“The sole act of naming something makes me believe it exists.”
Reification consists in thinking that a thing exists simply because it has been named, even though that is not necessarily the case. Res- is the Latin word for thing, and -ification is a derivative of facere, to do. Creating new ideas and concepts is a common process in the use of a language, but if one assumes that the object of thought exists without any further form of verification, one is the victim of the reification bias. Naming something does not actually make it exist. Because we are adept at using signs and symbols, humans may confuse idea with reality.
Although close to the essentialism bias, the reification bias is different: rather than overestimating the information that can be derived from membership in a social category, the bias causes us to believe in the existence of the category simply because we have named it. Thus, reification comes before essentialism, and can lead to it.
Use of the words race, or racism can instill the belief that races exist, even though biology has demonstrated that there are no discrete races among human beings. A related example: repeatedly discussing ghosts will lead some people to believe in them… In the educational milieu, the designation “poor student” (or “good student”) is a reification, insofar as research has shown that this category do not reflect reality : it is more accurate to speak of students with learning difficulties, who are lacking motivation or self-confidence.
Reification arises from the accumulation of knowledge and human experience found in language, which composes an intergenerational heritage that is not systematically called into question and can lead to “mistake our conceptualisations for the laws of the universe” . It is the consequence of a naïve vision of “reality”, and of ignorance of the role played by language and culture in human understanding, regardless of the facts. Pushed to the extreme, it is as if reality were composed merely of objects whose existence humans could only just notice and name with the right word – with no risk of being mistaken. This naïve vision supports the “performative magic”  of statements, like that which leads the villagers who took in mental patients, to refuse to eat from the same plate as “simpletons”, as if mental illness were contagious . And yet, it is precisely the fact of naming them differently which contributed to the suspicion among the villagers.
The bias is linked to the effects of repeated exposure to a message: by use of language, certain mental categories take precedence in our thoughts, making them more mentally available and their use more likely to explain our surroundings.
The bias is not necessarily linked to a single word – it can be evoked by a statement or a whole discourse. It can also be about the importance attributed to something: abundant use of the word “terrorism” will evoke fear, even though the chances of dying from a terrorist act are infinitely small. On the other hand, few people are afraid of salty foods, even though globally salt is one of the most important causes of premature mortality… In this way, the bias causes a distortion of our representation of the world, or certain of its characteristics – in the example above, it leads to an overestimation of risk, brought on by linguistic choices made by others.
The distortion of ideas varies from fairly anodyne seduction, to advertising, to manipulation using a careful selection of vocabulary that presents a coherent picture from which it is very difficult to extract oneself, and leading to a strong psychological hold. In this case, the bias also has influence on our value system. In the world of employment, for example, office managers may invent new terms – “Newspeak” – to instill false beliefs that work to their advantage: a bonus, for example, implies that workers are the winners, even though they are accepting an unstable mode of remuneration, a social pact that does not work in their favour .
Nonetheless, the same functionality related to words may also prove beneficial when the new terms actually allow one to think about things previously unknown, like germs or viruses. In that case, there would be no bias because the words refer to a phenomenon whose existence is verified by a scientific method.
Thoughts on how to act in light of this bias
It is very important to call into question the choice of words and images: what are we being asked to believe in? If the objects are imaginary, treat them as such!
In critical thinking, it is useful to test the terms used with alternatives for expressing the same idea, to become aware of an eventual reification.
How is this bias measured?
There is no concrete method to measure this bias. Reification is a cognitive bias caused by confusion among the parts of a sign: words, their meaning, and what they designate . The links between these parts allow for thought, language and communication, but being linkedis not the same as being identical. A reification bias can be recognized when the word is taken for the thing, or, as in the famous Chinese proverb, “When the wise man points to the moon, the fool looks at the finger.” Another hint that there is reification: when a term or proposition argues for itself, locking a controversial idea into one that is implicit and self-evident. For instance, in the phrase “eating pork”, the word “pork” may induce a reification indicating a difference between the food and the flesh of a pig, even though in reality there is no difference. The fact that faulty reasoning is only implicit in the phrase is what makes the bias so difficult to identify. One must allow oneself to call into question what seems to be merely a choice of vocabulary, and point out its problematic aspects.
This bias is discussed in the scientific literature:
This bias has social or individual repercussions:
This bias is empirically demonstrated:
 Grize, Jean-Blaise. (1996). Logique naturelle & communications. Presses Universitaires de France.
 Desombre, Caroline, Gérald Delelis, Laura Antoine, Marc Lachal, Françoise Gaillet, & E gène Urban. (2010). Comment des parents d’élèves et des enseignants spécialisés voient la réussite et la difficulté scolaires.” Revue Française de Pédagogie, 173: 5–18.
 Berger, Peter L, & Thomas Luckmann. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Open Road Media.
 Jodelet, Denise. (1989). Folies et représentations sociales. Presses Universitaires de France.
 Linhart, Danièle. (2021). L'insoutenable subordination des salariés. Éditions Érès.
Individual level, Intergroup level, Interpersonal level
Mere exposure effect
Alaric Kohler is a researcher and lecturer at the Haute École Pédagogique (Berne, Jura, Neuchâtel). After studying philosophy, then social and clinical psychology, his thesis on situations of misunderstanding in physics class directed him towards education. His work focuses on learning, argumentation and social and communicative processes by integrating contributions from socio-cognitive psychology, semiology and socio-genetic epistemology. www.alarickohler.ch
How to cite this entry
Kohler, A. (2023). Reification bias, trans. K. M. Muszynski. In G. Béghin, E. Gagnon-St-Pierre, C. Gratton, & E. Muszynski (Eds). Shortcuts: A handy guide to cognitive biases Vol. 5. Online : www.shortcogs.com
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