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How essentialist beliefs about national groups differ by cultural origin and study abroad experience among Chinese and American college students


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Nationality constitutes a salient part of social categorization. However, little research has examined how people form nationality concepts and how it may be shaped by culture and experience. The current study aims to investigate essentialist beliefs about nationality in participants from two cultural origins: the United States and China. In both samples, we compared college students studying domestically and internationally (N = 290) by using direct and indirect measures of essentialism. Ratings from direct measures of essentialism revealed that American participants were more likely than Chinese participants to perceive national groups as natural, whereas Chinese participants were more likely than American participants to perceive national groups as cohesive. Interestingly, the observed differences between domestic and international students on the indirect measure showed opposite directions among participants of different cultures of origin. As hypothesized, American international students showed lower essentialist thinking than American domestic students. Surprisingly, Chinese international students showed stronger essentialist thinking than Chinese domestic students. Further analyses revealed a positive relationship between the length of arrival time and essentialist thinking by Chinese international students. The current research demonstrates the cognitive malleability of social essentialism, addressing the importance of examining the effect of intergroup processes under diverse and dynamic cultural contexts.
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How essentialist beliefs about national groups differ by cultural
origin and study abroad experience among Chinese and American
college students
Yian Xu,
Xuan Li,
and John D. Coley
Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, and
New York University Shanghai, Shanghai, China
Nationality constitutes a salient part of social categorization. However, little research has examined how
people form nationality concepts and how it may be shaped by culture and experience. The current study
aims to investigate essentialist beliefs about nationality in participants from two cultural origins: the United
States and China. In both samples, we compared college students studying domestically and internationally
(N=290) by using direct and indirect measures of essentialism. Ratings from direct measures of
essentialism revealed that American participants were more likely than Chinese participants to perceive
national groups as natural, whereas Chinese participants were more likely than American participants to
perceive national groups as cohesive. Interestingly, the observed differences between domestic and
international students on the indirect measure showed opposite directions among participants of different
cultures of origin. As hypothesized, American international students showed lower essentialist thinking than
American domestic students. Surprisingly, Chinese international students showed stronger essentialist
thinking than Chinese domestic students. Further analyses revealed a positive relationship between the
length of arrival time and essentialist thinking by Chinese international students. The current research
demonstrates the cognitive malleability of social essentialism, addressing the importance of examining the
effect of intergroup processes under diverse and dynamic cultural contexts.
Keywords: culture, multicultural experience, nationality, social essentialism.
In 2015, the Miss Japan contest was won by a mixed-
race woman, stirring much controversy as to whether
individuals without “pure” Japanese blood can represent
Japan. In 2016, the United States voted for a president
who vowed to put “America first” and protect the coun-
try from immigrants, the same year when one-third of
French voters cast their support for a fervently national-
ist presidential candidate. After a century of efforts to
establish a connected global community, the last few
decades seem to have witnessed the hardening of physi-
cal and psychological national borders, as most vividly
embodied by the growing “Trump Wall” between the
United States and Mexico.
Why, in the age of globalization and convenient
international mobility, do so many individuals hold on
to rigid ideals of how their own and other countries
should be? Although not without economic, cultural,
and ideological drives, the rise of nationalism and the
subsequent intergroup conflicts may reflect a
psychological mechanism that human beings are
inclined to endorse. Psychological essentialism is a
fundamental cognitive framework reflecting our bias to
represent conceptsincluding biological species, social
groups as well as other collective conceptsas sharing
intrinsic properties (essence or essence placeholder)
that give rise to observable regularities (Gelman, 2003;
Medin & Ortony, 1989). An essentialist account entails
assumptions about the nature and structure of the con-
ceptualization of groups, such as discrete and absolute
group boundaries, immutable group membership, uni-
form group features, and rich inductive potential of
group identity (Barrett, 2001; Diesendruck & Gelman,
1999; Gelman & Wellman, 1991; Shtulman & Schulz,
2008). Essentialist thinking about nationality has
received much less scholarly attention than essentialist
beliefs regarding other salient social categories such as
gender, race, and ethnicity, despite its significant impli-
cations for personal meaning, social decisions, and pol-
icy orientations, such as support for xenophobia and
anti-immigrant attitudes (Hjerm, 1998; Kunovich,
2009; Shulman, 2004). How do people conceptualize
nationality and identify national membership? Are
essentialist beliefs about nationality culturally univer-
sal, or are they sensitive to social inputs and individual
Correspondence: Yian Xu, Department of Psychology,
Northeastern University, 125 Nightingale Hall, 360 Huntington
Avenue, Boston, MA 02115, USA. E-mail:
Received 3 December 2019; accepted 15 December 2020.
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
Asian Journal of Social Psychology (2021), , DOI: 10.1111/ajsp.12456
bs_bs_bannerAsian Journal of Social Psychology
Essentialist Beliefs about National Groups
In this paper, we use the terms “nationality” and “na-
tional groups” to refer to people’s subjective understand-
ing of nations and national memberships, instead of the
legal contents of one’s citizenship status as defined by
either domestic or international laws. For some, nations
are stable communities of people sharing common terri-
tory, language, cultural traditions, and economic life
(Guibernau, 1996; Llobera, 1996), while others have
pointed out that none of those elements as mentioned
above constitute a sufficient or necessary component of
nationhood (Reicher & Hopkins, 2001). As such, many
scholars adopt the idea that nations are imagined com-
munities (Anderson, 1991), the concept of which is lar-
gely shaped by common subjective experience. Hence,
national groups are not “natural partitions of the social
world” (Hussak & Cimpian, 2019), but psychological
constructs which laypeople employ to imagine immuta-
ble, quasi-biological connections among their members
(Connor, 1994; Feeney et al., 2020).
Indeed, nationality is arguably a particular case of
psychological essentialism (Pehrson et al., 2009). As
with other social categories, lay assumptions around
nationality cluster on two related yet distinctive dimen-
sions (Haslam et al., 2000; Prentice & Miller, 2007):
naturalness (i.e., the extent to which national groups are
seen as naturally formed, with discrete boundaries), and
cohesiveness (i.e., the extent to which national groups
are seen as cohesive, homogenous entities). Based on
this two-dimensional model of social essentialism, essen-
tializing nationality may entail (a) naturalness beliefs
that nationality is inheritable by birth, is fixed or extre-
mely difficult to change, and is exclusive in an all-or-
none fashion; and (b) cohesiveness beliefs that members
from the same national group share something deep in
common which gives rise to uniform features, and
allows people to make rich inductions based on group
Recent studies have shed light on how national groups
are essentialized by children and adults. Using both
forced-choice and open-ended measures, Hussak and
Cimpian (2019) found that both U.S. children and adults
see national group membership as stable and inductively
meaningful. When contrasted with other salient social
categories such as gender and race, American children
relied on nationality membership to make inferences
about personal preferences. This finding highlighted the
powerful social meaning of nationality in guiding predic-
tions about novel individuals. In another study, research-
ers contrasted U.S. and Turkish participants’ essentialist
beliefs (biological basis, inheritance, and immutability)
about individuals along different social dimensions (gen-
der, nationality, religion, socioeconomic status, and
sports team preference), and found that nationality was
ranked the second-highest essentialized social category
in both cultures by children and adults (Davoodi et al.,
2020). These findings provide key evidence that essen-
tialist beliefs about nationality emerge early in human
development and share similar characteristics with essen-
tialist thinking along other social dimensions, such as
race and gender.
Psychological Essentialism Shaped by
Culture and Experience
There have been many scholarly discussions on the
innate and universal nature of psychological essentialism
as a fundamental cognitive framework. Empirical studies
on infant cognition demonstrated that social categoriza-
tion (i.e., the differentiating between “us versus them”)
and in-group preference already emerge at a very early
life stage (Kiley Hamlin et al., 2010; Mahajan & Wynn,
2012), thereby suggesting the innate nature of social cat-
egorization. Previous studies beyond W.E.I.R.D. soci-
eties (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and
Democratic; Henrich et al., 2010) provided some (albeit
limited) cross-cultural evidence for the presence of psy-
chological essentialism (e.g., Astuti et al., 2004; Atran
et al., 2002; Davoodi et al., 2020; Medin & Atran, 2004;
Vapnarsky et al., 2001). Across societies (e.g., Brazil,
Turkey, Madagascar, Yukatek Maya village in Mexico,
and the Menominee Indian tribes in the U.S.), children
demonstrated much similarity in understanding the bio-
logical inheritance of category membership. These find-
ings suggest that an essentialist pattern of reasoning is
early-emerging and cross-culturally present, which may
reflect a commonly shared aspect of human cognition.
