Q. In New York people are attributed so many labels. There are artists, bankers, actors, marketers. How do certain labels in life affect the way people perceive you? – Webster Schelbe, New York City, 26 years old
A. Labeling is an interesting phenomenon. On the one hand, labels allow us to see ourselves clearly. We wake up each morning and function throughout the day based on the labels that we assign ourselves. If you perceive yourself to be an independent, hard working person, you might dress and carry yourself in a way that reflects that belief. If you think of yourself as a funny individual who is the life of the party, you might be sure to crack as many jokes as you can throughout the day even if you’re not in the mood, in order to live up to your self-proclaimed identifier.
So, we definitely use labels that we assign ourselves to help us navigate everyday situations. But what we don’t often realize is how other people’s labels influence our behavior. Several years ago, two psychologists, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson, were especially interested in the impact of labeling on behavior. In a now famous study called “Pgymalion in the Classroom,” the two psychologists found that a phenomenon, called a self-fulfilling prophecy, is elicited when people attribute labels to your personality. A self-fulfilling prophecy is when a behavior becomes true, just because people expect it to be true.
Rosenthal and Jacobs tested this phenomenon at a California elementary school where they administered a fake IQ test to students. Though they did not divulge actual scores of the exams, they randomly chose half of the students and told teachers that these students were “bloomers” based on the exam scores. They informed teachers that these “bloomers” would show more intellectual acumen and growth than the other half of the students. In reality, Rosenthal and Jacobs chose the students’ names out of a hat. The children never knew their designated labels — only the teachers were informed of the “bloomers” versus “non-bloomer” labels. Remarkably, those students who were expected to perform better actually did when tested a year later. Because the teachers expected those students to get smarter and perform better, students in turn gave into the way they were expected to act. They demonstrated intellectual growth merely because they were expected to.
Expectations of perceived behavior can transform someone’s personality in a flash. You could unknowingly be significantly altering someone’s behavior, merely by assigning him or her a certain label. What’s important here is to be cautious of attributing negative labels to individuals. In Rosenthal’s study, the other half of students who were “non-bloomers” showed less intellectual growth than the other students. This has implications for how we treat people in everyday settings, whether at work, school, or your personal life. If you’re a boss at work and want to encourage your employees to perform better, treat them like they will do so. If you are providing breakup advice for a friend who just broke up with his girlfriend, treat him like he is resilient and will get through it.
The biggest take away is how the process of labeling can impact behavior. You should be aware of the labels you assign to others, but also of the labels that others assign to you. If you’re aware that someone is labeling you in a way that doesn’t fit your perception of yourself, you have the ability to turn the self-fulfilling prophecy over on itself. Assign yourself a positive label and watch it come to life. You have the ability to make anything happen.
By Kristine Keller, who received her Master’s in psychology from New York University.
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