140525X13002197
© Cambridge University Press 2014 0140-525X/14 $40.00 461
simply a function of the inherent features of the entities in-
volved. The human mind, however, may be prone to ignore
this possibility. If the present proposal is correct, people
often understand the regularities in their environments as
inevitable reections of the true nature of the world
rather than as end points of event chains whose outcomes
could have been different.
Consider the color/gender mapping example. Although
pink and blue are now unmistakably gendered, during
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries those colors
were actually viewed as interchangeable nursery colors
that symbolized the young age of the children who wore
them, not their gender (Paoletti 2012, Ch. 5). Whats
more, on the occasions when particular colors were sug-
gested for one gender or the other, the recommended
mapping was often the opposite of what it is today. For in-
stance, in the November 1890 issue of the LadiesHome
Journal, readers are advised in no uncertain terms that
they should use blue for girls and pink for boys, when a
color is wished(Hooper 1890). Therefore, the current
color/gender mapping (pink for girls, blue for boys) is
best explained not by the inherent perceptual properties
of pink and blue but rather by the conuence of now-for-
gotten historical developments (e.g., marketing campaigns
by department stores and clothing manufacturers [Paoletti
2012]). And yet, for many people living today, the pink/girl
and blue/boy mappings feel natural and inevitable, as if
there were something inherently feminine about pink and
inherently masculine about blue (e.g., Hurlbert & Ling
2007). The thought of dressing their boys in an all-pink
outt, let alone a pink dress, would make many parents
feel uncomfortable and would probably draw vehement
protests from the children themselves at least from
those old enough to have detected the relevant regularity
(e.g., LoBue & DeLoache 2011).
A similar argument applies to the case of orange juice
being consumed for breakfast. Contrary to what our inher-
ence-based intuitions may lead us to believe, the fact that
we currently drink OJ for breakfast is largely a matter of
historical accident in particular, an extensive marketing
campaign by the California Fruit Growers Exchange,
which was saddled with a consistent glut of citrus fruit in
the early 1900s and was looking for new ways to market
its product (Laszlo 2007, Ch. 7). To illustrate, the Annual
Report of the General Manager of the California Fruit
Growers Exchange for the year 1929 boasts a magazine
marketing campaign with a total of 310,964,842
impressionsthat reached 28½ million homesand fea-
tured, among other things, orange juice for breakfast
(p. 18). The campaign appears to have been an instant
and smashing success, enabling orange growers to sell
even portions of their crop that were formerly considered
undesirable.Thus, orange juice went from being a novelty
drink to a breakfast staple largely because of concerted
efforts by orange producers to make it so, and not
because its inherent properties made it an obvious choice
for breakfast.
If, as hypothesized, people explain observed patterns
mostly in terms of the inherent features of their constitu-
ents, this perspective cannot be an automatic consequence
of the brute statistical facts. For example, the mere exis-
tence of a pattern whereby girls wear pink is not, in and
of itself, informative about the reason for such a pattern.
In principle, thinking that girls wear pink for reasons
extrinsic to both girls and pink (e.g., its just a convention)
would be as legitimate as thinking that girls wear pink
because of something inherent to pink or girls (e.g., pink
is a delicate color; girls have a hardwiredattraction to
pink). Therefore, a consistent preference for thinking that
observed patterns are explained by inherent, rather than ex-
trinsic, factors may speak to the rules of thumb that guide
how people make sense of the world (see Fig. 1). More spe-
cically, such a preference may speak to the operationof the
hypothesized inherence heuristic, which leads people to
interpret many broad facts about the world as being the
by-products of inherent factors. In this article, we will
argue that this heuristic is a pervasive feature of human cog-
nition. At some point or another, humans have reasoned in-
herently about all sorts of patterns that actually arose from
mutable historical forces (e.g., caste systems, child labor,
womensconnement to the home) just as people today
tend to explain many of the regularities that structure their
lives as the by-products of inherent features (e.g., Jost &
Banaji 1994).
