The Effects of Gender Neuroessentialism on Transprejudice: An Experimental Study
Exposure to essentialist ideas that ground the male/female binary in biology may lead to more prejudice against transgender people, whereas exposure to ideas that question such essentialist claims may help counteract this prejudice.
Essentialism is the belief that categories have “essences”. For example, an essentialist belief about gender may claim that if a person is a woman, then she would favor the color pink over blue and may not be knowledgeable about football or sports in general. Essentialist beliefs, when applied to social categories, carry social consequences. Recent research has shown that people who hold essentialist beliefs about gender are more likely to perceive larger gender differences and to endorse gender stereotypes, such as the stereotype that women have less aptitude for math and science.
One type of essentialist belief is neuroessentialism, which asserts that there are fundamental differences between the male brain and the female brain, and that such differences can be explained using biological and neurological factors exclusively.
While there is ample research about the relationship between essentialist beliefs and gender discrimination among cisgender women and men, or people whose personal identity and gender corresponds with their birth sex, there is limited research focusing on the relationship between essentialist beliefs and stereotyping and prejudice against transgender people. In this study, researchers investigate whether exposure to beliefs that support or question neuroessentialism about gender can impact a person’s prejudice against transgender people.
Exposure to essentialist ideas that ground the male/female binary in biology may lead to more prejudice against transgender people, whereas exposure to ideas that question such essentialist claims may help counteract transprejudice.
- People exposed to essentialist ideas that explain gender difference using biological and neurological factors alone were more likely to have stronger and more negative prejudicial views towards transgender people, compared to people who were not exposed to such views.
- People who were exposed to ideas that challenged essentialist views about male and female biology and neurology, and instead explained gender differences based on the interaction of biological and environmental factors, were much less likely to endorse prejudicial views towards transgender people.
- These people (who were exposed to ideas that challenged essentialism) responded with a level of prejudicial views that were similar to people who were not exposed to any views about gender.
This finding suggests that a possible way to combat neuroessentialism—and by extension, combat prejudice against transgender people—is to expose people to views that are critical of essentialist ideas about sex and gender differences and that give a more complex account of the relationship between our brains and environmental factors. Such anti-essentialist ideas could inoculate people against being primed by essentialist thinking and may undermine the potential negative impact of exclusively biological explanations of sex and gender.
Researchers randomly assigned 132 Chinese college students to one of three groups for this study. The first group was the “biological determinist” group, which was assigned to read an article that explained sex differences in personality and social behavior through neurological factors alone. The second group was the “interactionist” group, which was assigned to read an article that questioned deterministic claims and explained that sex differences in personality and social behavior arise from interactions between one’s biology and the environment. The third group was the “control” group, which was assigned to read an article that was unrelated to gender. The “biological determinist” group was designed to “prime” participants with deterministic ways of explaining gender, thereby making such beliefs more accessible in the participants’ minds. The “interactionist” group was designed to weaken people’s beliefs in biological determinism.
Participants completed the study in two parts. In the first part, they were asked to read their assigned article and then answer 12 True-False questions to check their reading comprehension. In the second part, they answered questions that assessed their level of stereotyping and prejudicial views towards transgender people, such as writing the terms they associate with transgender people, and rating their level of agreement with statements about transgender people (such as “I would feel comfortable if I learned that my neighbor was a transgender individual” or “transgenderism endangers the institution of the family”).