Another line of research has examined individual and
group variability in social essentialist thinking, highlight-
ing its cultural sensitivity. Arguably, essentialist beliefs
can be shaped by cultural discourses on the content of
an essence placeholder (Atran et al., 2002; Dar-Nimrod
& Heine, 2011; Gil-White, 2001), or by the surrounding
social structures. For example, Giles et al. (2008) found
that South Africans held stronger beliefs about the nativ-
ity of aggressive behaviours (i.e., such behaviours are
innate rather than learned) than American participants.
Indian participants, who have grown up in a patriarchal
caste society, held culturally specific essentialist beliefs
about gender and caste (Mahalingam, 2003). These find-
ings suggest that sociocultural context can play a critical
role in shaping essentialist thinking about specific social
groups. In this case, cultural discourses direct attention
to particular social groups as available candidates for
social essentialism. Culturally salient groups thus are
essentialized to a greater degree as compared to other
non-salient groups.
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
2Yian Xu et al.
Alternatively, essentialist beliefs about specific social
categories can be attenuated by individuals’ exposure to
diverse social environments. For example, Israeli chil-
dren attending integrated kindergartens were less likely
to essentialize ethnicity categories than those attending
segregated kindergartens (Deeb et al., 2011). Similarly,
children in Northern Ireland attending integrated schools
are less likely to essentialize religious categories (such
as Catholic and Protestant) than children attending segre-
gated schools (Smyth et al., 2017). In a recent longitudi-
nal study, Pauker and colleagues tracked American
students moving from the continental U.S. to attend col-
lege in Hawaii, the state with the highest multiracial
population (Pauker et al., 2018). These students’ racial
essentialism decreased after the first year of college, a
change associated with increased exposure to diverse
outgroup acquaintances.
Together, previous literature has revealed the funda-
mental nature of psychological essentialism on the one
hand, as demonstrated by the early, cross-cultural emer-
gence of an essentialist pattern of reasoning, and the cul-
tural sensitivity of psychological essentialism on the
other, as demonstrated by variances in essentialist think-
ing about specific social categories across cultural and
social contexts. However, previous studies on the impact
of personal experiences were predominantly conducted
with racial categories and within the scope of domestic
migration. How people from different sociocultural back-
grounds conceptualize national groups, and how individ-
ual exposure to diversity unfolds in their sociocultural
contexts await further empirical investigation.
The Current Study
In this paper, we aim to extend previous literature by
examining how cultural origin and exposure to multicul-
tural diversity affect essentialist beliefs about national
groups. To do so, we recruited U.S. and Chinese college
students with and without study abroad experience and
compared their essentialist thinking about national
groups. This comparison allows us to conduct an initial
assessment of (a) whether young adults growing up in
the U.S. and China would show different patterns of
essentialist thinking about national groups, and (b)
whether young adults with study abroad experience are
less likely to essentialize national groups compared to
those without such experience, and if so, whether this
effect would unfold in the same way across the two cul-
tural samples.
China and the U.S. are chosen as they offer particu-
larly interesting cases for comparison given their dramat-
ically different leading cultural values and divergent
sociohistorical pathways of nationhood construction. In
terms of cultural values, China is typically believed to
represent collectivist culture, which emphasizes group
values, group harmony and group unity, whereas the
United States is considered a prime example of individu-
alist culture, which emphasizes individual uniqueness
and individual values (Markus & Kitayama, 2010;
Nisbett, 2003; Triandis, 1989). In this sense, individuals
in collectivist societies may be more accepting of social
groups (such as nationality) as coherent, homogenous
entities than their counterparts from individualistic soci-
eties, thereby harbouring a higher level of cohesiveness
in their essentialist beliefs than those from individualistic
societies. However, the individualistic versus collectivis-
tic value orientations do not make clear predictions
about cultural differences in the degree to which nation-
ality categories are perceived as natural. Adults from
Turkey, a country that is considered much less individu-
alist than the U.S. (Hofstede et al., 2010), showed simi-
lar levels of the tendency to essentialize nationality as
having biological underpinnings with American adults
(Davoodi et al., 2020). If naturalness beliefs reflect a
more robust aspect of intuitive thinking that is com-
monly shared across societies, we may not expect partic-
ipants from the U.S. and China to show differences in
levels of naturalness beliefs.
When we look into the social history of nation-build-
ing, the Chinese “nation” has been portrayed as a unified
civilization with a long, uninterrupted, superior cultural
lineage of Han ethnicity that has attracted the neighbour-
ing “barbarian” groups to assimilate (Barabantseva,
2010; Wu, 1991). In premodern China, Chinese identity
was not determined by biological distinctiveness but
marked by the mastery of acquired cultural competences
such as the Chinese language, Confucian ethics, and
appropriate social skills (Wu, 1991). Such ideas have
been adopted and revised by modern Chinese nation-
states since the early 20th century (Zhao, 2006). In
today’s mainland China, the Han ethnicity continues to
dominate the population (94%) and the cultural main-
stream, and ethnic minoritiesmost of which are physi-
cally indistinguishablewillingly or reluctantly
assimilate (Barabantseva, 2010). Overall, the history of
nation-building in China and current social reality do not
emphasize a shared biological basis of nationality, and
the Chinese have relatively low exposure to visible intra-
national diversity.
The U.S., on the other hand, has transitioned from a
“melting pot” model of national identity as assimilation
to Anglo-Protestantism, to a pursuit more recently of
multiculturalism as a national characteristic (S. L.
Andersen, 2015). After several waves of mass interna-
tional migrations during the 20th century, 23.5% of the
current U.S. population is visible ethnic minorities, and
nearly 15% is made up of international immigrants,
many of whom would become naturalized American
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
Essentialism, culture and study abroad 3
citizens (Migration Policy Institute, 2020). The multicul-
tural ideological underpinning and the exposure to a
more diverse population with larger immigrant commu-
nities may well weaken the essentialist tendency of
American adults to perceive nationality as biologically
determined and immutable.
In sum, the scant empirical evidence so far on cross-
cultural comparisons of social essentialist thinking pro-
vides limited guidance for generating concrete hypothe-
ses in our study. Nevertheless, we expected to see (a) a
cultural difference in the cohesiveness aspect of essen-
tialist thinking, such that Chinese participants would
show a stronger endorsement of the cohesiveness of
nationality than the American participants, given the col-
lectivistic value orientation and high demographic homo-
geneity in China compared to the U.S. (Cultural
Hypothesis A); and (b) a cultural similarity in the natu-
ralness aspect of essentialist thinking, such that both
Chinese and American participants would show a low
endorsement of the “naturalness” of nationality, out of
Chinese participants’ belief about the “obtainability” of
Chinese identity and American participants’ familiarity
with cases of nationality change (Cultural Hypothesis
B). Regarding the potential effect of study abroad expe-
rience, we predicted that college students with study
abroad experience in both samples would show less
essentialist thinking than those without, given that study
abroad experience exposes people to greater variability
of outgroup members and opportunities to observe cross-
boundary transformation (Study Abroad Hypothesis).
Four groups of university students were recruited in the
fall, 2017, from China and the U.S. (N=290), including
Chinese domestic students studying in China, Chinese
international students studying abroad in the U.S.,
American domestic students studying in the U.S., and
American international students studying abroad in
China. The Chinese domestic students (n=122,
recruited via social media; 45% female, 24% male, 31%
unspecified or missing) were born and raised in China
and attending a Sino-U.S joint venture university in
Shanghai, China. Chinese international students (n=61,
recruited via social media; 59% female, 26% male, 15%
unspecified or missing) were also born and raised in
China but were attending college in Boston, USA.
