Widgets Magazine


To Stanford, with love

“Self-discovery” is an interesting phenomenon at Stanford. As we rummage through conversations and friend groups, looking for that elusive “self” in college, we’re constantly exploring ideas and trying on belief systems to see which ones fit with the mold of who we think we want to be. We check boxes on our applications claiming broad categories of race, gender and family background, and we set foot on campus only to find that there’s a whole world of alternative subcategories we can adorn or discard to finally construct our “true selves.”

Of course, this outlook isn’t unique to Stanford. Every time we fill out a survey or meet someone new, we find ourselves mixing and matching categories like outfits to give a synopsis of who we want to be in that context. For many of us (myself included), checking boxes or listing attributes has become such a practiced habit that we hardly give it any thought. But practice makes permanent, and if we do stop to think about our collections of labels, what do they really mean for individuality or the way in which we interact with other people?

By definition, labels allow us to sort people, and they can’t help but dictate our assumptions of how we should interact based on our similarities and differences. These labels impose arbitrary boundaries on a world of spectrums, and with them come a series of divisions between “us” and “them” that are almost impossible to dissolve. But what do labels really contribute? For most of us, we find our closest friends through shared experiences or perspectives, not because of how they identify themselves. So it’s easy to assume that labels play more of a theoretical role than a practical one. But the issue with sorting actually arises much earlier in the getting-to-know-you experience — before you know anything beyond what you can first see about a person.

In a Stanford study, an experimenter showed students a man with racially ambiguous features. For half the students, he was labeled white; for the other half, black. Afterwards, the participants were asked to draw the man from memory. The ones who were told the man was black tended to exaggerate his “typically black” features, while those who believed he was white exaggerated his “typically white” features. These results illustrated that labels do serve a greater purpose than sorting and that the cause and effect between perceiving someone and assigning a label isn’t as clear-cut as we’d like to believe. Labels have the ability to taint our perceptions of those around us and tip the scales toward the assumptions we make based on them.

The real issue is that in addition to being influential, labels are extremely arbitrary — they’re never an exact fit nor an exact science. And even once a label has been assigned or claimed, it has different connotations for everyone depending on past experiences with other people in that category. This random process becomes even more arbitrary when you add to it the perceiver’s goals in the sorting process. One of Jerome Bruner’s greatest contributions to the realm of psychology was the conclusion that we tend to see what’s in our best interest. A person in a white coat can as easily be mistaken for a doctor as for a prospective suitor, depending on whether you need medical attention or a date for senior formal. In other words, these subtly influential labels are often more a reflection of ourselves than anyone else, making them even less productive in the process of trying to figure out who someone actually is.

All of this isn’t to say that labels make or break every connection, or that the only way to form a genuine bond is by pretending we don’t see physical differences. Relationships aren’t all about labels, and it would be extremely difficult for any of us not to notice what categories people appear to belong to when we first meet them. But Bruner also acknowledges that we are capable of looking beyond those categories — it’s simply a question of incentive and interest. Once there is sufficient motivation, we are all capable of finding answers to questions that look beyond those initial categories. So the question then becomes, is the possibility of missing out on someone great enough incentive to look beyond those first impressions? Surely, if labels are so arbitrarily powerful, it’s in our best interest to leave our judgments up to the more reliable method of conversation.

Contact Anja Young at ayoung3 ‘at’ stanford.edu