The Power of Word Labels

I think a lot about how the word we use to label something affects our perceptions, conceptualizations, and actions regarding that object. Grammatical gender is one type of label that many languages employ, and in some cases, it may have a strong influence over speakers’ conceptualizations of the objects they talk about.

In one pretty classic study, Russian speakers were asked to personify the days of the week (all of which have associated genders), and participants consistently and unconsciously personified grammatically masculine days as males and feminine days as females. Although the evidence isn’t unanimous, a number of studies suggest that grammatical gender may have meaningful effects on speakers’ cognition in ways like this.

In German, “bridge” is grammatically feminine, while in Spanish, it’s masculine. Does that matter? One study (p. 70) suggests that it does: German speakers were more likely to describe a bridge as “beautiful, elegant, peaceful, pretty and slender,” while Spanish speakers tended to use the adjectives “big, dangerous, long, strong, sturdy, and towering.” This is a case in which using a gendered pronoun seems to liken bridges to humans who are similarly gendered.

Another context that draws attention to the power of word labels is the concept of functional fixedness. This is the idea that once we have an established norm for what an object does, it becomes much more difficult to think of new uses for that object. To overcome functional fixedness and increase flexible thinking, Tony McCaffrey, a researcher at UMass Amherst, has developed a method called the “generic parts technique,” which requires a person to break an object down into its component parts and name each part in a way that doesn’t imply meaning. For example, “candle” would be broken down into the parts “wax” and “string.” While “wick” implies an object that should be lit, “string” is much more general, and people are therefore more likely to think of novel and creative uses for the object than when they use its functional label. Empirically, McCaffrey has shown that this method allows participants to solve more problems that require creative insight.

Another issue that’s widely debated is whether labeling psychological illnesses might have negative effects on patients. One side is that labeling an illness results in better access to services for a patient, but the side of the argument that I’m more interested claims that having a named diagnosis might propagate the illness for the patient. For example, if a psychologist diagnoses someone with depression, he will almost certainly go straight home to Google “depression,” and WebMD will enlighten him with a number of common depressive symptoms: fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest, overeating or loss of appetite, etc. Armed with this knowledge, it seems likely that the diagnosed person might start noticing these “symptoms” that weren’t actually present until he started looking for them, or may have been present but milder. Next thing you know, the patient stops eating and starts harboring suicidal thoughts, because isn’t that what a depressed person does? Cue vicious cycle.

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A verbal label can encourage certain behaviors, which in turn might make the label even truer than it was initially

Lissa Rankin suggests in her book Mind Over Medicine that physical diagnoses might have a similar effect. She argues that when given a troubling diagnosis, the body signals a stress response, and bodies under stress don’t have the healing capacities that healthy bodies do. Thus, regardless of the validity of the diagnosis, the patient is now in a mental state that will create physical hardship, and possibly illness, for his body.

I’m not saying that diagnoses are never valuable, or that people with diagnoses all of a sudden inflict more severe symptoms on themselves than they had in the first place. What I am saying is that maybe we should think twice before hastily slapping a diagnostic label on a person- it could be a violation of the Hippocratic oath to “first do no harm.”

Along these lines, my recent preoccupation with the introvert/extrovert dichotomy makes me wonder: could “self-diagnosing” yourself as an introvert be harmful? While it seems like a good thing in many cases- it will allow you to better understand yourself and your behavior- might it be the excuse you need to avoid group functions and hole up by yourself whenever you feel stressed? Could it be a self-fulfilling prophecy in that sense? Is that a bad thing?