American domestic students (n=74, recruited from the
psychology participant pool; 81% female, 19% male)
were born and raised in the U.S. and attending a private
university in Boston, USA. American international stu-
dents (n=33, recruited through psychology courses,
campus posters, and social media platforms; 52%
female, 33% male, 15% unspecified or missing) were
born and raised in the U.S. but were studying at a Sino-
U.S joint venture university in Shanghai, China. Due to
the international program settings of this university, the
American international students group only included two
cohorts of students (freshmen or sophomores). All partic-
ipants were above 18 years old, with minimal interna-
tional experience (less than six months) apart from their
current host country. Participants recruited from the psy-
chology participant pool or psychology courses were
rewarded course credit. Other enrolled participants were
paid a modest sum of cash (20 RMB, approximately 3
U.S. dollars) for the completion of the online survey.
The current study was approved by the institutional
review boards at both university sites in China and U.S.
Materials and Design
Participants responded to indirect and direct measures of
essentialist beliefs about Chinese and Americans and
reported their demographic information. Participants also
answered open-ended questions regarding their percep-
tions of typical Chinese and American people in later
sections of the same survey, which will not be discussed
in the current paper. These open-ended questions were
always presented after the essentialism measures, thus
would have no influence on the results reported in the
current study. The original English survey was translated
into Chinese by a bilingual speaker with professional
training in translation. The translated materials were then
back-translated to English by another bilingual speaker
to make sure there was no major discrepancy of under-
Indirect measures of social essentialist
beliefs. Participants’ social essentialist beliefs were
assessed by an adaptation of the classic switched-at-birth
task (S.A.B.; Eidson & Coley, 2014; Gelman & Wellman,
1991; Solomon et al., 1996), which has been widely used
to test the extent to which participants perceive category
membership and category features as being “natural” or
heritable from birth. Participants were presented with two
vignettes, one describing a child that was born to Chinese
biological parents in China and adopted by an American
family in the U.S. when the child was 6 months old (the
China-born target); the other vignette describing a child
that was born to American biological parents in the U.S.
and adopted by a Chinese family in China at the same age
(the U.S.-born target). These two vignettes were displayed
in randomized order. After viewing each vignette, partici-
pants were asked to judge whether the child, after growing
up, would exhibit the same characteristics as their birth
parents or as their adoptive parents. These personal
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
4Yian Xu et al.
characteristics included physical characteristics, ability,
preference, personality, and belief (see Appendix A for
more details). In each trial, the response of choosing birth
parents was coded as 1 (essentialist response), and the
response of choosing adoptive parents was coded as 0
(non-essentialist response). In total, each participant com-
pleted ten trials (five for the China-born target, and five
for the U.S.-born target).
We also asked participants to numerically evaluate the
extent to which the adoptive child was American, and
the extent to which the same child was Chinese, in each
vignette. These two questions were designed to probe
how participants define nationality, particularly by con-
trasting their responses about the target’s birth and adop-
tive countries. The “Americanness” and “Chineseness”
of the child was asked on two separate scales (0100),
with explicit instructions that the two numbers do not
need to add up to be 100. Therefore, judgments of
nationality were not mutually exclusive by the design of
the task. Instead, participants were granted the discretion
to treat membership in the two nationality groups as
either mutually exclusive or overlapping. Higher ratings
on the nationality membership consistent with birth par-
ents (“birth national group membership”) indicate the
assumption that nationality is “naturally” determined on
a biological basis, whereas higher ratings on the national
membership consistent with adoptive parents (“adoptive
national group membership”) indicate a more fluid con-
ceptualization of nationality as being acquired through
personal experience.
Direct measure of social essentialist
beliefs. Participants’ social essentialist beliefs were also
measured by a shortened version of the Social
Essentialism Scale (Haslam et al., 2000), a validated
instrument widely used for assessing essentialist thinking
about social categories. The Social Essentialism Scale
differed from the S.A.B. task in that it explicitly asks
participants to report their thoughts on abstract national
groups, whereas the S.A.B. measure gauges participants’
underlying conceptualizations about national groups
through their reasoning about specific, hypothetical indi-
viduals presented in personal scenarios. Besides, the
Social Essentialism Scale captures both the naturalness
and cohesiveness beliefs about national groups, whereas
the S.A.B. task mainly tests the naturalness aspect.
In the current study, participants were presented with
three nationality categories: Chinese, American, and
French (as a control group). Participants also rated a list
of six filler social categories (e.g., women, police offi-
cers, Muslims). The original scale includes nine items
for each social category, which clustered on the natural-
ness and cohesiveness dimension. For the sake of brev-
ity, we used a shortened version with six items (three
items for each dimension, selected based on factorial
loading) for each social category. These six items were
naturalness, discreteness, and immutability (clustered on
the naturalness dimension); and uniformity, inherence,
and informativeness (clustered on the cohesiveness
dimension; see Appendix B). This shortened version has
been validated among Chinese adult participants in pre-
vious studies (Coley et al., 2019), replicating with high
fidelity the same two-dimensional construct model from
the original scale. Participants rated each social category
on all six items, each on a 9-point scale. Statements
were presented in blocks of essentialism items in a ran-
domized order. Within each item block, the order of
social categories was randomized. Participants’ ratings
of the American and Chinese national groups on all six
items were averaged, and a higher average score reflects
stronger essentialist beliefs.
Demographics. Participants reported basic demo-
graphic information, including gender, school year, eth-
nicity, major, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status
(measured by annual household income), and previous
international traveling experience. Based on different
economic development and income levels in China and
the U.S, we used different anchors of annual household
income for participants from the two countries (USD
$25,000, $50000, $75,000, and $100,000 for U.S partici-
pants; RMB 30,000, 80,000, 300,000, 1,000,000 for
Chinese participants). Chinese international students
reported their length of living in the U.S. (in numbers of
months; range: 0 to 80 months). Due to the structure of
the study abroad program at the data collection site in
Shanghai, the American international students group
only included two cohorts of students, which limited the
variability of their length of living in China (less than 1
month for the newly arrived freshmen and approximately
9 months for the sophomores).
All surveys were programmed on Qualtrics (Qualtrics,
Provo, UT). American domestic participants recruited
from the psychology participant pool in Boston com-
pleted the study in a private lab room. The other three
samples completed the survey online at a time and place
of their own choosing. American participants (domestic
and international) completed the survey in English, and
Chinese participants (domestic and international) com-
pleted the survey in Chinese. Participants first completed
the indirect essentialist measure (S.A.B. task), followed
by the direct essentialist measure (Social Essentialism
Scale), and reported demographic information at the end.
Participants were debriefed and thanked. It took about
20 min on average to finish the study.
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
Essentialism, culture and study abroad 5
Does Indirect Essentialist Thinking Vary by
Culture and Study Abroad Experience?
Switched-at-birth choices. We first looked at
responses from the S.A.B. task as an indicator of the
naturalness beliefs of national groups. We coded partici-
pants’ choice between the child’s birth parents (coded as
1) or adoptive parents (coded as 0) in each trial as the
dependent variable. We then tested a mixed-effect bino-
mial logistic regression model to examine whether par-
ticipants’ origin culture (American vs. Chinese) and
study abroad status (domestic vs. international) would
predict their essentialist responses (birth parents vs.
adoptive parents). The type of individual trait and partic-
ipant ID were entered as random effects. Results showed
a main effect of participants’ culture (B=.499,
SE =.168, p=.003), a main effect of study abroad sta-
tus (B=.964, SE =.230, p<.001), as well as a signifi-
cant interaction between the two (B=1.273, SE =.288,
p<.001; see Table 1). This model performed signifi-
cantly better than an intercept-only null model
[3] =20.383, p<.001). Consistent with previous lit-
erature and our Study Abroad Hypothesis, American
international students showed a lower likelihood of
choosing birth parents (M=29.4%, 95% confidence
interval [CI] =[24.5%, 34.3%]), thus were less essential-
ist than American domestic students (M=40.7%, 95%
CI =[37.1%, 44.2%]). However, the Chinese sample
showed, unexpectedly, the opposite effect: Chinese inter-
national students showed higher likelihood of choosing
birth parents (M=41.3%, 95% CI =[37.4%, 45.2%]),
thus were more essentialist than Chinese domestic stu-
dents (M=33.9%, 95% CI =[31.3%, 36.6%]; see
Figure 1).
