• Ty Vuong

Labeling is bad, except when it isn't

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

In-group bias and group-fit are both terms that explore how people, as a part of a group or team, tend to work together or fit well together in order to accomplish some task. Take for example an NFL team. These teammates are put into situations of extreme stress where being a few inches off the mark can lead to a lost game. The right guard happened to step back and to the right instead of back and to the left, this hole in the coverage allowed the defensive backs to shoot through the hole in the line and sack the quarterback before he can get the ball to his open receiver.

The success of this team relies on both practice and trust. A part of this trust is built through a shared characteristic of team identity. The Bears all wear the same matching color jerseys, practice together, eat together, and likely have other shared traits; these shared traits and experiences helps meld them into an in-group.

This makes sense. Multi-million dollar corporations work tirelessly to build a culture and identity for their employees. There is strength in having a cultural identity as a company because people typically work harder for a team they are a part of and feel involved with. Just consider again the NFL players helping each other up after a play, it's few and far between to see players help up those from the team they are playing against.

But this post has been created to explore a seemingly contradictory set of suggestions out there in the world. The idea that we need to stop 'labeling' things and people.

Consider this article by Forbes magazine the article explored how when we label people we end of getting a very myopic view of who they are as a person. We create this silo or shortcut of who we feel that person is, and end up missing the depth of character and capability that they may bring to the team/work-environment/etc.

This article absolutely makes sense. There is a natural tendency for the mind to take shortcuts, to label, to silo, to categorize and catalog. And there is an inherent problem with doing this as it, as suggested, causes us to over simplify our understandings of people or even situations which can lead to bias solutions when problems or questions arise. This is natural and normal, we all have this tendency to short-cut and label. And there is plenty of reasons and rationale to be careful of this (especially when dealing with people).

But herein lies a gap in identity and solutions to bias. If we do not create these labels, silos, catalogs and categories, then in some ways we are not creating any type of group identity. If we do not view the Bears NFL team as anything more than a group of people that all wear the same jersey, then we are losing some of the collective strength that comes with the in-group/team dynamic. Anyone wearing a Bears jersey is now a Bear. Or maybe anyone that wears a Bears jersey and get's a paycheck for performing a specific on-field NFL football function is a Bear? Seems complex, yet overly simple. We need, to some degree, to be able to catalog, categorize, and silo people (and even ourselves) into various collective identities and groups in order to feel better about ourselves and feel we are contributing to something larger than an individual (there are theories expressing the need for being a part of something bigger). Even such as cataloging your family with the same last-name builds a group identity.

I often find myself rallying against labels and towards taking a more deliberate and open-minded approach when dealing with understanding people, but at a certain point I can't go so far as to say that there is no benefit in labeling, especially if it takes the form of creating an ingroup focused on completing a particular task. We cannot go so far as to refuse to accept that labeling should and can exist, just as we can't and shouldn't go too far to deny racism exists. And while I can see that rallying like-minded people under a common collective can be used to accomplish sinister tasks, like white nationalists and KKK movements, it can also be used for good such as BLM or the ACLU, and even hospitals or governments (if you see them as a collective good).

I think the trick here is to utilize the labels, but don't become so rigid in the classifications as to lose sight of the true complexities involved in individuals, identity, and people. It is ok to label, ok to silo, ok to categorize, as you will naturally do these things, but be willing to re-assess and re-assign often and don't get too caught up in your own pre-defined categories that you cannot adapt to something new.

Image credits: honeyweb.com (link)

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