What's your label say?

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Even people who have developed a strong sense of competence can find it eroded by mindlessly accepted labels. Before getting married, Ann could balance her chequebook; once married, she let her husband take over the task; now divorced, Ann can't seem to balance her chequebook any longer. Jane is a confident lawyer; she has a baby and takes a leave of absence from her job. Now she wants to go back to work but has lost her confidence.

These rather familiar situations illustrate a phenomenon that we have called self-induced dependence. Former graduate student Ann Benevento and I designed a few experiments to see how it develops. We decided to conduct them at the airport, on the assumption that people who travel are likely to be somewhat independent and self-assured. If they could develop self-induced dependence, it was likely to occur in others as well.

In the first phase of one of these experiments, the subjects were given arithmetic problems which they could solve with ease. In phase two, we put the subjects in a position likely to lead them to question their competence. We gave some of them the title of "assistant" and others "boss," and had them perform tasks in a manner appropriate to their roles. In the third phase, all the subjects returned to the same kind of easy arithmetic problems they had successfully completed in phase one.

Those who had been made "assistants" now solved the problems only half as well as they had originally. Though they began participating with equal competence, the labels that they had assumed undermined their performance.

[Ellen Langer]
Mindfulness, p.47, 48


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