By Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D.
Just because a label has been lifted doesn't make it disappear.
"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 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 (PDF) 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 two that
"[t]here 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 of the participants were interviewed. Everyone said they believed that the labels came from expert nutritionists, they accepted the challenge to the labeling system, and no one showed any signs that they guessed the point of the experiment. So what did they find?