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Where Is the Essence? Developmental Shifts in Children’s Beliefs About Internal Features


  • This research was supported by a National Institutes of Health Grant RD37-HD023922 to Frank Keil. We thank the staff, parents, and students at Robert Healy Elementary School, The Barstow School, Oak Hill Elementary School, and Walter Derynoski Elementary. Special thanks to Patricia Balbas for testing the children, and to Woo-kyoung Ahn, Lance Rips, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript.

concerning this article should be addressed to George E. Newman, Department of Psychology, Yale University, New Haven, CT 06520-8205. Electronic mail may be sent to


The present studies investigated children’s and adults’ intuitive beliefs about the physical nature of essences. Adults and children (ranging in age from 6 to 10 years old) were asked to reason about 2 different ways of determining an unknown object’s category: taking a tiny internal sample from any part of the object (distributed view of essence) or taking a sample from one specific region (localized view of essence). Results from 3 studies indicated that adults strongly endorsed the distributed view, and children showed a developmental shift from a localized to distributed view with increasing age. These results suggest that even children go beyond mere placeholder notions of essence, committing to conceptual frameworks of how essences might be physically instantiated.