A Caltech Library Service

Dichotomous thinking about social groups: Learning about one group can activate opposite beliefs about another group

Kramer, Hannah J. and Goldfarb, Deborah and Tashjian, Sarah M. and Hansen Lagattuta, Kristin (2021) Dichotomous thinking about social groups: Learning about one group can activate opposite beliefs about another group. Cognitive Psychology, 129 . Art. No. 101408. ISSN 0010-0285. doi:10.1016/j.cogpsych.2021.101408.

[img] PDF - Published Version
Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

[img] MS Word (Supplementary data) - Supplemental Material
Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.


Use this Persistent URL to link to this item:


Across three studies (N = 607), we examined people’s use of a dichotomizing heuristic—the inference that characteristics belonging to one group do not apply to another group—when making judgments about novel social groups. Participants learned information about one group (e.g., “Zuttles like apples”), and then made inferences about another group (e.g., “Do Twiggums like apples or hate apples?”). Study 1 acted as a proof of concept: Eight-year-olds and adults (but not 5-year-olds) assumed that the two groups would have opposite characteristics. Learning about the group as a generic whole versus as specific individuals boosted the use of the heuristic. Study 2 and Study 3 (sample sizes, methods, and analyses pre-registered), examined whether the presence or absence of several factors affected the activation and scope of the dichotomizing heuristic in adults. Whereas learning about or treating the groups as separate was necessary for activating dichotomous thinking, intergroup conflict and featuring only two (versus many) groups was not required. Moreover, the heuristic occurred when participants made both binary and scaled decisions. Once triggered, adults applied this cognitive shortcut widely—not only to benign (e.g., liking apples) and novel characteristics (e.g., liking modies), but also to evaluative traits signaling the morals or virtues of a social group (e.g., meanness or intelligence). Adults did not, however, extend the heuristic to the edges of improbability: They failed to dichotomize when doing so would attribute highly unusual preferences (e.g., disliking having fun). Taken together, these studies indicate the presence of a dichotomizing heuristic with broad implications for how people make social group inferences.

Item Type:Article
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription
Kramer, Hannah J.0000-0002-6468-3264
Goldfarb, Deborah0000-0002-3769-8137
Tashjian, Sarah M.0000-0002-0946-6662
Hansen Lagattuta, Kristin0000-0001-8276-4319
Additional Information:© 2021 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Under a Creative Commons license - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) Received 4 August 2020, Revised 19 April 2021, Accepted 22 June 2021, Available online 27 July 2021. This research was funded by an internal grant to KHL. While working on this manuscript, HJK was supported by the Predoctoral Training Consortium in Affective Science from the National Institute of Mental Health (201302291), DG was supported by the National Science Foundation (2031043), and SMT was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (2016207607). DG and SMT were affiliated with the University of California, Davis when we collected the data for Study 1. We thank the individuals who participated. We also thank the Mind-Emotion Development Lab. Portions of this research were presented at the Biennial Meeting of the Cognitive Development Society in Portland, Oregon (2017), and at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in New Orleans, Louisiana (2020).
Funding AgencyGrant Number
University of California, DavisUNSPECIFIED
NIH Predoctoral Fellowship201302291
NSF Graduate Research Fellowship2016207607
Subject Keywords:Social cognition; Categories; Generic language; Development; Heuristics
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20210908-171144483
Persistent URL:
Official Citation:Hannah J. Kramer, Deborah Goldfarb, Sarah M. Tashjian, Kristin Hansen Lagattuta, Dichotomous thinking about social groups: Learning about one group can activate opposite beliefs about another group, Cognitive Psychology, Volume 129, 2021, 101408, ISSN 0010-0285,
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:110784
Deposited By: George Porter
Deposited On:08 Sep 2021 17:36
Last Modified:08 Sep 2021 17:36

Repository Staff Only: item control page