The rest of this article is structured as follows. In
section 2, we explain how the hypothesized inherence
heuristic may work: for example, what sort of mental
process it is, what its inputs and outputs are, what other
inferences it licenses, and how it may be overcome. In
section 3, we argue that the inherence heuristic can
provide a unied explanation for a number of disparate
psychological phenomena. Then, in section 4, we
propose that the inherence heuristic is a necessary ingre-
dient in the process by which humans construct beliefs
about the existence of physical, internal essences that
dene and explain how the natural and social worlds are
carved up into kinds (e.g., Gelman 2003; Haslam et al.
2000; Medin & Ortony 1989). Our proposal that the inher-
ence heuristic lays the foundation on which these so-called
essentialist beliefs are constructed may shed new light on
their origins, which are currently something of a mystery.
Finally, section 5 claries the relationship between our pro-
posal and other hypotheses that seek to account for some of
the same phenomena (Prasada & Dillingham 2006;2009;
Strevens 2000), as well as related cognitive biases (e.g., the
correspondence bias).
2. The inherence heuristic: What is it, and
how does it work?
This section spells out how the inherence heuristic is
hypothesized to operate. We begin by clarifying our
use of the term heuristic, whose multiple senses may
otherwise obscure what sort of cognitive process we have
in mind.
Figure 1. Schematic representation of the inherence heuristic.
Cimpian & Salomon: The inherence heuristic
462 BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2014) 37:5
2.1. Two types of heuristics: Deliberate and intuitive
2
The term heuristic applies to two distinct classes of mental
processes (e.g., Evans 2009; Frederick 2002; Gilovich &
Grifn2002). Some heuristics are deliberate strategies or
procedures that we use to simplify complex problems.
For example, when looking to buy a new car, one could
decide to avoid the trouble of visiting multiple dealerships
and to instead purchase the car that has the best online
reviews within ones price range. Such voluntary searches
for simple solutions are termed deliberate heuristics and
can be contrasted with heuristics that operate at a more im-
plicit level intuitive heuristics. For example, the choice of
a new car may also be swayed by impressions that pop into
ones mind spontaneously, without any apparent effort
(e.g., a hybrid would be nice). These easy intuitions also
help narrow down answers to problems that would other-
wise be complex and time-consuming, just as deliberate
heuristics do; however, the two operate via different pro-
cesses. Rather than being the output of a conscious
decision-making process aimed at saving effort, the
answers suggested by intuitive heuristics are the result of
fast implicit processes that are automatically triggered by
the problem under consideration (e.g., Frederick 2002;
Kahneman 2011).
We now go on to explain the process by which the inher-
ence heuristic is proposed to operate. In doing so, we draw
on the compelling account synthesized by Kahneman
(2011) out of four decades of empirical research on intui-
tive heuristics.
2.2. How does the inherence heuristic work?
The process underlying the inherence heuristic is set in
motion when people seek to explain observed patterns
(see Fig. 2). One of the fundamental conclusions of
modern psychology is that humans have a powerful drive
to make sense of their environments, a drive that
prompts them to seek explanations spontaneously, on a
routine basis, and from the earliest ages (e.g., Gopnik
1998; Gopnik et al. 2004; Lipton 2004; Murphy & Medin
1985; Premack & Premack 1996; Ross 1977; Weiner
1985). Even infants seem to posit unseen causal mecha-
nisms to explain the evidence gathered from their interac-
tions with the world (e.g., Gweon & Schulz 2011; Saxe et al.
2005; Schulz 2012). Although infants (and laypeople in
general) may not approach the task of generating explana-
tions in a terribly systematic and rigorous manner, they nev-
ertheless show a deep-seated motivation to uncover the
underlying structure of reality.
Once this explanatory drive is targeted at a particular
pattern (e.g., Why do we drink orange juice for breakfast?
