The inherence heuristic: An intuitive means of making sense of the world, and a potential precursor to psychological essentialism

Andrei Cimpian, Erika Salomon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We propose that human reasoning relies on an inherence heuristic, an implicit cognitive process that leads people to explain observed patterns (e.g., girls wear pink) predominantly in terms of the inherent features of their constituents (e.g., pink is a delicate color). We then demonstrate how this proposed heuristic can provide a unified account for a broad set of findings spanning areas of research that might at first appear unrelated (e.g., system justification, nominal realism, is-ought errors in moral reasoning). By revealing the deep commonalities among the diverse phenomena that fall under its scope, our account is able to generate new insights into these phenomena, as well as new empirical predictions. A second main goal of this article, aside from introducing the inherence heuristic, is to articulate the proposal that the heuristic serves as a foundation for the development of psychological essentialism. More specifically, we propose that essentialism - which is the common belief that natural and social categories are underlain by hidden, causally powerful essences - emerges over the first few years of life as an elaboration of the earlier, and more open-ended, intuitions supplied by the inherence heuristic. In the final part of the report, we distinguish our proposal from competing accounts (e.g., Strevens's K-laws) and clarify the relationship between the inherence heuristic and related cognitive tendencies (e.g., the correspondence bias). In sum, this article illuminates a basic cognitive process that emerges early in life and is likely to have profound effects on many aspects of human psychology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)461-480
Number of pages20
JournalBehavioral and Brain Sciences
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 12 2014


  • correspondence bias
  • development
  • essentialism
  • explanation
  • inherence heuristic
  • is-ought problem
  • nominal realism
  • system justification

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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