Perspective on labels, and fixed mindset thinking

I have posted in the past about fixed vs growth mindsets (ie how willing are you to believe things can change and be improved), and recently the topic of fundamental attribution error has been popping up a lot.

What is fundamental attribution error? Well, I have found an article that helps explain it in a really good general, easy-to conceive way. Psychology today has a post “The Danger of Labeling Others (or Yourself)”.

When you say that someone is a bully, you not only mean that they tend to bully other people, but also that—at their core—they are the kind of person who bullies others. I have a cartoon on my office door of two prisoners sitting in a cell. One says to the other, “You’re not a murderer. You’re just a person who happened to murder someone.” This cartoon works, because being called a murderer feels like it carries something essential about the individual.

If you use terms to describe people—and you believe that they cannot change—then your life can be stressful. Every time that someone treats you badly, you take that as evidence that they are a bad person, and not just that they are a possibly good person who just happened to do a bad thing.

If you are able to think about people’s personalities in a less fixed way, perhaps that would decrease your overall stress.

This comes up most often in the case where someone takes offense to something that someone else said, and the person who said the offensive thing might retort “why are you  being so sensitive?”. Why this is flawed, is because the person saying that is implying that their level of tolerance is the correct one and anything more sensitive is wrong. As in, “if it doesn’t bother me then it shouldn’t bother anyone”. And that’s flawed because not everyone agrees on where this point is, and we can’t satisfy everyone, so we have to agree as a group on a point where something is unacceptable.

This is also why it is flawed to make sweeping generalizations like “all women are too emotional” or “all men are too aggressive” (or “you’re being too sensitive”). They are demonstrably false, and while it’s easy to anecdotally think of several experiences that prove this belief, we much more easily forget the experiences that don’t support our claim. Everyone behaves in a certain way some of the time, but no one ever behaves in only one way all of the time.

Care to share your thoughts?