Psychology

“Achievers” are sometimes afraid to fail

Pitfalls of positive social labeling

October 2, 2013
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Consider you work for an organization that shows record-low injuries for the current year. Perhaps you’ve even reached zero or “injury free.”  What language do you use to designate this notable achievement? In other words, what social labels do you attach to this accomplishment? Do you label the organization “Best in Class”? 

Do you give the leaders of this organization a social label that reflects their preeminent success at helping their organization move from good to great in safety? Do you use terms “first-rate,” “exceptional,” “superior,” “extraordinary,” “world-class,” “champion” or “premier” to refer to the low injury rate facilitated by the efforts of these individuals? 

Social labeling

It’s certainly common to attach positive labels to people and organizations following their notable success. Such labels can be quite beneficial, activating a sense of competence and enhancing self-motivation. Social psychologists call this social labeling, and it occurs whenever an individual is assigned an attribute, attitude or belief. If the social label is desirable, the recipient wants to behave consistently with that label. 

If the social label is undesirable, a person may actually perform undesirable behaviors in order to be consistent with a negative label, like being lazy, a poor reader, or an underachiever. Indeed, a negative label like “underachiever” could be used as an excuse to put less effort into achieving a personal or group goal. 

In contrast, a positive label might activate and/or support desirable behaviors such as being energetic, conscientious, or reliable. However, some positive labels can actually do more harm than good.

Seminal research on social labeling

Programmatic research by Carol Dweck1 indicates dramatic disadvantages of certain types of positive labels. She and her colleagues gave hundreds of early adolescents a set of ten fairly difficult problems from the nonverbal portion of an IQ test. Afterward, the researchers praised all participants individually for their performance on the test, but the nature of the praise was manipulated systematically. For half of the students, the praise was based on their ability. Specifically, they were told individually: “Wow, you got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must be smart at this” (p. 71).

The other students were praised individually with a positive social label for their effort with these specific words, “Wow, you got eight right. That’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard” (p. 71). While both of these groups scored equivalently on the IQ test, the researchers noted significant differences in these students’ behavior following their ability vs. effort label. 

All of the students were given a choice to work on a challenging new task they could learn from. Most of those with the ability label rejected this opportunity, apparently because “they didn’t want to do anything that could expose their flaws and call into question their talent” (p.72.). In contrast, 90 percent of the students praised for their effort welcomed the opportunity to attempt a challenging new task from which they could learn. 

Later, when all of these students performed less effectively on some additional more-difficult problems, the prior label given the students (i.e., ability vs. effort) influenced their reaction to failure feedback. The ability kids felt like failures, believing they did not live up to their label; and they rated the task as “not fun anymore.” Conversely, the effort group evaluated their failure as reflecting a need to try harder and not an indictment of their intellect. Plus, they did not indicate a lack of enjoying the problem-solving task. Indeed, “many of them said that the hard problems were the most fun” (p. 72). 

After experiencing these difficult problems, the researchers gave the adolescents some easier problems to solve. The performance of the ability-labeled students plummeted, while the effort-labeled students performed increasingly more effectively. In the profound words of Dr. Dweck, “Since this was a kind of IQ test, you might say that praising ability lowered the students’ IQs. And that praising their effort raised them” (p. 73). 

One final difference between these two types of social labels showed up when the adolescents were asked to write out their opinions of the problem-solving tasks they completed to share with students at other schools. A space was provided on the form for the students to report the scores they received on the problems. To the researchers’ surprise and disappointment, 40 percent of the ability-labeled students reported higher grades than they earned. In the author’s words, “We took ordinary children and made them into liars by telling them they were smart” (p.73).

Real-world ramifications

Parents, teachers, and coaches certainly see the relevance of this example of Dr. Dweck’s extensive research and scholarship. Don’t give individuals positive ability labels that could put social pressure on them to maintain the social label at all costs, perhaps by avoiding relevant challenges or even by cheating. Instead, attach positive labels to the extraordinary effort people are showing to achieve success. In other words, focus on the process rather than the outcome, as reflected in the popular slogan, “Success is a journey, not a destination”. 

Okay, so what about applications of this research to industrial safety?

How often do the managers of an organization put more emphasis on the outcome numbers (e.g., total recordable injury rate or TRIR) than the process activities needed to achieve desirable outcomes (e.g., leading indicators)? 

Do you know an organization whose managers are seemingly so focused on maintaining a low injury rate that employees fail to report their personal injuries? Like several students in Dweck’s research, do they “cheat” in order to avoid embarrassment and tarnish the enviable safety record of their organization? A “yes” answer to any of these rhetorical questions reflects an obvious liability of using positive outcome labels to recognize the safety excellence of individuals, groups, or organizations. 

Instead, focus on the effort observed toward attaining safety excellence. Such a paradigm shift puts legitimate social pressure on defining and evaluating the process activities (or behaviors) needed to truly reach and maintain a vision of injury free.  


Reference

Dweck, C.S. (2006).  Mindset: The new psychology of success.  New York: Ballantine Books. 

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