Essentialist Beliefs About Bodily Transplants in the United States and India

Meredith Meyer, Sarah Jane Leslie, Susan A. Gelman, Sarah M. Stilwell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Psychological essentialism is the belief that some internal, unseen essence or force determines the common outward appearances and behaviors of category members. We investigated whether reasoning about transplants of bodily elements showed evidence of essentialist thinking. Both Americans and Indians endorsed the possibility of transplants conferring donors' personality, behavior, and luck on recipients, consistent with essentialism. Respondents also endorsed essentialist effects even when denying that transplants would change a recipient's category membership (e.g., predicting that a recipient of a pig's heart would act more pig-like but denying that the recipient would become a pig). This finding runs counter to predictions from the strongest version of the "minimalist" position (Strevens,2000), an alternative to essentialism. Finally, studies asking about a broader range of donor-to-recipient transfers indicated that Indians essentialized more types of transfers than Americans, but neither sample essentialized monetary transfer. This suggests that results from bodily transplant conditions reflect genuine essentialism rather than broader magical thinking.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)668-710
Number of pages43
JournalCognitive science
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Causal reasoning
  • Concepts
  • Culture
  • Psychological essentialism
  • Psychology


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