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date: 14 December 2019

(p. xv) Preface

(p. xv) Preface

What is the human essence? Although typically viewed and addressed as one of the “big” questions in philosophy, modern advances in social psychology inform us about what makes us human and what moves and motivates us in our very essence. In this volume, we have assembled an array of psychological answers to the same “big” question about what it is to be human. Social-psychological answers are absolutely pivotal because the question about the human essence requires a deep and comprehensive understanding of the human condition vis-à-vis a rapidly changing modern world. Are we rational actors? Are we evolutionary survival-seekers? Are we political animals? Indeed, the human essence is not just an academic notion but also very much a political, societal, and practical “big” question. The question of the human essence is thus of central interest to students and scholars in, for example, psychology, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, and cognitive science. Simply asking the question already promotes reflection and easily sparks debate both within and across disciplines.

This volume articulates what social psychology can tell us about what makes humans unique and illuminates why it is important for a science of human behavior to develop broader and integrative theories that acknowledge the many different human essences that define us. The volume includes the perspectives of leading international scholars in the field who offer a range of stimulating perspectives for understanding the core issue of the human essence. The contributors offer a broad and diverse set of intriguing answers to the question of what is the human essence based on cutting-edge social psychological theorizing and research. The chapters also raise new and important questions about human nature and identify new directions for future inquiry into this foundational issue. One key observation across all of the chapters is that the field is in need of “bigger-picture’ ” and integrative theorizing.

Importantly, the chapters are written in an essay-like style that allows contributors to articulate what the human essence is without jargon or empirical details. Furthermore, this volume uniquely brings together scholars who otherwise would not be found in conversation, expressing perspectives ranging from evolutionary approaches to the human essence to social constructivist accounts that essentially deny its existence. As (p. xvi) such, the volume offers a unique view on social psychology, as well as on human nature and existence more generally.

We gratefully acknowledge all of the assistance that we have received in creating this book. Oxford University Press has provided invaluable guidance and support at every stage of the project. We appreciate the encouragement, support, and patience that our spouses, Marieke and Linda, have displayed; their support was invaluable at every phase of the project. We also acknowledge the support of Luzia Heu, who searched hard to find a fitting illustration of the human essence for the front cover of this book. In addition, we are indebted to our colleagues and our students for challenging us to address issues—such as, What is the human essence?—that transcend the specific research questions that typically occupy us. Their insights, reflections, and, sometimes, challenges stimulated us to ask this question, one that is unusually broad in social psychology but is among the most important and influential questions to address.

We also acknowledge the financial support we have received from several funding agencies during the time we have worked on this volume and for supporting the work that created the foundation for this project: for Martijn van Zomeren: NWO VENI Grant 451-09-003; for John Dovidio: NIH/NHLBI 2RO1HL085631-06, NIH/DHHS R01DA029888, and NSF 1310757.

In conclusion, understanding what makes us human is critical for the study of human behavior, institutions, and policy. How we answer the question about what is the human essence not only determines our scholarly agenda but also shapes our personal perspectives on others, our relationships with them, and the decisions we make in our daily life. These assumptions influence how we view the past and the ways we choose to navigate the future. This volume provides diverse scholarly perspectives on the human essence in ways that will thus benefit students, scholars, and those who simply value important insights for understanding who we are in our very core.