Depending on your political viewpoints, the recent passing of Prop 8 in California is either a huge disappointment or sigh of relief. With debate about same-sex marriages fresh in people's minds, I thought I'd discuss some social science research findings that attempt to explain people's support or opposition towards gay rights.
From a very early age, all of us to learn how to relate to other people by placing them into social categories. For example, we put our parents and our siblings into the category of "family." Moms go into the category of "women" and fathers into the category of "men" (as you can probably tell from reading this blog, I am biased towards thinking that gender is the most fundamental social category we use to make sense of the world!). Cognitive scientists have studied extensively the processes that influence our categorizing behavior. However, only recently have psychologists begun to study how people think about categories themselves. The tendency to see categories as very fixed and stable is referred to as psychological essentialism. Psychologists have found that essentialist thinking can often lead to prejudice, as is this case with both gender and race. For example, the more that somebody thinks that women and men are essentially different from one another, the more likely they are to endorse traditional gender roles. They are also more likely to stereotype people based on their gender. The same is true for race: beliefs in biological differences between races have been found to increase stereotyping.
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