"Psychological essentialism in selecting the 14th Dalai Lama"

There's an interesting short paper by Paul Bloom and Susan Gelman in the July issue of Trends in Cognitive Science with that title. Unfortunately, it's not yet available without a subscription (though Bloom tends to put his papers on his website once published, so it might show up there sometime in the near future), but if you have a subscription or access to a university library, you can read it here.

If you're not familiar with the idea, "psychological essentialism" is the belief that entities have an internal set of necessary properties, or an essence, that make them what they are. For example, people tend to believe that there's something about tigers (their DNA, perhaps) that make them tigers. There's a great deal of evidence that people are "psychological essentialists" about natural kinds (animals, elements, that sort of thing), and a growing body of evidence that we tend to be psychological essentialists when it comes to certain social categories as well, like gender, race, and sexual orientation.

Bloom and Gelman relate the story of the selection of the 14th Dalai Lama, in which those doing the selection presented a child with objects that the 13th Dalai Lama had owned, as well as similar objects, and observed which of the objects the child selected. Since he picked all of the objects that had belonged to the Dalai Lama, he was chosen to be the 14th, and current Dalai Lama. They conclude:

Our point here is not that the authentic objects were actually imbued with the essence of the 13th Dalai Lama (a metaphysical question that is beyond the scope of our inquiry). What matters is that the Tibetan bureaucrats believed that the objects were. Hence they constructed a procedure that presupposes the existence of invisible essences - essences that require special powers to perceive - and used this procedure to make a decision of major importance. We take this as evidence of the ubiquity, naturalness and importance of psychological essentialism. (p. 243)

Bloom, P. & Gelman, S.A. (2008). Psychological essentialism in selecting the 14th Dalai Lama. Trends in Cognitive Science, 12(7), 243.

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They're wrong about the Tibetan bureaucrats presupposing anything about the particular objects.

The rationale for the procedure is that they believe a high lama like the Dalai Lama would remember things from his previous life and thus would recognize the objects that were his because he would remember using and owning them.

It has nothing to do with the objects themselves being imbued with anything mysterious.

I feel quite embarassed for them to have said such a blatantly wrong interpretation, as it shows they didn't even bother to do the most basic research on the origins of the testing procedures that Tibetans use for their lamas. Very shoddy!

Wow, yes, I agree with Joseph here; this was a badly chosen example. As Joseph notes, the reason they use this procedure, when feasible, is that the Dalai Lama is supposed to be a reincarnated Tulku; which means that he would bear some memory of his former lives. And since they are Buddhists, it is very unlikely that they would deliberately construct a procedure for identifying the Dalai Lama that was based on "the existence of invisible essences" -- Buddhists think that 'essences' are dangerous illusions of the mind, that nothing has independent and objective reality, that there are really no necessary properties. They recognize, of course, that we tend to assume (in their view falsely) that there are; they hold that this is unfortunate and a contributing factor to prejudice, craving, and suffering. And yet they are supposed to be positing some invisible essence of the Dalai Lama himself!?

This is not difficult to find out, and before publishing about a Buddhist practice one would think that they would have taken the trouble to do the (very basic) research required to figure out what Buddhists actually believe. I confess, this sloppiness will seriously make me worry about Bloom's credibility elsewhere.

While I'm not a psychologist, I believe that Joseph and Brandon have missed the forest for the trees. The terms "imbue" and "essence" may be unfortunate in this example, but the point is still the same. It is "essential" to being the Dalai Lama that the Dalai Lama be able to transfer memories from one incarnation to the next. If you cannot select the items owned by the previous Dalai Lama, then you are not the Dalai Lama. Whether it is the items that carry the memory or the incarnation that carries the memory is irrelevant in a discussion of this particular concept.

Our point here is not that the authentic objects were actually imbued with the essence of the 13th Dalai Lama (a metaphysical question that is beyond the scope of our inquiry). What matters is that the Tibetan bureaucrats believed that the objects were.

Eric, I think your response misses the point. Perhaps what you said is what the authors should have said, but it certainly isn't what they did say and isn't what they meant either.

Read the two sentences quoted above slowly a few times. They make an extremely simple statement that leaves no room for ambiguity regarding what they think Tibetan bureaucrats believe. It turns out that this statement about what they believe is absolutely false, which prompts the question, "how did they get this false idea?"

They certainly didn't get it from any kind of a scholarly account of the procedures (of which there are plenty) as they should have done. I suspect that they had some vague notion of high lamas (tulkus) being tested with objects their supposed former selves owned, and then they invented (i.e. fabricated) what sounded to them like a plausible rationale for the procedures and stated that "Tibetan bureacrats" believe the fabrication.

This criticism may not be relevant to the particular point they were trying to make in the paper as a whole, but it shows they were sloppy in this instance (and perhaps fabricated their explanation because they were too lazy to consult the scholarly literature). That is a relevant point in and of itself, even if it doesn't relate to their main thesis.


