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3 Powerful Ways Labeling People Prompts Action

We can define ourselves by what we do or by who we are. For example, when asked about their dietary choices, one person might say “I am a vegetarian” whereas another might say “I don’t eat meat.[1]In either case, the response is likely to be “What’s wrong with you?” And you’re not just someone who reads blogs or likes psychology; you’re a blog reader and a psychology fanatic. The meaning is technically the same, but the expression is different.[2]On another post on the blog, we’ve seen how different ways of expressing exactly the same meaning can deeply impact the message’s impact.

In recent years, researchers have tested the power of self-labeling. As an example, if I told you that I watch TV a lot, you’d probably guess that I like TV. According to some research, however, your perceptions of me change if I instead refer to myself as a “TV watcher.” All of sudden, my TV preferences seem stronger and more enduring. Such is the power of self-labelling vs. describing behavior.

It turns out, though, that adopting a label in lieu of just talking about actions has a powerful effect on your own behavior. By being “a vegetarian,” Jack might be more devoted to those values at the Chinese buffet than Diane, who says she “doesn’t eat meat.” As we’ll see, simple changes that invoke these self-labels can affect voting behavior, dishonesty, and helpfulness.

1. “Voters” vote more than “people who vote”

One of the first studies to examine this phenomenon started by looking at voting behavior in the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The question was whether looking at yourself as “a voter” motivates you to go out and actually cast a vote.

Prior to the election, a bunch of California residents were asked a simple question, but they could have gotten either of the following versions of it:

How important is it to you to be a voter in the upcoming election?

How important is it to you to vote in the upcoming election?

badge-686325_1280Their first study posed these questions to people who hadn’t yet registered to vote in the election. Afterward, they asked everyone how interested they were in registering to vote. People who were first asked about “being a voter” were then more interested in registering than the people who were instead asked about just “voting.”

Obviously, registering to vote is an important part of the process, but what about actual voter turnout? Here’s where the researchers did some snooping and turned to public voting records. In a second study, they posed either of the above questions to people who had already registered to vote, and after the election, they opened up those public records and saw how many of their participants ended up casting a vote at the polls.

Again, self-labels proved influential. Whereas 82% of the people who just thought about voting ended up at the polls, 96% of the people who were asked about “being a voter” ended up casting a vote.

And lest you think this is just a phenomenon restricted to Californians, these results were replicated for voter turnout in the 2009 gubernatorial election in New Jersey. New Jersey!

2. “I’m not a cheater!”

Even though labels seem to encourage some behaviors, they can also prevent others. Consider how even though people don’t seem to mind cheating, they definitely don’t want to be labeled a “cheater.”

In one series of studies, people played a simple game in which they would flip a coin 10 times, and they’d win $1 for every time their coin landed heads up. To claim their winnings, the participants just had to tell the experimenter how many times their coin landed heads. Fertile ground for cheating, don’t you think? What’s to stop someone from claiming a few extra heads-up coin flips?[3]Very little.

Everyone got a little warning, though, that went like this:

Please don’t cheat and report that one or more of your  coin  flips  landed  heads  when  it  really  landed  tails!

Well, that was true for half the players. The other half saw this slightly different warning:

Please don’t be a cheater and report that one or more of your  coin  flips  landed  heads  when  it  really  landed  tails!

The difference seems subtle, but it had a direct effect on how many heads-up coin flips people said they had. When the instructions said “don’t cheat,” people reliably reported more than half of their coin flips being heads-up—a clear sign of lying about their results. When the instructions said “don’t be a cheater,” though, people were more honest, reporting much closer to a true 50-50 split.

3. Ask kids to be “helpers” instead of “helpful”

So far we’ve been talking about fully formed adults. Is there any reason to think kids wouldn’t fall prey to the power of self-labelling? Nah.

boy-358300_640If you recall (several paragraphs ago!), people perceive each other’s preferences as being stronger when they’re expressed as self-labels (e.g., “I’m a TV watcher”). Other research has shown the same effects with kids. When a fictional character is described as a “carrot-eater,” kids thought she would have eaten more carrots in her past and in her future, compared to when the character was described as someone who “eats carrots whenever she can.[4]At the risk of being too carrot-centric, the researchers also showed the same results with other descriptors like being a “creature-believer” or a “guinea pig-lover.” No comments was made about the correlations between eating carrots and loving guinea pigs.

Even though kids can’t vote (legally), adopting self-labels instead of mere actions can still be influential. In one study, kids were told either about “helping” or about “being a helper.” They even answered questions like “how much do you want to help?” or “how much do you want to be a helper?

The researchers then set up opportunities for these kids to offer help even though it would mean giving up playing with super awesome toys and markers. Across those opportunities, kids who thought about themselves as “helpers” ended up helping the experimenter 29% more often than kids who just thought about helping.

The Part Where I’m a “Summarizer”

Clearly, looking at a behavior as something that defines you makes you more committed to that behavior (and makes it look like you’re more committed to it). Whether it’s voting, lying, or helping, self-labels seem subtle but have distinct effects.

It’s also worth asking: how can I use this information? One implication of this research is that you can encourage certain behaviors in other people by getting them to label themselves appropriately. Trying to get people to conserve energy? Get them to think of themselves as environmentalists rather than just people who care about the environment.

Some have even taken this research as advice for online marketing. In an article on Help Scout the author concludes:

Don’t be afraid to label your customers. People like being part of groups that imply some superior quality or level of status that has their approval. Even when given an artificial reason, people tend to take action in order to feel they belong to an “elite” group of people.

This is all very helpful and interesting [5]It is—you’re welcome, but why is it the case? What is it about being a “vegetarian” that’s so much stronger than “eating a plant-based diet”? One explanation is that it invokes your identity, and when we think in terms of who we are, we may treat that information as a little more important. A simple behavior is changeable, but people often think that their identity is enduring.[6]This isn’t true in some other cultures, though. Some research has shown that people in East Asian cultures see the self as more fluid and changeable over time. It would be interesting to see if self-labeling is less powerful in these cultures.

What do you think of all of this? You’re an article commenter after all…leave your thoughts below!

 

Feature Image: “Does Not Work” by David Goehring via Flickr –  Licensed under CC BY 2.0, cropped

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. In either case, the response is likely to be “What’s wrong with you?”
2. On another post on the blog, we’ve seen how different ways of expressing exactly the same meaning can deeply impact the message’s impact.
3. Very little.
4. At the risk of being too carrot-centric, the researchers also showed the same results with other descriptors like being a “creature-believer” or a “guinea pig-lover.” No comments was made about the correlations between eating carrots and loving guinea pigs.
5. It is—you’re welcome
6. This isn’t true in some other cultures, though. Some research has shown that people in East Asian cultures see the self as more fluid and changeable over time. It would be interesting to see if self-labeling is less powerful in these cultures.

2 thoughts on “3 Powerful Ways Labeling People Prompts Action

  1. As a mother with a teenage boy at home, I look forward to trying out the “helper” strategy, instead of “help”. Though I’ll probably say “be a helper” instead of “how much…” Asking the question may result in “not much” or other remarks from “the quick thinking one”. Thanks for the tip Andrew.

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