Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

The Coupled Effects of Functional Labeling and Approach-Vs. Avoidance-Oriented Statements on Dyadic Academic Performance

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

The Coupled Effects of Functional Labeling and Approach-Vs. Avoidance-Oriented Statements on Dyadic Academic Performance

Article excerpt

"Gifted as you are, I'm sure that you'll solve this problem," is an example of a "tricky" statement that enables individuals to perceive themselves in a particular way. Here, the message is that the individual is "a gifted person." Upon hearing this statement, the individual is more likely to enjoy an improved performance on a task closely related to problem-solving skills (e.g., performance skills needed to solve a puzzle). Moreover, the self-improvement in this example has not been shown to affect unrelated tasks or behavior inconsistent with the label of "giftedness," such as "helpfulness" for example (e.g., Kraut, 1973). Consequently, the alleged label of giftedness in our hypothetical example, is not supposed to provoke a behavior such as "helping someone to carry a heavy suitcase" simply because "helpfulness" is here the assigned label instead of "giftedness." One common explanation of this kind of social message is that people tend to use past information about themselves to guide their future behavior (e.g., Albarracin & McNatt, 2005; Ouellette & Wood 1998). This "domain-specific" phenomenon is called social attribution. It is based on a complex interaction between internal and external factors that rely on a self-perception mechanism (Bem, 1972) that can be manipulated using a labeling technique. The latter is considered to foster internal attribution inferences by providing a person with statement about his/her personality traits or values.

This labeling technique was originally developed by Miller, Brickman and Bolen (1975) in a seminal experiment referred to as "the neatness study." These researchers first measured the baseline neatness behavior of 5th-grade students by observing whether or not students would throw candy wrappers on the floor after eating them. In the next step, they assigned children to three different groups. In the first group (attribution group), children were repeatedly told they were neat and tidy. In the second group (persuasion group), the authors repeatedly reminded children that they should be neat and tidy. In the control group, children were given no specific information. These conditions were in effect for 8 consecutive days. At the conclusion of the 8 days, experimenters gave children candies with distinctive wrappers for each class. They counted afterwards the number of wrappers on the floor, on desks, and in the trash. The results revealed that while there was no significant difference among the three groups in the pretest regarding the percent of wrappers thrown in the trashcans, children in the attributional labeling condition had the best performance in the posttest with 80% of litter deposited in the trash compared to 46% for the persuasion group and 23% for the control group.

This so-called labeling effect was successfully replicated by the same authors in a classroom learning situation. Miller et al. (1975) used this technique to improve children's math performance. By following the same procedure as in their first experiment, these authors assigned children to three distinct experimental conditions over the course of 8 consecutive days. In this experiment, teachers made statements about students' math ability: Such statements included phrases such as, "You really work very hard in math" (the attribution group), "You should be good at math" (the persuasion group), and a third condition (referred to as the reinforcement group) in which teachers repeatedly told children that they are proud of their performance in math. The results again showed that the best performance (i.e., math score) was obtained in the attribution group, with the reinforcement condition showing a better performance relative to the persuasion condition.

Labeling techniques can effectively influence behavior in situations where people are initially interested in the target behavior. Moreover, it is important to carefully formulate a personally addressed statement in order to influence the participant's behavior. …

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