National identity ratings. We then tested a mixed-ef-
fect linear regression model on participants’ national
identity ratings consistent with the birth origin of the
hypothetical child in each trial (Chineseness ratings on
the China-born target, and Americanness ratings on the
U.S-born target) by entering participant culture and
study abroad status as fixed effects, and participant ID as
a random effect. Results showed a main effect of partici-
pant culture (B=.294, SE =.039, p<.001) on national-
ity ratings (see Table 2). This model performed
significantly better than an intercept-only null model
[3] =60.441, p<.001). Overall, American partici-
pants were much more likely to attribute nationality to
birth (M=55.1%, 95% CI =[50.2%, 60.0%]) than
Chinese participants (M=29.2%, 95% CI =[26.8%,
31.6%]). Results also showed a trend for study abroad
status (B=.100, SE =.056, p=.073), which seems to
be driven by the American sample. Specifically,
American international students gave marginally lower
native nationality ratings (M=48.2%, 95%
CI =[39.3%, 57.0%]) than American domestic students
(M=58.2%, 95% CI =[52.4%, 64.0%]; t(212) =1.892,
p=.060, Cohen’s d=.28; see Figure 2). Yet, no differ-
ence was found between Chinese international
(M=30.1%, 95% CI =[25.5%, 34.6%]) and Chinese
domestic students (M=28.8%, 95% CI =[26.0%,
31.5%]). Overall, participants’ birth-based nationality
ratings indicated that American participants hold stron-
ger naturalness beliefs than Chinese participants, with
study abroad status marginally decreasing American
international students’ naturalness tendency.
Do Direct Essentialist Ratings Vary by
Culture and Study Abroad Experience?
To assess the hypothesized effect of culture and study
abroad experience on participants’ essentialist beliefs
assessed by direct measures, we computed a naturalness
score and a cohesiveness score for each participant by
averaging their ratings on the corresponding items across
the national categories American and Chinese. We then
conducted a mixed-effect linear regression model on
essentialist scores by entering participants’ culture, study
abroad status, and essentialism dimension (naturalness
vs. cohesiveness) as fixed effects, and participant ID as a
random effect. Results showed no three-way interaction,
but a significant two-way interaction between the partici-
pant culture and essentialism dimension (B=.050,
SE =.431, p<.001), as well as a main effect of the
essentialism dimension (B=1.108, SE =.191, p<.001;
see Table 3). This model performed significantly better
than an intercept-only null model (v
[7] =57.964,
p<.001). On the naturalness dimension, American par-
ticipants scored higher (M=5.87, 95% CI =[5.61,
Table 1
Mixed-effects Binomial Logistic Regression Model for
Switched-at-Birth Responses
Predictors BSEZp
Participant culture 0.50 0.17 2.97 .003*
study abroad status 0.96 0.23 4.18 <.001*
Culture x Abroad 1.27 0.29 4.41 <.001*
Observations 2,900
Log likelihood 1,589.6
Model AIC 3,217.2
Model BIC 3,330.7
AIC =the Akaike information criterion; BIC =the Bayesian
information criterion.
p<0.10; *p0.05; **p0.01; ***p0.001.
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
6Yian Xu et al.
6.13]) than Chinese participants (M=4.89, 95%
CI =[4.70, 5.09]), whereas on the cohesiveness dimen-
sion, Chinese participants scored higher (M=5.12, 95%
CI =[4.94, 5.30]) than American participants (M=4.79,
95% CI =[4.54, 5.04]). The cultural differences were
confirmed by independent sample ttests on both the nat-
uralness dimension (t[285] =6.057, p<.001, Cohen’s
d=.74) and the cohesiveness dimension (t
[285] =2.142, p=.033, Cohen’s d=.26; see Figure 3).
No effect of study abroad status was found on the
direct measure of essentialism, although exploratory
analyses indicated that Chinese international students
gave higher cohesiveness ratings (M=5.22, SD =.92)
than Chinese domestic students (M=4.90, SD =.97), t
(178) =2.08, p=.039, Cohen’s d=.32. We further
looked into the relationship between essentialist ratings
and the time spent in the U.S. by the Chinese interna-
tional students. Simple regression analysis results
showed that for Chinese international students, time
spent in the U.S. was positively related to cohesiveness
ratings (B=.320, SE =.008, p=.023); in other words,
the more time Chinese students spent in the U.S., the
more essentialist they became. This finding provided fur-
ther evidence that the stronger essentialist tendency
observed in the Chinese international students was asso-
ciated with their experience living in a foreign country,
rather than due to other a priori differences between the
domestic and the international sample. Due to the lim-
ited variability of the American international students
group in this regard, we were unable to conduct a com-
parable regression analysis on American international
Relations among Indirect and Direct
Essentialist Responses
To better understand the relations between the indirect
and direct essentialism measures that we used, we exam-
ined the correlations among participants’ responses
across the measures. Results revealed both within- and
cross-measure correlations (see Table 4). Within the
Figure 1 Switched-at-birth responses by participant culture and study abroad status. American college students
with study abroad experience showed weaker essentialist thinking compared to American students studying
domestically, whereas Chinese college students with study abroad experience showed stronger essentialist think-
ing compared to Chinese students studying domestically. The y-axis represents the predicted probability of choos-
ing birth parents. Error bars reflect 95% confidence intervals.
Table 2
Mixed-effects Linear Regression Model for Birth
Consistent Nationality Ratings
Predictors BSEt p
Participant culture 0.29 0.04 7.50 <.001*
Study abroad status 0.10 0.06 1.80 .07
Culture x Abroad 0.11 0.07 1.63 .11
Observations 580
Log likelihood 26.2
Model AIC 40.4
Model BIC 14.2
Note. AIC =the Akaike information criterion; BIC =the
Bayesian information criterion.
p<0.10; *p0.05; **p0.01; ***p0.001.
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
Essentialism, culture and study abroad 7
S.A.B. measure, responses across the two vignettes were
reliably correlated. Essentialist responses choosing birth
parents on the China-born target were positively corre-
lated with responses choosing birth parents on the U.S.-
born target. Likewise, ratings of the Chineseness on the
China-born target were positively correlated with ratings
of the Americanness on the U.S-born target. Within the
Social Essentialism Scale, naturalness and cohesiveness
ratings were reliably correlated under both the American
and Chinese categories. Naturalness ratings across the
two categories and cohesiveness ratings across the two
categories were also strongly correlated. These within-
measure correlations reassured the internal consistency
of both types of essentialism measures that we used in
the current study.
In addition, we found some cross-measure relations
among participants’ responses on the S.A.B. task and the
Social Essentialism Scale. This is mainly observed
between the naturalness ratings on the Chinese and
American categories from the Social Essentialism Scale
Figure 2 Birth-based nationality ratings by participant culture and study abroad atatus. American participants in
general were more willing to assign birth consistent nationality to the hypothetical individual than Chinese partici-
pants. Specifically, American international students gave marginally lower ratings than American domestic stu-
dents. No difference was found between Chinese international and domestic students. Error bars represent 95%
confidence intervals.
Table 3
Mixed-effect Linear Regression Model on Social Essentialism Scale Ratings
Predictors BSEt p
Participant culture 1.03 0.19 5.51 <.001*
Study abroad status 0.08 0.27 0.28 .78
Essentialism dimension 1.11 0.19 5.82 <.001*
Culture x Abroad 0.17 0.34 0.52 .62
Culture x Dimension 1.29 0.24 5.33 <.001*
Abroad x Dimension 0.09 0.34 0.26 .80
Culture x Abroad x Dimension 0.05 0.04 0.12 .91
Observations 574
Log likelihood 949.5
Model AIC 1919.0
Model BIC 1962.5
Note. AIC =the Akaike information criterion; BIC =the Bayesian information criterion.
p<0.10; *p0.05; **p0.01; ***p0.001.
