If you believe that there’s something inherently doggy about all dogs, or fishy about fish then you’re really indulging in a spot of psychological essentialism – the idea that entities are imbued with some kind of innate characteristic that marks them out as distinct. In one form this thinking can become mystical. Is there something special about Michael Jackson’s sequined glove or is it just a hand-shaped piece of material like any other glove? If you think it’s special then you’re seeing the history of the item as part of its essence.
The sentimentality we feel towards heirlooms or holiday souvenirs shows that even the more materialist among us can be prone to the occassional essentialist flutter. Now in a short letter to the journal Trends in Cognitive Science (TICS) the psychologists Paul Bloom and Susan Gelman have argued that the way the current Dalai Lama was selected demonstrates that essentialist belief is also apparent in non-Western cultures.
Referring to eye-witness accounts of the search for the 14th (current) Dalai Lama, Bloom and Gelman write:
“The relevant section concerns the testing of a particular two-year-old boy in his remote home village. A group of bureaucrats brought with them the belongings of the late 13th Dalai Lama, along with a set of inauthentic items that were similar or identical to these belongings. When presented with an authentic black rosary and a copy of one, the boy grabbed the real one and put it around his neck. When presented with two yellow rosaries, he again grasped the authentic one. When offered two canes, he at first picked up the wrong one, then after closer inspection he put it back and selected the one that had belonged to the Dalai Lama. He then correctly identified the authentic one of three quilts.”
The psychologists say their point isn’t that these objects were imbued with some mystical essence, but rather that the Tibetan bureaucrats believed they were. “We take this as evidence of the ubiquity, naturalness and importance of psychological essentialism,” they concluded.