Labels Make Explanations Seem Better

Nouns have a powerful effect on explanations.

Posted Aug 30, 2017

Multicherry via Wikimedia Commons
Source: Multicherry via Wikimedia Commons

Nouns are interesting.  They play many different functions psychologically.  They help us refer to objects.  I can direct someone’s attention to an animal on the street by saying, “Look at the cat.”  By using this noun, I am pretty sure you will know which animal I mean.  Nouns are also great for helping to focus attention on some objects rather than others. Asking people to look at the squares in an array of squares and circles can get people to emphasize the squares over the circles.  I can even use nouns to distinguish between types of people. When the University of Texas football team is playing I can use the word “Longhorns” to distinguish between Texas fans and fans of the opponent.

One thing that Doug Medin and Andrew Ortony noticed about nouns was that when people use a noun, they often assume that the objects labeled by that noun have some essence that makes them a member of that category.  Calling an object a cat will increase your belief that all objects called “cats” share some essence (such as cat DNA) that makes them a member of the category.  While this may be true for some categories, there are many for which it is not.  For example, tree refer to plants that are larger than people and have woody stems. Many of the objects that we call trees are more related to other items we would call flowers or bushes than to other objects we would call trees.

This belief in an essence can also affect explanations.  This issue was explored in a 2017 paper in Cognition by Carly Giffen, Daniel Wilkenfeld, and Tonia Lombrozo. 

These researchers suggested that when an explanation for some phenomenon is accompanied by a label, people will find this explanation more convincing than when there is no label.  For example, they had participants read about a person who acted in a strange way (stealing a painting because someone jokingly told them to).  They explained this behavior either by saying this person had a “tendency” to act that way, they had a “condition” that made them act that way, or that they had “Depathapy,” which was a made-up name used for the experiment.

Compared to people who were told the person had a tendency or a condition, the people given a name for the condition felt like the condition was a better explanation of the person’s behavior.  It was also thought to be more likely to be something other people would suffer from.  Giving the condition a name also increased people’s judgment that other people exhibiting the same behavior would do so because of the same underlying cause. 

Why does the label make people feel like it provides a better explanation than just calling something a tendency or a condition? 

The researchers speculated that the label strengthens the belief that the behavior is caused by some essence.  To test this possibility, they ran another study in which they compared an explanation with a label to a second explanation in which the behavior was said to involve a condition that caused the behavior.  In this study, the difference in the goodness of the explanation went away. 

These studies increase our understanding of the power of nouns that are used as labels.  The belief that labels reflect an essence affects the way people interpret them in explanations.  When a disease or condition is labeled, people assume that it has a common essence that causes the symptoms. 

This power can be a benefit in those cases in which there really is a common cause beneath the disorder.  This is particularly true when it helps people to understand a set of behaviors.   Sometimes, of course, this label can get in the way. For example, we use the term cancer to refer to a disease in which cells in the body multiply in ways that hamper the way the body functions.  However, it turns out that that there are many different kinds of cancer that reflect different causes rather than different parts of the body affected.  Thus, the single label we give to this disease may be misleading.

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Giffin, C., Wilkenfeld, D., & Lombrozo, T. (2017). The explanatory effect of a label: Explanations with named categories are more satisfying. 168, 357-369.