Character  &  Context

The Inherence Heuristic in Explanation May Be at the Root of Several Social Psychological Phenomena

Image of a crowd of people stretching their arms in the air to take photos with their phones and cameras

By Erika Salomon

Everyone knows the Mona Lisa. It is, perhaps, the most iconic piece of art in the world. But why is it so famous? If you are like many people, you will begin your search for an explanation of the painting’s fame by recalling what you know about good art and about the Mona Lisa. Good art is masterful, and Leonardo da Vinci is a master. Good art fascinates and challenges us, and the Mona Lisa’s expression is a puzzle for us to unlock.

But what if the painting’s fame were merely an accident of history? Until 1911, the Mona Lisa simply wasn’t very well known, just a minor painting in the Louvre’s vast collection. But when a museum employee walked off with the portrait, the theft—and the two-year saga of its solving—brought the Mona Lisa into the popular consciousness. Duncan Watts argues compellingly that this event created a self-sustaining cycle of popularity: the painting’s fame makes it an easy reference, and the frequent references keep the painting famous.

That our first instinct in explaining the Mona Lisa’s iconic status is to ignore this kind of historical story may be a clue to the way we approach explanation more generally. In a forthcoming paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, Andrei Cimpian and I argue that people approach explanation in much the same way they approach other tasks requiring cognitive effort: using a fast heuristic that capitalizes on easily accessible information, assembling these bits of information into a sensible story. As soon as a satisfactory story (such as, “the Mona Lisa is popular because her expression captures our attention”) comes to mind, we move on to something else.

We named this process the inherence heuristic because this way of going about explanation biases the stories people come up with in an interesting way. Specifically, the information people are most likely to recall about the objects they are explaining (the Mona Lisa and art, in this example) tend to be what we called inherent features—those things that constitute the objects, such as their perceptual properties (theMona Lisa’s smile), physical properties (the oil paint used in creating the image), and so on.

People are likely to ignore extrinsic—historical, cultural, and so on—forces simply because they are exposed to them less frequently than inherent features. People see what the Mona Lisa looks like much more than they hear the story of its theft a hundred years ago. Such facts, even if someone might have encountered them before, will require more effort to recall, and putting in the effort to recall them doesn’t seem worthwhile once that person already has an explanation constructed. Why fix what’s not broken?

Of course, some searches for an explanation will lead people to use these extrinsic factors. Extrinsic information may be highly accessible when people are explaining their own behavior (as noted in the actor-observer bias in attribution), when they have expert knowledge about the subject of the explanation, or when they have already heard a compelling extrinsic explanation. And, as with other heuristics, people may also be willing to spend more time or effort on overriding their intuitive explanations when they are motivated for accuracy, when they are not cognitively busy, or when they are just the sorts of people who like to think deeply about things.

In our BBS paper, we argue that this shortcut to explanation may serve as a common foundation for a number of social psychological phenomena, from how people categorize and think about social groups (psychological essentialism) to how they make inferences based on others’ behavior (the correspondence bias) to why they accept inequality (system justification). In each case, we observe the tendency to attribute the present state of the world (girls wear pink, John was late to our meeting, the children of rich parents grow up to make more money) to the underlying, inherent properties of the entities involved (girl DNA makes girls like pink, John is lazy, rich kids are born smarter and harder working).

Consider the example of psychological essentialism. When children first start asking questions about why social categories have the properties they do, they don’t have the kind of complex understanding of sociological and economic forces that would lead them to attribute these patterns to cultural influences. For example, in explaining why girls wear pink, they are unlikely to think of socialization and marketing campaigns that encourage strong gender divisions and reinforce the girl-pink pairing. Instead, they likely rely on highly accessible stereotypical information about girls to do the explaining: Girls are delicate like flowers; pink is a common color for flowers; pink is a good color for girls because it matches their delicate nature.

As children repeatedly make these kinds of inferences about different social categories, they may develop the intuition that social categories like gender have underlying properties that determine what they are like. This intuition may be integrated with the kinds of biological knowledge that children learn (about hormones, DNA, brains, blood, etc.) into beliefs that are generally called psychological essentialism: the idea that social categories are based in biologically real and natural “essences” (e.g., girl DNA) that cause their external properties (e.g., liking pink, being delicate). In a  paper we recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Andrei and I provide some evidence that use of the inherence heuristic is causally linked to psychological essentialism in adults, and ongoing research in our lab suggests that the same relationship holds for children.

Similar evidence is emerging from our lab regarding the sources of the correspondence bias and system justification. We find that these phenomena are linked to reliance on the inherence heuristic in both children and adults, suggesting a common source for several psychological phenomena. The search for explanations is a fundamental component of our experience, making the inherence heuristic a pervasive and influential feature of human cognition.


Erika Salomon (@ecsalomon) is a PhD candidate in social psychology at the University of Illinois whose work focuses on the role of heuristics in social judgment and decision-making.

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