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
8Yian Xu et al.
and the birth consistent nationality ratings from the
S.A.B. vignettes. This result suggests that both essential-
ist beliefs on abstract, collective concepts of national
groups (such as Chinese and American) measured
directly, and national identification judgments on hypo-
thetical, concrete examples of individuals measured indi-
rectly, may stem from the same underlying construct.
Particularly, essentialist ratings on the naturalness
dimension, or the tendency to essentialize national
groups as naturally divided units, were consistently cor-
related with judgments on birth consistent nationality
membership for both the China-born target and U.S.-
born target.
The current study investigated how cultural background
and study abroad experience relate to differences in
essentialist beliefs about national groups by comparing
the perception of national groups among Chinese and
American college students studying domestically and
abroad, using both indirect (i.e., hypothetical individual
cases) and direct measures (i.e., explicit essentialist
statements about national groups). We found that
American and Chinese students differed in their essen-
tialist beliefs about national categories on both measures,
and that the study abroad experience interacted with
Figure 3 Cultural patterns on direct essentialist ratings. American participants scored higher than Chinese partici-
pants on the naturalness dimension, whereas Chinese participants scored higher than American participants on
the cohesiveness dimension. Error bars reflect 95% confidence intervals.
Table 4
Correlations among Essentialist Responses from the Switched-at-Birth Task and the Social Essentialism Scale
by Birth
by Birth
SAB China-Born
Chineseness by birth .05
SAB U.S.-Born .44*
Americanness by birth .05 .80*
SES_Nat (American) .02 .19*
.03 .16*
SES_Coh (American) .04 .09 .06 .03 .20*
SES_Nat (Chinese) .03 .24*
.03 .18*
SES_Coh (Chinese) .09 .02 .08 .00 .02 .62*
Note. SES_Coh =mean cohesiveness ratings for nationality categories; SES_Nat =mean naturalness ratings for nationality cate-
p<0.10; *p0.05; **p0.01; ***p0.001.
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
Essentialism, culture and study abroad 9
cultural origin in predicting indirect essentialist
responses. The findings of our study, which is among the
first to make direct cross-cultural comparisons of essen-
tialist beliefs, not only enriched the empirical evidence
regarding essentialist beliefs in previously understudied
samples, but also provided conceptual and methodologi-
cal insights for future research on social essentialism.
Essentialist Beliefs about National Groups
Varied by Culture of Origin
Cultural differences in perceived cohesiveness of
national categories. As predicted, Chinese participants
showed higher cohesiveness ratings than American par-
ticipants on the Social Essentialism Scale. This finding
was consistent with our Cultural Hypothesis A and cor-
roborating evidence from other studies that tested
Chinese and American adults’ essentialist beliefs regard-
ing various social categories, including but not limited to
national groups (Coley et al., 2019). The American par-
ticipants’ tendency to see national groups as less cohe-
sive might stem from their individualistic cultural lens
through which they see national groups as made up of
heterogeneous individuals, the visible racial/ethnic diver-
sity in the United States, and the American mainstream
ideology that embraces such diversity (albeit sometimes
superficially). The Chinese imaginary of nationhood, on
the other hand, builds on the collectivist value orienta-
tion that emphasizes the shared characteristics and goals
of the national group members, discourses that centre
around China’s long history as one united nation and the
small proportion of visible ethnic minorities and interna-
tional immigrants. These contextual factors might have
led the Chinese participants to believe in internal simi-
larities within national groups. Notably, the cultural
value argument and demographic characteristic argument
worked in the same direction in the present study.
Therefore, we encourage future studies to disentangle
the effect of these two factors to better showcase their
respective contributions, such as by comparing individu-
als from demographically diverse collectivist societies
with those from demographically homogeneous individu-
alistic societies.
Cultural differences in perceived naturalness of
national categories. Despite the dearth of existing
empirical evidence, we hypothesized on the basis of
Chinese and U.S. social histories of nation-building and
current demographic characteristics that participants
from both countries may report low endorsement of the
naturalness of nationality (Cultural Hypothesis B),
although for different reasons. To our surprise, American
participants were more likely to essentialize national
groups or nationality as naturally formed and being
determined upon biological, inheritable underlying reali-
ties than Chinese participants, reflected both in their rat-
ings on the Social Essentialism Scale, as well as in their
willingness to endorse birth-based nationality member-
ship in the S.A.B. task. We suspect that, in addition to
the Chinese tradition of determining one’s national iden-
tity by learned cultural competences, the American par-
ticipants’ stronger emphasis on the “natural” origin of
national group membership might relate to the practice
of birthright citizenship in the U.S., which ties national
membership to birth. Further studies are needed to shed
light on the mechanisms explaining this cultural differ-
ence in essentializing national groups as natural kinds.
Effects of Study Abroad Experience on
Social Essentialism Differed for Chinese
and American College Students
Perhaps most strikingly, we found that study abroad
experience interacts with cultural background in predict-
ing participants’ essentialist beliefs about national
groups. In line with our Study Abroad Hypothesis,
American international students showed weaker essen-
tialist thinking than American domestic students, particu-
larly in the S.A.B. task (although not on the Social
Essentialism Scale). As with participants in previous
studies (Deeb et al., 2011; Pauker et al., 2018; Smyth
et al., 2017), our American participants’ essentialist
thinking appears to have been attenuated by their expo-
sure to diverse environments. While our study did not
capture the precise mechanism by which immersion
impacts essentialist thinking, it was possible that our par-
ticipants may have witnessed within-group variability as
well as between-group similarities during their study
abroad experience, which may have led to cognitive
changes about specific national groups or familiarity
with cross-group interactions in daily practice, which in
turn may have reduced their anxiety about other groups.
However, counter to our Study Abroad Hypothesis,
Chinese international students showed strengthened
instead of weakened essentialist thinking relative to
Chinese domestic students, both in the S.A.B. task and
the Social Essentialism Scale, especially on its cohesive-
ness dimension. This result, that studying abroad related
to higher instead of lower essentialist thinking among
Chinese college students, is inconsistent with evidence
collected among American samples in previous research
and from the current study. Why does the study abroad
experience seem to have different effects on American
and Chinese students? One may argue that our findings
reflect pre-existing group differences (such as socioeco-
nomic status) among those who study abroad or study
domestically between American and Chinese students
rather than any effects brought by the study abroad
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
10 Yian Xu et al.
experience. Although our quasi-experimental design does
not allow us to rule out this possibility, this account is
unlikely to fully explain the differences observed
between the domestic and international groups: The posi-
tive correlation found between the length of time lived
in the U.S. by the Chinese international students and
their essentialist thinking provides stronger evidence sug-
gesting that the experience of living abroad induced
changes in essentialist beliefs about national groups
among Chinese students. It also cannot explain why
American international students exhibited lower essen-
tialist responses only on the indirect but not the direct
measure of essentialism. Although longitudinal studies
are needed to verify this speculation, the available evi-
dence suggests that our findings are unlikely to be attrib-
uted simply to preexisting group differences.
Other explanations could be related to the two coun-
tries’ respective roles in international education mobility
and their relative cultural and racial power status. The
U.S. has long been the world’s top destination for inter-
national students and scholars for several decades,
whereas China only recently began to attract students
and scholars from overseas. Therefore, American inter-
national students and Chinese international students in
our sample may differ in their motivation to study
abroad. The American students studying in Chinawho
are treading a road less travelledmay have a particu-
larly strong willingness to explore different cultures, per-
haps associated with less essentialist beliefs, whereas the
Chinese students studying in the United States are more
likely to be driven by goals of seeking better education
and professional resources. Such different motivations
may have driven the American international students to
engage in more intergroup contacts than their Chinese
counterparts studying in the U.S., thereby resulting in
different trajectories of change in their essentialist
beliefsa possibility that is beyond the scope of the cur-
rent study but can be investigated in greater depth in
future research.
