Bias & LABeLs

Labels are for things people make, not people

- Rex Stout - US author of Nero Wolfe crime stories


“Labels are for things people make, not people.” It was fictional detective Nero Wolfe who first made that observation. Clearly the author of the private investigator extraordinaire - who could likely out-think Sherlock Holmes - realized people are far too complex to be pigeon-holed by a simple slogan. Unfortunately, labels have become commonplace in this age of busy schedules, Twitter© communications and hurried inferences. 


Labels frequently comprise a single adjective and my concern is they obscure much more than clarify. A positive label, like brave for example, could also be characterized with a negative tag such as imprudent. The regard of someone as intelligent, likely means one agrees with that person’s opinions, while those who disagree may consider their ideas as unoriginal.  


The personal characteristics of all of us can be summed up either sympathetically or unkindly. An apparent sexist act could be based upon respect; an ostensible racist statement may be nothing more than a statistical detail; the label controversial could also be termed insightful.  The issues with labels appear endless: human resource professionals looking for cooperative team-players would almost certainly overlook the independent, or the curious.  


In the examples given none of these paired adjectives are opposites, but they do reveal how labels can give very false and narrow impressions of people. Labels also creep into the framing of social ideas – such as: Everyone’s Equal, Just Say No, Everything’s Relative.  Each of these evokes powerful emotions yet none of them actually stand up to even the most casual analysis for real or practical meaning.


Labels are, however, extremely useful as they supply valuable pointers about the type of biases a speaker or writer has towards the subject under discussion. I pay great attention to the words, labels and perspectives people use when discussing various topics.   


On this site the topic Bias Flags shows ten of the mistakes people can make that display their biases; yet all the while believing they are fair minded and logical. Numbers 1 and 5 in that list relate to labelling. These flags allow biases to be better understood and then managed.   


A carefully designed label can have a great impact as it can imply an all-inclusive certainty about a person or idea. Unfortunately, it can also promote biased attitudes and mediocre thinking. The resolution one should make is to avoid rapid one-sided judgments and to use the Bias Management techniques outlined on this site.