The Pesky Persistence of Labels

"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 we place labels on children in school, such as "gifted" or "learning-disabled," this fundamentally affects how others perceive those individuals, 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 2 the following:

There 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 the participants were interviewed. Everyone said he or she believed that the labels came from expert nutritionists and accepted the challenge to the labeling system, and no one showed any signs that he or she had guessed the point of the experiment. So what did the researchers 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 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 child the special resources he or she 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," "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. The truth is that every single person on this planet has his or her 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."

Follow me on Google Plus or Twitter.