It is also possible that the Chinese and American stu-
dents studying abroad had been treated differently in
their host countries. Although all international students
undergo the challenges of acculturation, the relative
power status of the interacting groups might change the
acculturation dynamics (Amir, 1969). Due to the global
dominance of the United States, the American students
studying in China are likely to be perceived as having
higher socioeconomic status and treated as privileged
first-world expats, as has been observed for their older,
professional compatriots (Farrer, 2010) or other practi-
tioners of “privileged mobility” (Croucher, 2012;
om, 2017). Therefore, even as a minority social
group in China, American students would feel less threat
from the local majority group and may have a more
positive attitude towards interacting with the local com-
munity, which in turn would encourage them to further
modify their essentialist beliefs. In contrast, Chinese stu-
dents studying in the U.S. are considered a marginalized
group with lower power status and indeed often face
racial discrimination and microaggressions (Ruble &
Zhang, 2013). In this context, Chinese international stu-
dents may be more likely to perceive the threat from the
local majority group, and thus have stronger psychologi-
cal demands to stay cohesive within their own group, in
order to better survive in a threatening environment. As
demonstrated in a previous study (Yang et al., 2015),
stronger cultural anxiety experienced by the minority
group may lead them to adopt essentialism to defend
their group identity. Although we can only speculate on
the origins of these strikingly different patterns, they lay
important groundwork for future investigation.
Importance of Administering Diverse
Measures of Social Essentialism
Results from the current study speak to the importance
of conceptualizing social essentialism as a multidimen-
sional construct and assessing it with diverse measures.
Previous literature suggested that social essentialism is
composed of two related but dissociable dimensions
(Haslam et al., 2000), and should therefore be measured
on both dimensions instead of relying on a single global
measure. More recently, more dimensions under or
related to essentialism were further proposed, such as
universality (Haslam & Levy, 2006) as well as “kind-
hood” (Noyes & Dunham, 2019). In line with such theo-
retical progress, the current study not only suggested
that social categories could be essentialized to different
degrees on the naturalness and cohesiveness dimensions,
as with many previous studies (Coley et al., 2019;
Haslam et al., 2000; Prentice & Miller, 2007), but also
revealed different patterns of cross-cultural differences
on these two dimensions. Using unidimensional mea-
sures of essentialism would not allow us to capture these
nuanced patterns of results. The current study addresses
again the importance of using multiple measures of
essentialism in addition to the existing instruments.
Curiously, our analyses also revealed inconsistencies
on different types of measures that would arguably
assess the same theoretical construct or association
between the constructs: The American participants
responded differently to indirect and direct measures of
essentialist beliefs. Similarly, there was a statistically
significant interaction between cultural origin and study
abroad status on the S.A.B. responses, but the model on
nationality ratings revealed only a marginally significant
effect of study abroad status on American students (vs.
no significant effect on Chinese students), and there was
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
Essentialism, culture and study abroad 11
no significant interaction between cultural origin and
study abroad status on the direct social essentialism mea-
sure. We suspect that such discrepancies may be a result
of the nature of the measures used given the growing
awareness of diversity-related political correctness,
which makes responses that are less essentialist and
more global and cosmopolitan more desirable. The fact
that the significant result on the interactive effect of the
culture of origin and study-abroad status occurred in the
relatively “indirect” measure (i.e., the S.A.B. task) sug-
gest that participants (and especially the American par-
ticipants from our college sample) might be reluctant to
disclose their agreement with essentialist statements
regarding national groups which are perceived as
socially undesirable. This interpretation is consistent
with findings showing that American university students’
essentialist thinking about gender is stronger under time
pressure (Eidson & Coley, 2014). In this way, future
research should continue to investigate politically sensi-
tive constructs such as essentialist beliefs about national-
ity, race, and ethnicity by experimenting with measures
of different levels of face validity to see which best
assesses participants’ underlying beliefs.
Limitations and Future Directions
The current study bears a number of limitations. Firstly,
we used university students as participants who are not
representative of the entire population of either China or
the United States. Therefore, the findings cannot be gen-
eralized to the entire Chinese or American populations.
Also, our four subsamples may not be demographically
equivalent. Using a within-subject longitudinal design
with a larger and broader sample would be ideal to rule
out the potential self-selection bias.
Secondly, the terms “American” and “Chinese” are
ambiguous in that they can both be interpreted as
national groups and as racial/ethnic labels. Although
“American” is much more likely to convey the meaning
of nationality given the high racial and ethnic diversity
in the United States, the image of a stereotypical white
American rooted in the participants’ essentialist beliefs
may also cloud their judgment (such as whether this per-
son can become “Chinese”). This lexical ambiguity can
be partially addressed by comparing the essentialism rat-
ings for these categories to those for the control cate-
gories French and Black. The former is unlikely to be
interpreted as a racial group, whereas the latter is unli-
kely to be interpreted as a national group. Our data
showed that the category Black was highly essentialized
on the naturalness dimension (M=7.01, SD =1.52).
This pattern is consistent with previous evidence on
essentialist thinking about racial categories (e.g., Haslam
et al., 2000). In contrast, the category American received
much lower naturalness ratings (M=4.88, SD =1.57),
and was similar in that respect to French (M=5.31,
SD =1.56) and Chinese (M=5.64, SD =1.63). This
suggests that participants treated American and Chinese
as national categorieslike Frenchrather than as
racial/ethnic categories, like Black, at least on the essen-
tialism scale. Nevertheless, future studies may do well to
explicitly instruct participants to reason about national
groups instead of ethnicity on all measures.
Besides, a host of individual and contextual factors
that may have influenced participants’ essentialist beliefs
were not captured in the current research. One limitation
of our measurement is the lack of individual-level cul-
tural variables. In the current study, we used the partici-
pants’ country of origin as a proxy for their cultural
value inclination towards collectivism or individualism
without measuring their individual value orientations,
following common practice in cross-cultural psychology
and to keep the survey brief. To capture the association
between individualism/collectivism and essentialist
beliefs more accurately, future studies should consider
measuring this and other relevant cultural variables
(such as tightness and looseness; Gelfand et al., 2011)
on an individual level. Future studies should also con-
sider other relevant contextual factors that may influence
the quality of study abroad experience and its effect on
essentialism beliefs such as the depth of exposure to
and contact with outgroup members (Pauker et al.,
2018), as well as foreign-language proficiency. These
factors are beyond the scope of the current study.
Future research, especially longitudinal studies that track
individual changes over the course of study abroad
experiences, can elucidate the roots and processes of
social essentialism by investigating the characteristics of
the individual and the conditions of the home and host
In conclusion, the current study found that American
and Chinese college students with or without study
abroad experience differ in essentialist thinking about
national groups. Participants’ study abroad experience
interacts with their culture of origin in predicting their
essentialist beliefs about national groups, in that
American international students harbour less essentialist
beliefs about nationality than American domestic stu-
dents, whereas Chinese international students were more
essentialist than Chinese domestic students. Our findings
not only shed light on possible determinants of social
essentialist thinking but also have significant implica-
tions for policies and practices in the globalizing higher
education sector for creating multicultural contexts that
can benefit all students.
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
12 Yian Xu et al.
The current research is funded by Shanghai Planning
Office of Philosophy and Social Science 2017ESH002
(P.I: Xuan Li). We thank the local and international stu-
dents at Northeastern University, USA, and New York
University Shanghai, China, for participating in the
study. We thank Grace Yushan Huang for back translat-
ing the study materials.
Conflicts of Interest
The authors declare there are no conflicts of interest.
Data Availability Statement
The data that support the findings of this study are avail-
able from the corresponding author, Yian Xu
( upon request.
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14 Yian Xu et al.
Appendix A
Switched-at-Birth Task
Vignette 1 (China-Born Target)
A child was born to a Chinese family (Mr. and Mrs.
Wang) in China, but adopted by an American family
(Mr. and Mrs. Green). The child was brought to the U.S.
when six months old. The child grew up happy and well
Please use the information below to make your best
guess about what characteristics this child would have at
your age. Remember, the child was born to a Chinese
family (Mr. and Mrs. Wang) in China but raised by an
American family (Mr. and Mrs. Green) in the U.S.
(1) Mr. and Mrs. Wang like cats more than dogs. Mr.
and Mrs. Green like dogs more than cats.
Which will the child prefer?
(2) Mr. and Mrs. Wang are short. Mr. and Mrs. Green
are tall.Which will the child be?
(3) Mr. and Mrs. Wang are calm. Mr. and Mrs. Green
are anxious.Which will the child be?
