Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

The Pesky Persistence of Labels

Just because a label has been lifted doesn't make it disappear.

We inhabit a world in which we tend to put labels on each other and expect that we will then march through life wearing them like permanent sandwich boards.
- Nick Webb

The tendency to classify and categorize objects is a deeply ingrained aspect of human nature.  In many cases, this is a good thing. Without this ability, we'd quickly get overwhelmed in every new encounter. Nevertheless, this fundamental skill can also be extremely damaging, especially when it comes to categorizing people. As Ronit Baras puts it, we can all too easily get "trapped by labels". For instance, when when we place labels on children in school, such as "gifted" or "learning disabled", this fundamentally affects how others perceive those individiduals, which of course can cause all sorts of self-fulfiling prophecies. Most troubling, these labels can follow these children throughout their lives, long after the label has been lifted.

A new study by Francesco Foroni and Myron Rothbart furthers our understanding of the effect of labels on perception and judgement. They presented participants with drawings of a variety of female body types ordered along a continuum ranging from very thin to very heavy.

First, they asked all participants to judge the degree of similiarity between pairs. They used these results as baseline information. Then they randomly assigned participants to either make the same judgement as before, or make the judgement with three labels interposed on the continuum in three equal intervals: "anorexic", "normal", and "obese".

Finally, in a third phase, they lifted the labels and had all participants make the same judgement they did in the first phase with just the bare continuum. Just before this third phase, the researchers told one group of participants who had seen the labels in phase two that

"[t]here is recent evidence from the Bulletin of American Nutritionists [...], that the most important information is represented by each silhouette's actual score on the BRI continuum rather than a silhouette's placement within a category. [...] Any medical treatment would be based solely on a person's individual BRI score, and would never be based on their category membership [...]"

After the experiment, all of the participants were interviewed. Everyone said they believed that the labels came from expert nutritionists, they accepted the challenge to the labeling system, and no one showed any signs that they guessed the point of the experiment. So what did they find?

When the labels were present, participants actually perceived individuals sharing the same label as more similar than those having different labels. When the silhouettes were shown again without the labels, these effects were reduced but they still persisted. It made no difference whether the labels were merely taken away or the labels were explicitly challenged by an authority.  

These findings are troublesome. Certainly labels can be beneficial. In a school setting, a formal label determined by a school psychologist can be the only thing that gets a person the special resources they may need to thrive. But labels do have a potential downside. The problem is really statistics 101: whenever you convert a continuous measure into discrete categories, you lose valuable information. Humans are so much more than either "anorexic or "obese", "introverted" or "extraverted", "learning disabled" or "abled", or "gifted" or "ungifted".

When we split people up into such dichotomous categories, the large variation within each category is minimized whereas differences between these categories are exaggerated. Truth is, every single person on this planet has their own unique combination of traits and life experiences. While this isn't true of objects, such as rocks, books, and television sets, it's true of humans. Which is why we must be very, very careful when we allow labels to get in the way of our perceptions of reality. As the actor Anthony Rapp so aptly put it, "labels are for cans, not people."

© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

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