Language Signaling High Proportions and Generics Lead to Generalizing, but not Essentializing, for Novel Social Kinds

Elena Hoicka*, Jennifer Saul, Eloise Prouten, Laura Whitehead, Rachel Sterken

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
28 Downloads (Pure)


Generics (e.g., “Dogs bark”) are thought by many to lead to essentializing: to assuming that members of the same category share an internal property that causally grounds shared behaviors and traits, even without evidence of such a shared property. Similarly, generics are thought to increase generalizing, that is, attributing properties to other members of the same group given evidence that some members of the group have the property. However, it is not clear from past research what underlies the capacity of generic language to increase essentializing and generalizing. Is it specific to generics, or are there broader mechanisms at work, such as the fact that generics are terms that signal high proportions? Study 1 (100 5-6 year-olds, 140 adults) found neither generics, nor high proportion quantifiers (“most”, “many”) elicited essentializing about a novel social kind (Zarpies). However, both generics and high proportion quantifiers led adults and, to a lesser extent, children, to generalize, with high proportion quantifiers doing so more than generics for adults. Specifics (“this”) did not protect against either essentializing or generalizing when compared to the quantifier “some.” Study 2 (100 5-6 year-olds, 112 adults) found neither generics nor visual imagery signaling high proportions led to essentializing. While generics increased generalizing compared to specifics and visual imagery signaling both low and high proportions for adults, there was no difference in generalizing for children. Our findings suggest high proportion quantifiers, including generics, lead adults, and to some extent children, to generalize, but not essentialize, about novel social kinds.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13051
JournalCognitive Science
Issue number11
Early online date10 Nov 2021
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 10 Nov 2021

Structured keywords

  • SoE Centre for Psychological Approaches for Studying Education


  • Generics
  • Quantifiers
  • Essentializing
  • Stereotype
  • Prejudice


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