(4) Mr. and Mrs. Wang believe that eating meat
is healthy. Mr. and Mrs. Green believe that eating
meat is unhealthy.Which will the child believe?
(5) Mr. and Mrs. Wang are better at soccer than swim-
ming. Mr. and Mrs. Green are better at swim-
ming than soccer.Which will the child be better at?
Vignette 2 (U.S-Born Target)
A child was born to an American family (Mr. and Mrs.
Louis) in the U.S., but adopted by a Chinese family (Mr.
and Mrs. Li). The child was brought to China when six
months old. The child grew up happy and well loved.
Please use the information below to make your best
guess about what characteristics this child would have at
your age. Remember, the child was born to an American
family (Mr. and Mrs. Louis) in the U.S. but raised by a
Chinese family (Mr. and Mrs. Li) in China.
(1) Mr. and Mrs. Louis like potato chips more than
candy. Mr. and Mrs. Li like candy more than potato
chips.Which will the child prefer?
(2) Mr. and Mrs. Louis are overweight. Mr. and Mrs. Li
are slim.Which will the child be?
(3) Mr. and Mrs. Louis are outgoing. Mr. and Mrs. Li
are shy.Which will the child be?
(4) Mr. and Mrs. Louis believe there is an afterlife. Mr.
and Mrs. Li believe there is no afterlife.
What will the child believe?
(5) Mr. and Mrs. Louis are better at music than the
computer. Mr. and Mrs. Li are better at the com-
puter than music.Which will the child be better at?
Appendix B
Social Essentialism Scale
Dimension Question
Discreteness Some groups have sharper boundaries than others. For some, membership is clear-cut, definite, and people either
belong to the group or they do not. For others, membership is more "fuzzy"; people belong to the group in
varying degrees. How clear cut is the boundary for the following group?
Naturalness Some groups exist naturally; we know about them because someone discovered them or because their existence
is evident to us all. Other groups are created artificially; they are invented by people.
To what extent do you think the following categories are natural?
Immutability For some categories, membership is easy to change; it is easy for members to leave the group, and nonmembers
to join. For other categories, membership is very difficult to change; it is almost impossible for members to
leave or nonmembers to join. How difficult is it to change the membership of the following group?
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
Essentialism, culture and study abroad 15
Appendix B (continued)
Dimension Question
Uniformity Some groups are very uniform; members are very similar to one another and have many features in common.
Other groups are not very uniform; members differ greatly from one another, and don’t share many
characteristics. To what extent are members of the following group uniform?
Informativeness Some categories are very informative; knowing that someone belongs to a particular category tells you a lot
about that person. Other categories are not informative; knowing that someone belongs to that category
doesn’t tell you much about them. To what extent is knowing the following category informative?
Inherence Some groups share an underlying essence; although members might have similarities and differences on the
surface, underneath they are basically the same. Other groups do not share an essence; although they may
share superficial characteristics, they vary underneath. To what extent do members from the following group
share something deep in common?
©2021 Asian Association of Social Psychology and John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd.
16 Yian Xu et al.
... Cultural belief systems may also shape the degree of essentialist thinking on a given dimension. For example, previous research has demonstrated that, as compared with American adults, Chinese adults scored lower on the naturalness scale of social essentialism (believing social groups are naturally formed instead of socially constructed) yet scored higher on the cohesiveness scale (believing social groups are uniform and homogeneous) (Coley et al., 2019;Xu, Li, & Coley, 2021). Further evidence revealed that these group differences were mediated by endorsement of individualistic values (predicting naturalness beliefs) and collectivistic values (predicting cohesiveness beliefs) (Coley et al., 2019;Xu, Wen, Zuo, & Rhodes, 2022). ...
... Essentialist thinking As hypothesized, Chinese 8th graders showed a greater tendency of essentializing biological species as homogeneous. This finding is consistent with prior cross-cultural research on social essentialism, where Chinese adults scored higher on group cohesiveness than U.S. adults (Coley et al., 2019;Xu et al., 2021). Increased perceptions of category homogeneity have been linked to interdependent self-construal in Chinese adults (Coley et al., 2019;Xu et al., 2022), and the current results are consistent with this effect of collectivist values pronounced in East Asian cultures. ...
... Unexpectedly, Chinese 8th graders also showed a greater level of essentialist thinking by assuming individual traits to be biologically inheritable and fixed at birth. This finding is inconsistent with previous evidence that demonstrates lower naturalness beliefs in Chinese adults regarding social categories (Coley et al., 2019;Xu et al., 2021). It is noticeable that nearly-one third of Chinese 8th graders indicated that a child would share the same belief (such as whether or not eating meat is healthy) with the child's birth parents even without growing up with them (as compared with less than 10% in the U.S. sample). ...
People spontaneously engage in systematic ways of thinking about biology such as human exceptionalism (the tendency of viewing human species as separate from nonhuman species), essentialism (the tendency of assuming category membership as determined by an underlying essence), and teleology (the tendency of seeing purpose as the cause). However, with the majority of past research drawn on Western samples, little is known about whether various types of intuitive biological thinking apply to non-Western contexts. To better understand the nature and cultural prevalence of intuitive biological thinking, we measured essentialist, teleological, and human exceptionalist thinking in a group of Chinese 8th graders. Results demonstrated the presence of all three types of intuitive biological thinking in Chinese middle schoolers, and comparisons with previously published data on U.S. 8th graders showed consistently less human exceptionalism and slightly higher essentialist thinking in China. As such, the current results highlight the prevalence of intuitive biological thinking in an East Asian sample while addressing the potential role of cultural inputs in shaping the way such thinking manifests.
... American students attending college in Hawaii showed decreased racial essentialism associated with diversity exposure (Pauker et al., 2018). Also, American international students studying abroad in China were less likely to consider personal traits as inherited from birth as compared with those who study locally in the U.S. homeland (Xu et al., 2021). Therefore, we expected diversity exposure to predict lower essentialist beliefs about social groups on both dimensions and in both cultures. ...
... As hypothesized, Chinese adults perceived higher group cohesiveness than American adults. Consistent with previous findings in American and Chinese adults' essentialist thinking about nationality (Xu et al., 2021) and a wide range of social categories (Coley et al., 2019), the current finding suggested a possible influence of traditional Chinese cultural values in highlighting group coherence. We found no cultural differences, however, on the naturalness dimension in the current sample, although previous research has indicated that American adults tend to have stronger naturalness beliefs than Chinese adults on social groups in general (Coley et al., 2019). ...
... The current research further identified several mediators explaining cultural differences on cohesiveness beliefs. Building on previous findings that Chinese adults had higher cohesiveness ratings than American adults (Coley et al., 2019;Xu et al., 2021), here, we examined what might underlie this difference by testing the extent to which these differences are mediated by collectivistic values. Using bootstrapping and structural equation modeling, we tested indirect effects of several potential mediators separately and simultaneously, confirming the theorized mediating role of collectivistic values and cognitive preferences (interpersonal connectedness and external causal attribution) in shaping essentialist perceptions on social groups. ...
People intuitively view some social groups (such as Black people, Muslims, and women) as having biological underpinnings and discrete boundaries. Essentialist beliefs about social groups shape how people view themselves and others, leading to a number of negative social consequences. Whereas previous research has demonstrated variations in social essentialism within some Western societies, less is known about how social essentialism manifests in East Asian cultures that have well-documented differences in social values and cognitive styles from Western cultures. The current research investigated cultural variations in social essentialist thinking in the United States and China to reveal how cultural ideologies and social belief systems shape people’s basic representations of the social world. Analyses revealed several cultural and social correlates of social essentialism both between and within the cultures and demonstrated the mediating role of collectivistic values in predicting cultural differences in essentialist beliefs about group coherence.
... Just like essentialism can shape (or justify) responses toward diversity, experiences with diversity also shape essentialist thinking. Changing sociocultural dynamics can influence individuals' lay beliefs about social groups (Xu et al., 2021). Individuals inhabiting a multicultural environment are likely to be exposed to diverse cultures, and experience intergroup contact. ...
