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Labeling and Mislabeling

In Therapy

Labeling and mislabeling are related to the overgeneralization Thinking Error. They occur when a child attaches negative labels to themselves or other people (or even entire situations) based on small problems instead of thinking more deeply about the cause of the problems.

  • A boy angers his girlfriend who refuses to go out with him the next night. Instead of admitting that he made a mistake and shouldn’t have talked to her the way he did, he might either label himself a bad boyfriend, or label her a whiny and selfish girlfriend.
  • A child meets a new addition to his class, recently moved in from another city. The new kid says something that rubs him the wrong way, and so he labels the new kid as a jerk instead of thinking more deeply about the interaction and considering the social pressure of being the new guy.
  • The reverse: a child moves to a new city and attends a new school. On her first day, she has a few experiences that disagree with her, and she labels the new school “stupid” or “terrible.”
  • Perhaps one of the easiest ways to mislabel is when a child takes anyone who disagrees with her and labels them all idiots.

In Critical Thinking

This Thinking Error, like overgeneralization, is a manifestation of the hasty generalization fallacy. The hasty generalization occurs when somebody makes a broad general claim based on insufficient evidence. This is a problem for clear thinking because broad generalizations should only be made after a good amount of data has been surveyed. A person should not be assigned the label “jerk” unless many interactions over a long period of time have demonstrated a pattern of “jerkishness,” and perhaps not even then, as one is not privy to all of that person’s interactions with others.

Hasty generalization is basically failed induction. Induction is the process by which the scientific method works; it is essentially a method to reason from specific instances to wider, more general rules. A large sample of data is collected, and the conclusions drawn from that data (if any) are the “general rules.” For example, cell theory in science states cells are the basic unit of structure in all life. We base this general statement on the collected observations of biologist throughought history: all life we have studied to date is made of cells. Cell theory was not formulated after a dozen organisms were surveyed; it took many and more before scientists were ready to make that generalization. Cell biologists looked very deeply into the data before making a generalization.

Some examples of the hasty generalization are:

  • A man sees a single ballet wherein all the dancers are women. He decides based on this one show that all ballet dancers are women.
  • A woman is unsuccessful in love. Every guy she’s ever dated (all fifteen of them) turned out to be a jerk. She decides that all men (all 3.3 billion of them)  must be jerks.
  • A man owns a Ford truck. It breaks down on him. A friend of his reports that he once had a Ford that also broke down. The two men reason that all Fords must be unreliable, shoddy vehicles.
  • A woman visits a new doctor. He is rather rude to her and isn’t much help at all. She goes to get a second opinion and has to wait for a long time before she is seen. She decides that all doctors are shoddy and she won’t be visiting them anymore unless she’s absolutely has to.

Bridging the Gap

A child who labels or mislabels herself or others is making a hasty generalization about the person in question based on a single piece of evidence. Rather than look more deeply into the situation at hand, they take the cognitive shortcut of labeling. It is often the quick and easy path to break complex issues down into simple concepts or sound bites, and self-esteem and interpersonal interaction are nothing if not complex issues.

I can’t believe he just walked away from me while I was trying to talk to him [a single piece of evidence]! What a jerk [the hasty generalization]!

Sometimes it may even be less painful to make a serious examination of the facts than to quickly apply a label. If a child simplistically labels herself  a “loser” because she can’t seem to make lots of friends, she has only a single, unavoidable shortcoming; in essence, as a “loser,” she can’t but exist in her present predicament. If she took a deeper look at her social world, she might find multiple correctable shortcomings in herself, the confrontation of which might be more psychologically difficult than simply applying a label. She might even find, after honest introspection, that she’s really not a bad person, but is surrounded by people who can’t see her positive qualities. This, too, is a difficult conundrum to confront, so the child instead makes a hasty generalization without digging deeper into herself or the motivations of others and ends up with the label of “loser.”

This kind of cognitive shortcut is all-too-common in both children and adults. It is counterproductive (or even harmful) when a child engages in labeling or mislabeling, and quick conclusions based on single data points will almost invariably be overly simplistic and inaccurate. Once a child can recognize her tendency to do this within herself, universalizing the mechanism to include all sorts of hasty generalizations is fairly trivial.

Sometimes it may even be less painful to make a serious examination of the facts than to quickly apply a label. If a child simplistically labels herself  a “loser” because she can’t seem to make lots of friends, she has only a single, unavoidable shortcoming; in essence, as a “loser,” she can’t but exist in her present predicament. If she took a deeper look at her social world, she might find multiple correctable shortcomings in herself, the confrontation of which might be more psychologically difficult than simply applying a label. She might even find, after honest introspection, that she’s really not a bad person, but is surrounded by people who can’t see her positive qualities. This, too, is a difficult conundrum to confront
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