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The Danger of Labeling Others (or Yourself)

A new study shows the surprising power of our core attitudes.

Peter Bernik/Shutterstock
Source: Peter Bernik/Shutterstock

We label people all the time. We think of a particular person as being a bully, a nerd, a musician, or an athlete. This label may be a reasonable reflection of who they are right now, but it also carries a belief that the behavior reflects a person’s essence.

When you say that someone is a bully, you not only mean that they tend to bully other people, but also that—at their core—they are the kind of person who bullies others. I have a cartoon on my office door of two prisoners sitting in a cell. One says to the other, “You’re not a murderer. You’re just a person who happened to murder someone.” This cartoon works, because being called a murderer feels like it carries something essential about the individual.

If you use terms to describe people—and you believe that they cannot change—then your life can be stressful. Every time that someone treats you badly, you take that as evidence that they are a bad person, and not just that they are a possibly good person who just happened to do a bad thing.

If you are able to think about people’s personalities in a less fixed way, perhaps that would decrease your overall stress.

This question was explored in a paper in the June 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Yeager, Rebecca Johnson, Brian Spitzer, Kali Trzesniewski, Joseph Powers, and Carol Dweck.

The paper looked at simple correlations between beliefs and stress in high-school students over the course of a school year. At the start of the school year, ninth-graders were given a brief questionnaire about whether they thought people’s personalities could change. They were also given a test of their reaction to social exclusion, known as Cyberball. In this game, participants sit at a computer and think they are passing a ball along with two classmates playing at other computers. After the ball is initially passed to everyone, the participant is excluded (by the program) for several minutes as the other players pass the ball only back and forth to each other. After this exclusion, participants rated how stressful they found the game to be. Finally, at the end of the school year, the students provided information about their stress levels and physical health. The researcher also looked at the students’ grades at the end of the year.

The more participants believed that personality can change, the less affected they were by being excluded during Cyberball. In addition, the more that the students believed that others can change, the lower their stress, the better their health, and the higher their grades at the end of the year.

This result raises the possibility that if people were trained to think that personality characteristics can change, then they might do better in school. In two additional studies, the researchers used an intervention of this type. One study was done in a fairly wealthy school district; the other, in a very poor district. In each study, participants were ninth-grade students at risk for failing out of school.

At the start of the school year, participants in an experimental intervention condition read an article about how personality can change. They also read stories that were supposed to have come from upperclassmen, discussing how this knowledge helped them. Then, students wrote their own stories that they were told would be used by future students. (Students in the control condition read about how athletic ability can be changed.) As in the study just described, all participants then played the Cyberball game, and their stress, health, and grades were measured at the end of the year.

Even though this intervention was brief, it seemed to have a significant and lasting impact on participants. Compared to students in the control condition, those who got the intervention reacted less strongly to the Cyberball game. At the end of the year, they experienced less stress, had fewer health problems, and had higher grades than those in the control condition. This effect was strongest for those students who did not already believe that personality could change over time.

Why does this intervention work? Statistical analyses suggest that believing that personality can change leads to a smaller reaction to social exclusion (as measured by the Cyberball game). Reacting less strongly to social exclusion may have a cascade effect over time, lowering stress levels while also having a positive impact on performance in school.

These studies fit with a growing body of evidence amassed by Dweck and her colleagues demonstrating that the belief that people can change has many benefits. Students who believe their own behavior and performance can change work harder in school to overcome academic difficulty. People who believe that others can change are more likely to work with them to regain trust after they have a bad experience.

Ultimately, it is important to realize that you should not completely define the people in your life by their current behavior.

Check out my new book Smart Change.

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