... This effect became larger as a function of the amount of interracial contact experiences they reported. American students who studied abroad reported less essentialist thinking than American students who studied in the United States, although this effect was not observed among Chinese students who studied in the United States (Xu et al., 2021). It is possible that American students had more (or more positive) instances of intergroup contact than did Chinese students, although this was not directly assessed in the study. ...
Globalization has led to an increase in immigration and intercultural contact. As societies become increasingly diverse, the definition and boundaries of national identities are questioned and negotiated. In this chapter, I consider essentialism as an ideological tool that both dominant and subordinated populations use in the process of constructing racial/ethnic and national identities within diverse societies. Essentialism of social categories entails lay beliefs in a distinct and fixed nature that defines all members of a category, and distinguishes them from members of other categories. I discuss how people endorse or challenge essentialist ideas depending on their position within sociopolitical contexts characterized by high levels of immigration. Dominant groups may find diverse immigrant populations threatening, and may resort to essentialism in order to push them out of the boundaries of the nation, or force them to assimilate, whereas subordinated groups may use essentialist ideas strategically as they strive to achieve recognition of their own cultural identities while becoming part of a nation. Over time, inhabiting a multicultural society is likely to transform essentialist thinking tendencies across both groups, feeding back into patterns of intergroup relations. I end with a discussion of future trends that may shape essentialism and responses to diversity.
The present research examines whether identity essentialism, an important component of psychological essentialism, is a fundamental feature of human cognition. Across three studies (Ntotal = 1723), we report evidence that essentialist intuitions about the identity of kinds are culturally dependent, demographically variable, and easily malleable. The first study considered essentialist intuitions in 10 different countries spread across four continents. Participants were presented with two scenarios meant to elicit essentialist intuitions. Their answers suggest that essentialist intuitions vary dramatically across cultures. Furthermore, these intuitions were found to vary with gender, education, and across eliciting stimuli. The second study further examined whether essentialist intuitions are stable across different kinds of eliciting stimuli. Participants were presented with two different scenarios meant to elicit essentialist intuitions-the "discovery" and "transformation" scenarios. Their answers suggest that the nature of the eliciting stimuli influences whether or not people report essentialist intuitions. Finally, the third study demonstrates that essentialist intuitions are susceptible to framing effects. Keeping the eliciting stimulus (i.e., the scenario) constant, we show that the formulation of the question eliciting a judgment influences whether or not people have essentialist intuitions. Implications of these findings for identity essentialism and psychological essentialism, in general, are discussed.
Full-text available
Although team diversity is a focal research topic in mainstream organizational behavior research (Harrison & Klein, 2007; Williams & O’Reilly, 1998), only a limited number of team diversity studies from non-North American or European communities have been published in English-language journals. Through a review in Study 1, we noticed this puzzling lack of research on team diversity in China (see the statistics in Table 1), and we wonder whether team diversity is a salient and meaningful topic in Chinese organizations, and if it is, what diversity attributes are important for Chinese employees. In Study 2, we interviewed 92 employees working in 38 teams from nine companies in China and found that many employees experienced diversity (72.13%) in working groups, and considered diversity to be important and desirable (45.9%). The list of salient diversity attributes shared by Chinese employees often overlap with attributes studied in the extant literature, yet Chinese employees also articulated attributes that were rarely examined by researchers. In addition, we discovered how Chinese employees sometimes associate conflicts, one of the major working mechanisms of team diversity, with team dysfunctions and leadership incompetence, which makes team diversity a taboo topic in the workplace. We discussed the theoretical implications of our findings to team diversity research in Asia and practical implications for team diversity management in Chinese organizations.
Full-text available
Social essentialism is the intuitive assumption that members of social categories share underlying properties that determine category membership and cause observable regularities. We investigate cultural differences in social essentialism in the USA, Northern Ireland, and China. In Study 1, 106 undergraduates from the US and Northern Ireland rated 44 social categories on 9 scales representing distinct aspects of social essentialism. In Study 2, 157 undergraduates from the US and China rated 31 social categories on 6 scales. Results showed that a single two-component framework—describing variability in social categories with respect to perceived naturalness (objectivity, immutability) and cohesiveness (homogeneity, informativeness)—explained representations of social categories in all three cultures. Differences emerged as well; on average, American participants rated social categories as more natural and less cohesive than Northern Irish or Chinese participants. Moreover, specific social dimensions were seen as more natural in cultures where those dimensions had particular cultural salience (religion in Northern Ireland, home region in China). Together, these findings demonstrate cross-cultural similarities (a common two- component framework for representing social kinds, a common way to essentialize historically salient social dimensions) and differences (in the general extent to which social categories were perceived to be natural and cohesive) across disparate cultural groups.
Full-text available
Children display an “essentialist” bias in their everyday thinking about social categories. However, the degree and form of this bias varies with age and with the nature of the categories, as well as across cultures. This project investigated the development of the essentialist bias across five social categories (i.e., gender, nationality, religious affiliation, socioeconomic status (rich/poor), and sports‐team supporter) in two countries. Children between 5 and 10 years of age in Turkey (Study 1, N = 74) and the United States (Study 2, N = 73), as well as adults in both countries (Study 3, N = 223), participated. Results indicate surprising cross‐cultural parallels with respect to both the rank ordering of essentialist thinking across these five categories and increasing differentiation among them over development.
Full-text available
Concepts of national groups (e.g., Americans, Canadians) are an important source of identity and meaning in people’s lives. Here, we provide a developmental investigation of these concepts. Across three studies involving 5- to 8-year-olds and adults in the United States, we found that (1) compared to older children and adults, young children were more likely to think that national groups have a biological basis, but that (2) other aspects of national group concepts—such as the idea that national group membership is stable and informative about a person—changed less with development. Moreover, with age, the notion that membership in a national group is a meaningful fact about a person (vs. a mere formality) began to link up with attitudes that rationalized the national ingroup’s economic advantages and portrayed it as superior to national outgroups. This work contributes to theory on the development of social cognition and provides a unique source of insight into current political trends.
Similarity and analogy are fundamental in human cognition. They are crucial for recognition and classification, and have been associated with scientific discovery and creativity. Successful learning is generally less dependent on the memorization of isolated facts and abstract rules than it is on the ability to identify relevant bodies of knowledge already stored as the starting point for new learning. Similarity and analogy play an important role in this process - a role that in recent years has received much attention from cognitive scientists. Any adequate understanding of similarity and analogy requires the integration of theory and data from diverse domains. This interdisciplinary volume explores current developments in research and theory from psychological, computational, and educational perspectives, and considers their implications for learning and instruction. Well-known cognitive scientists examine the psychological processes involved in reasoning by similarity and analogy, the computational problems encountered in simulating analogical processing in problem solving, and the conditions promoting the application of analogical reasoning in everyday situations.
Given current global migration patterns, understanding of children's intuitions about nationality and national categories is an important and emerging focus for developmental psychologists. We review theoretical and empirical work on three different types of intuition: (1) that nationality is primarily determined by ancestry (an ethnic intuition); (2) that nationality is determined by commitment to national institutions (a civic intuition); and (3) that membership in a national category is determined by possession of an invisible essence which explains the similarities between members of that category. We examine assumptions about the relations which hold between all three intuitions and derive a series of questions about how these intuitions develop, how they relate to each other, and how they might be affected by children's experience. We describe a study (N = 196) suggesting that (1) most children, regardless of experience, possess elements of both ethnic and civic intuitions, and (2) essentialist intuitions about national categories decrease with age and are not associated with ethnic intuitions. We conclude by outlining the implications of these results and a number of important questions which they raise.
We argue that category structure consists of two dimensions: Naturalness and kindhood. This contrasts with competing models that propose a single dimension like “essentialism” or “causal complexity.” Study 1-2: Participants rated diverse categories on aspects of category structure. Exploratory factor analysis revealed two factors corresponding to naturalness and kindhood Study 3: Participants learned one aspect of category structure about a novel category. Participants made more within-factor inferences than between-factor. Study 4-5: Naturalness and kindhood made unique predictions. For example, in a model containing both kindhood and naturalness, only kindhood strongly and reliably predicted diverse forms of racism. We argue that treating category structure as a single dimension leads to information loss and distort conclusions. In theory and methodology, two-dimensions is better than one.