Why do girls wear pink?), the next stage of the heuristic
process is activated (see Fig. 2). Adapting one of
Kahnemans(2011) terms, we call this stage the mental
shotgun: the process of quickly activating any easily acces-
sible information that might be relevant to answering the
question at hand (see also Evans 2006; Stanovich 1999;
2011).
3,4
In the case of the inherence heuristic, then, the
mental shotgun stage is likely to consist of a fast, shallow
search for information that might be applicable (Higgins
1996) to the task of constructing an explanation for the
pattern under consideration. In the rare cases when a
specic answer is already known, the process terminates
here. However, under most circumstances, the shotgun
search will culminate not in the retrieval of a stored
answer but rather in the generation of an assortment of
facts that are potentially relevant to nding an answer.
Although the content generated by the mental shotgun
will undoubtedly vary depending on the pattern to be
explained, this content may nevertheless be structured
along predictable lines. Because the shotgun prioritizes
speed and ease of access, on most occasions it will start
its search with the entities that happen to be most promi-
nent in our minds at the point when the heuristic process
is triggered. In the case of the inherence heuristic, these
entities are typically the constituents of the pattern
we are trying to explain. For instance, because people are
already thinking about OJ and breakfast when they start
wondering what explains their pairing, the mental
shotgun will probably target those focal objects rst. To
be more specic, the shotgun is likely to activate any infor-
mation that it has easy access to regarding these focal
objects. What information might this be? Given that an
objects representation in semantic memory often consists
of information about its stable, inherent characteristics
(e.g., McRae & Jones 2013), we expect that the output of
the shotgun will correspondingly be dominated by the
stable, inherent features of the participants in the relevant
pattern (e.g., OJ smells refreshing; breakfast is in the
Figure 2. The general process involved in generating an intuitive judgment (top), and a specic instantiation of this process that leads to
an inherence-based explanatory intuition (bottom).
Cimpian & Salomon: The inherence heuristic
BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES (2014) 37:5 463
morning). Semantic-associative information of this sort is
highly accessible to implicit cognitive processes (e.g.,
Devine 1989; Greenwald et al. 1998; McRae et al. 1997;
Rosch & Mervis 1975) and has in fact been implicated in
the operation of other intuitive heuristics (e.g., Gilovich
et al. 2002; Kahneman 2011; Sloman 1996).
As a side note, this description of the mental shotgun
is compatible with the well-established principles that
govern the process of knowledge activation, and in particular
with Higginss(1996) evidence of a salienceapplicability
knowledge activationchain: Saliencecan impact subse-
quent responses by inuencing which features of a stimulus
event receive attention, and this in turn will inuence which
stored knowledge units are likely to be activated in the
immediate situation(p. 158). Because the focal entities of
a pattern are typically the most salient at the point when
the explanation question is posed, these entities will typically
be deemed by the shotgun to provide information that is
applicable (or relevant) to its task. This judged applicability
will then prompt the shotgun to activate further knowledge
about the focal entities especially easily accessible knowl-
edge about their inherent characteristics, which are tightly
bound up with the representation of these entities in seman-
tic memory.
As may already be apparent, we expect that the output of
the mental shotgun will typically fail to include much infor-
mation about past circumstances or external events perti-
nent to the pattern under consideration. One obvious
reason for this failure is that such information (about past
marketing campaigns, historical events, etc.) might be
unknown to most people. However, even if such informa-
tion were available, it might still not be picked up by the
mental shotgun because this information is typically
neither salient nor accessible. Unlike the constituents of
the pattern to be explained, which loom large at the time
when the inherence heuristic is triggered, the past circum-
stances that may have contributed to this pattern are often
no longer in place and may also have no obvious physical
connection with the pattern itself (for similar arguments,
see Gilbert & Malone 1995). The inconspicuousness of
these extrinsic factors makes it likely that they will be over-
looked by the shotgun, even if knowledge about them was
available. A second, related reason why extrinsic factors
may not make it into the output of the mental shotgun
is that information about them is often not as accessible
as the information about inherent features, which is activat-
ed and consolidated with every additional exposure to these
features (for a discussion of accessibility, see Higgins 1996;
Higgins & King 1981). For example, even though some-
body may have heard at some point that the color/gender
mapping is currently the opposite of what it used to be,
this piece of information may, without further consolida-
tion, fail to show up on a quick shotgun search for
reasons why girls wear pink.
