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The Psychology of Labels

Average. Smart. Dumb. Competitive. Fat. Thin. Deviant. Unstable. Incapable. Crazy. Aggressive. Abnormal. Procrastinator. Failure.

…. And I could probably add more and the list would seem endless. These labels do seem familiar right? Merely assigning a label to a person seems routine. There is no denying that labels serve a function. They’re necessary in our process of giving us a certain predictability (i.e. identification of people, providing a way to identify ourselves as belonging to a group) in our world. But labels are powerful and sometimes it is these very labels that may have underlying psychological implications. In this article, I will be discussing two predominant concepts that would be the prime focus here – labelling and the subsequent self-fulfilling prophecy.

Labelling theory is “the sociological hypothesis that describing an individual in terms of particular behavioural characteristics may have a significant effect on his or her behaviour, as a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, describing an individual as deviant and then treating them as such may result in a mental disorder or delinquency.” The self-fulfilling prophecy is a belief or expectation that helps to bring about its own fulfilment, as, for example, when a person expects nervousness to impair his or her performance in a job interview.”

Labeling theory, the Education System & the problem with the Pygmalion effect

Labels cause educators to anticipate certain (positive or negative) conduct from students Researchers have seen that an instructor may disregard a conduct from one student and rebuff a similar conduct from another based on the labels they apply. The Rosenthal or Pygmalion effect shows how expectations regulate performance and behaviours. In Rosenthal’s study, teachers at the start of the semester were informed that the new students coming in were either intelligent and others were deemed as less smart. This set up high expectations in teachers for those who were labelled smarter and consequently dictated their behaviour to giving such students more support and attention while the others were overlooked or criticized. When the researchers in the above study went on to test the students’ IQ (i.e and this is where the self fulfilling prophecy purportedly takes over the drive) they found that students set apart as exceptionally intelligent had their IQ levels increased while the greater part of those set apart as being less smart showed a decline in their IQ levels.

Despite the study's large scale publicity in various fields, the pygmalion effect has recently come under scrutiny. Robert L. Thorndike argued that the instrument used by Rosenthal to measure IQ (Test of General Ability or TOGA) was flawed because the average reasoning score for children in one class was in the mentally disabled range, a highly unlikely result and he consequently concluded that the Rosenthal findings were worthless. A meta-analysis conducted by Raudenbush showed that when teachers had known their students for 2 weeks, the expectancy prior to knowing them was diminished.

Jussim et al. argue that students' past performance and motivation have the strongest influence on teachers & subsequently their behaviour toward them. Consistent student behaviour creates an expectancy schema which causes teachers to fit information about students consistent with them and likewise justify behaviors to the contrary. Students who performed well in the past are expected to do well in the future and students who perform poorly consistently and expected to perform similarly in the future. If a good student is not able to perform well once the teacher may rationalise the behaviour, citing the student might have been sick or not had enough time. For average performing students, the teacher may attribute a one time good performance to luck. This encourages a belief that they don't have the ability to do the work and this may affect their continued poor performance. When teachers criticize high expectancy students it is done with the intention of challenge and when low expectancy students are criticized it is done to degrade them. Brophy cites various reasons on how a teachers behaviour may minimize student learning - they may spend less time with low-expectancy students, call on them frequently, pay less attention to them, offer less material, reward incorrect answers or smile less and make no eye contact. This may lead to a mild self fulfilling prophecy. Mros argued that student perceptions mediate the relationship between teachers’ expectations and the self fulfilling prophecy. Students' perceptions may be based on their evaluation of the motives, sentiments, beliefs and personality traits of the teacher. These student perceptions come into their interactions with teachers and may determine how much their performance is affected by their teachers’ expectations.

Stereotypes and bias in terms of race, gender and socioeconomic status also influence teacher expectancy. A meta analysis showed that teachers tend to favour white students and place high expectancies on them as compared to black students. Likewise, they tend to favour middle-class students as compared to lower classes and teachers view girls as more intelligent than boys.

What Rosenthal essentially demonstrated was actually what we call the halo effect in psychology - in which our first overall impression of a person colours their subsequent evaluation. Nevertheless, this is broken by behaviours to the contrary, when we become well acquainted with people.

The grey area

A study by Levin et al. (1982) found that student behaviour has a greater effect on instructors' expectations than labels. Those who performed below-grade or average in their study had a much greater effect on teacher’s behavioural intentions and reduced their optimism about students’ future success than assigned labels. In their research, the “emotionally disturbed” label, however did lead to negative expectations within the teachers and the authors conjecture that it may be due to the fact that it’s associated with being “crazy” and problems of control and discipline. In my opinion, this 1982 paper warrants attention. Labelling may not be the problem per se, but behaviours that fall into the normative category & their attached associations in terms of a positive or negative value which underlie the label influence expectancy in addition to sociodemographic facets. Labels ring associations of behaviours which are coloured by perception. Labelling functions as a cognitive distortion which may operate subconsciously where rather than ascribing objectivity to the behaviour, we describe the whole person globally. They can take on an “all or nothing” bias. To give a personal example, being an “arts student” student was a label that came along with my choice of the field. I’m proud to be a student in this field. I’m sure other arts students will resonate with the fact that people make salient associations with our label as students who don’t study or aren’t smart enough to take science, our pay grade or job prospects and consequently attach less value to the field. Here again, the focus behaviour is not studying or being smart enough. It’s important to make correct value associations of a given behaviour because this has implications in policies at the governmental level, when it comes to funding institutions which offer the field and future opportunities.

The bright side

Labels can likewise be instruments to inspire prosocial behaviours. Children who are labelled as “helpers” are more likely to provide help than those labelled as “helpful.” A good way to induce a self-fulfilling prophecy. Using the right articles and nouns labels helps as well. In a study of voting behaviour in 2008 U.S presidential elections, people who were asked how important it is to be a “voter” than simply about voting, were more interested to register. It’s important to notice that linguistic labels that correspond to essential properties (i.e., being a voter and helper) are evaluated as dispositional (i.e. the frequency of our exhibiting positive behaviours) and are powerful forces to shaping behaviour. Hence, labels are impactful and can be used to propel change.

Behaviour may affect perception more than labelling in some cases. We must be cautious not to draw conclusions from that one behaviour to a person’s whole personality. Labels don’t capture a person’s entirety. Labels can be empowering for our own benefit. In my opinion, when we decide to change the labels we apply to somebody, it profoundly changes our impression of that individual. An intervention with high schoolers showed that when induced to believe that people’s personalities were flexible for change (not fixed) they were less stressed and this consequently improved their academic achievement and health.

To conclude, people are more than the sum total of the adjectives we apply. Let’s not limit our curiosity of others and of ourselves.


Sanjana Nair (she/her) is a research assistant at Nolmë Labs. She is interested in pursuing clinical psychology as a professional psychologist in the future.

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