Recently, Yian Xu, PhD, a former doctorate student in the CORE Lab and current postdoctoral researcher at New York University, Xuan Li, from NYU Shanghai, and Dr. John D Coley, the principal investigator of the CORE Lab, published a study in the Asian Journal of Social Psychology investigating essentialist beliefs about nationality in participants from the United States and China. 

In recent years, nationality borders have been increasingly rigid both physically and psychologically. The rigid physical borders are apparent through actions such as the “Trump Wall” between the United States and Mexico. Psychological biases have been exhibited through events such as the controversy that arose after the 2015 Miss Japan contest, where there was much debate as to whether the mixed-race woman without “pure” Japanese blood could represent their nation. This may be in part due to the tendency for humans to endorse psychological essentialism, the cognitive bias to represent concepts as sharing underlying properties that give rise to observable regularities. Much research on psychological essentialism has focused on concepts including race and gender, but the essentialism of nationality is largely untouched. 

Xu sought to understand whether young adults growing up in the U.S. and China would show different patterns of essentialist thinking about national groups, and whether young adults who have studied abroad are less likely to essentialize national groups than those without study abroad experience.

This study obtained data from 290 college students studying domestically and internationally, with cultural origins from either the United States or China. These students completed various tasks that served as measures of essentialism about nationality.

Consistent with findings of previous studies, this study revealed that American students with study abroad experience were less essentialist in their responses, as compared to American students without study abroad experience. Unexpectedly, students from China that studied abroad were more essentialist in their responses, and became progressively more essentialist the longer they studied in the U.S. When asked about why this might be, Xu mentioned that students from the U.S. and China may have differing motivations to study abroad. Xu speculates that students from the U.S. seek cultural experiences when studying abroad, whereas students from China often seek education and opportunity.

Xu states many directions for future research, one of which involves a longitudinal study to gain insight into the reasons why students’ essentialist beliefs are changing. Xu also hopes to understand the consequences of essentializing nationality. When speaking about the impacts of this type of research, Xu suggests that this research can give insight into the experiences of students studying abroad. Additionally, researchers can assess the potential benefits of study abroad programs as a tool to influence basic cognitive tendencies toward essentialist thinking about people who are different from us, and thereby promote positive international relations. 

Xu, Y., Li, X., Coley, J. D. (2021). How essentialist beliefs about national groups differ by cultural origin and study abroad experience among Chinese and American college students. Asian Journal of Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1111/ajsp.12456