2020 William James Fellow

Susan A. Gelman

University of Michigan

Susan Gelman has achieved international renown for her work on essentialism, the theory that people categorize objects and ideas on the basis of underlying essential features that are not obvious on the surface. Crows and flamingos, for example, are both birds; however, they do not look at all alike. On the other hand, crows and bats resemble each other in many ways even though they do not share membership in the same essential category that crows and flamingos do.

In Gelman’s influential book The Essential Child, she asserts that a cognitive bias favoring essentialist thinking profoundly influences human behavior, including that of children. For example, Gelman has shown that children have an early, powerful tendency to search for hidden, non-obvious features of objects when they are learning words, generalizing knowledge to new category members, reasoning about the insides of things, and constructing causal explanations.

Across human languages, Gelman has identified generic noun phrases (e.g., “bats fly at night”) as building-blocks of essentialism. Children, she has shown, readily commit such phrases to memory. Gelman’s research and theories on essentialist thinking have spurred a revolution in developmental psychology, which previously had been dominated by the view that children primarily notice concrete, surface-level features of the objects around them.

A past Member of the APS Board of Directors, Gelman is known not only for her extraordinary research but also for her contributions to the field through service and mentoring. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences.