Selection of Dalai Lama reveals psychological essentialism in non-western culture

the 14th Dalai Lama as a boyIf 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.

Link to full-text of letter to TICS (via Paul Bloom’s lab website).
Link to Wikipedia entry on essentialism.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

4 thoughts on “Selection of Dalai Lama reveals psychological essentialism in non-western culture”

  1. My guess: The bureaucrats knew which items were authentic, and the boy responded to their body language. (Like < HREF="" REL="nofollow">Clever Hans<>, the horse.) Or maybe it was just chance.

  2. The Tibetian Bureaucrats did not believe those items had any mystical essence, they believed the young Dalai Lama could remember his belongings from his past life. Essentialism of any type (physical, or psychological) is counter to any Buddhist beliefs. The Bureaucrats believed that the Dalai Lama had the training and wisdom to control and guide his own reincarnation. What they were doing was saying “if you really are the Dalai Lama, prove it by demonstrating knowledge that a random child would not know”. This is bad science (actually it’s beyond bad science…. it’s bad social commentary). Gelman and Bloom have completely misinterpreted the intent behind the bureaucrats actions, and as a result, drew erroneous conclusions from that.

  3. Errr… Since when have the Tibetan bureaucrats ever believed that those objects were imbued with some mystical essence?If those psychologists can’t even get their facts straight about the premise, then their conclusion is irrelevant.The point of the child choosing the right objects is to see if the child remembers which objects were his in a previous life.Now, we could argue that the boy is very good at reading people, and that is how he chose the right objects, or we can believe that he really does remember them. But that is another debate entirely. Either way, these psychologists have missed the point and therefore proved nothing, or at least have chosen a bad example.And since when has Buddhism be essentialistic, anyway? Last time I checked, it was more the opposite.I’m all for putting myths to bed in favor of logic and science, but you need to get the right interpretation. These psychologists didn’t.

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