Essentialism: Assigning Arbitrary Value

This article from Why We Reason explains (briefly) why people will assign seemingly disproportional value to objects – like celebrities auctioning off their crap for crazy prices.

Bloom’s idea is that we are all essentialists. That is, we pay special attention to the history of an object – where it has been, what it has touched, and who has touched it. As Bloom explains, we subscribe to “the notion that things have an underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly and it is this hidden nature that really matters.” And, moreover, “the pleasure we get from many things and activities is based in part on what we see as their essences.”

McNerney: So evolution did not favor people who weren’t able to think as essentialists?

Bloom: Yes, think about what a disadvantage it would be if you only assess things as they are. Here’s the interesting part, you could argue that humans have taken it too far. We are so caught up in history that we collect irrelevant things. We care about the difference between an original and a forgery.

The explanation is a bit sparse for my liking, but it’s a start. I especially liked one of the things he says: “Bringing in the evolutionary explanation is always helpful and interesting.” I feel like the evolutionary explanation of biology or psychology isn’t always intuitive, but it’s important and informative to always remember the sort of ultimate “why” behind everything about us.


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