In addition to Joseph's point, I'm not really clear on how merely attributing the fact of remembering -- which on the Buddhist view is (and would have to be) quite literally all that is going on -- is supposed to presuppose psychological essentialism, which is what we would have to suppose in order to continue to claim that the procedure is "evidence of the ubiquity, naturalness and importance of psychological essentialism". That certainly seems a much thinner concept than most cognitive scientists who use the phrase seem to be going for. So it would seem that either evidence for 'psychological essentialism' is so easy to find that an argument for its ubiquity is inevitably trivial (any instance of memory would have done just as well, and cognitive scientists across the globe must have hundreds of millions of examples ready at hand), or they are wrong that this is an instance of such evidence.

But in any case, it's bad anthropology; and one of the things that puzzles me is how they could be so wrong about something so easy to find out, when, given its role in their argument, and given that they were actually publishing it, it would have been so natural to double-check it.

You guys are getting in a fluster over a point that Paul and Susan address in their short piece. The objects that the boy was believed to have selected were chosen from identical looking items. Hence it had to be based on the intrinsic property of the item... not what it looked like. It was more than memory, the boy was believed to the ability to detect the items imbued with essence.


By bruce hood (not verified) on 04 Jul 2008 #permalink


While I'm not familiar with the philosophy behind the selecting procedure, "identical looking items" is exactly the point: within Buddhism there are no identical objects; the imitation is exactly that, an imitation. Thus to see the individual object among "identical looking items" shows a sensitivity to the individuality of phenomena, that there is in fact a difference in being between the 'original' and the 'fake' that the Dalai Lama would be sensitive to. While 'memory' may play a part, I think this would also be an 'essential' aspect of the choice.

Along with Paul and Joseph, I think the use of the term "essence", especially when this is given in reference to a "metaphysic" that is somehow Buddhist, is a huge problem in the authors analysis and is far from innocuous. Once you bring in the notion of shunyata/emptiness, the claim that Buddhism (at least in the form practiced by the current Dalai Lama) is giving some sort of essentialist account is simply false. In fact, it's hard to get more anti-essentialist than Buddhism (unless you go the nihilistic route).



No, this is exactly how memory works on typical Buddhist views of memory. On the Buddhist view there is no self to carry or transfer memories; so what makes these memories yours is just that the occur in a particular context. Indeed, this is the way everything works in Buddhist metaphysics: thinks are constantly destroyed and originated, so, say, the Dalai Lama's object is the Dalai Lama's not because there is any intrinsic property but because this particular object has a set of extrinsic relations to a stream of former 'past selves' going back to the Dalai Lama. That is, what makes this the Dalai Lama's object is merely that it has a continuous history that connects it to the Dalai Lama. Precisely one of the features of a high lama, though, is that, being less mired in the cycle of birth and rebirth, he has a more sensitive memory for the individual histories of things.

There's an old joke about a journalist going to see a farmer who was said to own Lincoln's old ax. When he saw it, he said to the farmer, "What's really remarkable is that it still looks brand new." And the farmer replied, "It should; the handle has been replaced three times and the head twice." One might say that on the Buddhist view everything is like Lincoln's ax. What makes it Lincoln's is nothing about the ax and everything about its history.

Brandon & Kevin,
I think the confusion is the word essence... All that Bloom & Gelman are saying is that there is a belief that there is an invisible property that is unique to an individual object and one which can be identified by the previous owner. I don't know about Buddhist metaphysics or models of memory but the reports do sound very much in the realms of essentialist thinking as reported.

By the way, there are two types of essentialism recognised in Western philosophy including haecceity and quiddity.

I like the ax story but I would argue that if the ax had been used to kill someone, then even though all the parts had been replaced you would still be reluctant to hold it.. Where in the history of the ax is this murder?

"SuperSense: Why We Believe the Unbelievable"

It's not about memory from past lives. In their paper they discuss the boy selecting a plain drum (the authentic one) over an ornate drum. They quote a source who wrote: "Thus, the boy demonstrated his occult powers, which were capable of revealing the most secret phenomena." Remembering which of two very different items you once owned would not typically be described as an occult power. The powers in question obviously refer to discerning "the most secret phenomena," e.g. invisible essences.


Remembering which of two different items you once owned would certainly be described as an occult power if you have not owned them in this lifetime but only in a former lifetime.

That is exactly the scenario under consideration here.

Remembering which of two different items you once owned would certainly be described as an occult power if you have not owned them in this lifetime but only in a former lifetime.

It's only an occult power in certain views. In Buddhism, this is just a normal part of how things work -- no special powers. To the Dalai Lama, or any Buddhist for that matter, remembering a past life is not really that different to remembering something from your childhood. Ignoring the specifics, essentialism isn't really a Buddhist concept in the first place. The people who did the research for this study should have known that before trying to say anything about a specific ritual in a specific sect of Buddhism. Instead, they didn't do their homework, or didn't care about what they were saying about some antiquated religious ritual, and now they come off looking a bit stupid. It's certainly not very scientific.

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