The heuristics literature describes many examples of
similar failures to retrieve relevant, but not very salient or
accessible, knowledge. For instance, when told that Tom
W. was of high intelligencebut lacked true creativity
and had a need for order and claritywhen he was a
senior in high school, people ranked the likelihood that
Tom W. is currently a graduate student in computer
science much higher than the likelihood that he is a gradu-
ate student in the social sciences (Kahneman & Tversky
1973). This typical, intuitive answer overlooks a crucial
piece of information namely, the relative size of the two
elds. Mostly everyone knows that graduate students in
the social sciences outnumber those in computer science;
and yet, once provided with a description of Tom W. as a
high schooler, participants quickly called up their stereo-
types about computer scientists and made a decision on
the basis of this easily accessible information, without
retrieving the crucial base-rate information that should
have been factored into their responses as well. This
example illustrates the intuitive minds tendency to make
use of nothing other than the most salient and accessible
information. In the case of the inherence heuristic, this
information will often be about the inherent characteristics
of the to-be-explained patterns constituents.
Once the mental shotgun has completed its job, the
information generated is handed over to the next stage of
heuristic processing. To use another one of Kahnemans
(2011) metaphors, this next stage is a storyteller, looking
to arrange the information at its disposal into a coherent
narrative whenever possible (see Fig. 2). Whenever such
a narrative emerges out of the assortment of facts called
up by the mental shotgun, it then percolates up to
working memory in the form of an apparently effortless
intuition. Of course, such an intuition only appears effort-
less. It is actually the product of vast amounts of rapid
processing that implicit cognitive processes perform
behind the scenes.
To reiterate, the pool of facts activated by the mental
shotgun for the purpose of generating an explanation for
a pattern may often be heavily biased toward the inherent
characteristics of that patterns constituents. As a result,
when the storytelling part of the heuristic process takes
over and attempts to make sense of the information at its
disposal, it will have a rather limited number of options.
That is, it will often be forced to construct a story that
explains the existence of a pattern in terms of the inherent
features of the entities within that pattern rather than in
terms of factors external to it. However, the one-sided
nature of the information delivered by the mental
shotgun is not an impediment to the storytelling process.
Quite the contrary the less information is available, the
easier it will be to t it all into a coherent story (Kahneman
2011). In the case of girls wearing pink, such stories are
easy to construct: For example, perhaps girls wear pink
because this color is ower-like and delicate a perfect
match for girlsdelicate features. Likewise, the case of
orange juice being consumed for breakfast can easily
be t into a sensible narrative. As the self-styled worlds
undisputed #1 expert on breakfastspeculates in a post
on his website, perhaps the odor of citrusis energizing,
invigorating and refreshingand thus helps wake you up
at the time of day when you need it the most.
5
Again, the
storytelling stage has settled on an explanatory story that
accounts for the existence of a pattern (we drink OJ in
the morning) in terms of the inherent characteristics of
the entities in that pattern (its because OJ has an energiz-
ing smell that we drink it in the morning; see Fig. 2). More
generally, the outcome of this stage will often be an intui-
tion that the pattern under consideration can be explained
by the inherent features of its constituents. Even in cases
where a specic story fails to coalesce at this point,
people may nevertheless be left with a vague sense that
the inherent features activated by the mental shotgun will
ultimately be sufcient to explain the pattern under
Cimpian & Salomon: The inherence heuristic
464 BEHAVIORAL AND BRAIN SCIENCES