Labeling Actions and their People

labeling actionsIn a paper that I recently edited for a professional journal, I encountered the following description of the behavior of a young girl with developmental delays: “She exhibited aggression (i.e., hitting, kicking, biting and pinching others) and destruction (i.e., throwing and destroying objects).” I edited the sentence to read “She exhibited aggressive (e.g., hitting, kicking, biting and pinching others) and destructive (e.g., throwing and destroying objects) behavior.”

Why was I being so picky? Because the first sentence has converted behavior, something the child does, into a thing, actually two things: aggression and destruction. Now, to the author’s credit, both terms were given rather precise definitions. If the “i.e.s” include all the instances or types of behavior being described, then we don’t need the other more categorical terms because the behavior is precisely defined (more or less) by these more precise descriptions of the child’s actual actions. My question in this case is why bog down the reader or listener with an extra layer of description that isn’t needed? The behavioral description seems perfectly adequate.

labelingIf the parenthetical descriptions really were “e.g.s” (as I suspected them to be), then a category may be appropriate, but it needs to focus on the behavior and not some nebulous class that could be behavior or something more vague and poorly defined.

I worry when people use labels that are nouns, like aggression or destruction to describe behavior of anyone, but especially children. These labels, one might argue, refer to categories of behavior. That may be, but they are not behavior, they are things, and it is just a slip away from two huge problems, in my estimation. First, the behavioral label easily slips into being the cause of the behavior (which it is not, it is a LABEL). Why is the child biting people? Because she is aggressive. The circularity here is obvious, but the slip to inferring causes from labels is all too common in interpreting behavior. Second, as just noted, the label is too easily transferred from the behavior to the child herself. What began a catch-all for a class of inappropriate and socially unacceptable behavior now becomes an inappropriate label for the child. It is she who labeling behaviorsomehow possesses (or is possessed by) these things (these “nouns”), “aggression” and “destruction.” This makes her an aggressive and destructive little person. And once so labeled, good things are unlikely to follow such a “reputation.” Rather, hers will be life in which every action in interpreted in the context of her possessing “aggression” and “destruction.”

Well, you might argue, isn’t this latter the same problem as labeling the behavior aggressive and destructive? No, it is not. Labeling the behavior of the child is not the same thing as labeling a child. We should address and even reject the bad behavior of the child, but this does not mean rejecting the child herself. Failures to make this rather elementary distinction between a person and their actions is the source of much misery, self-doubt, unhappiness, humiliation, and ruination in far too many people’s lives.

labeling people

What can we do? Stop thinking about behavior in terms of what it means or symbolizes about the things going on inside the person, about the label of the behavior as its cause. Describe behavior instead of its classes. Start thinking about behavior as of the person but not the person. In our lives we all have done bad, good, dumb, intelligent, and thousand other kinds of “things.” None of these labels of the things that we have done do justice to any of us as a person. They neither make you or me bad, good, dumb, intelligent or whatever label is applied to our actions or lack thereof. Label with care, folks.  

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.