Once we have been labelled as ‘cool’ or ‘a nerd’ or even a ‘psycho’ or ‘mental’, does it define us forever after regardless of the changes we make later?

The belief that personality is fixed

Have you ever heard a joke about someone having cancer or made a casual reference to someone having high blood pressure, have you ever teased anyone by saying that he’s got diabetes?

Of course, not because we don’t tend to make fun of someone for having a physical illness. In fact, we tend to have a lot of empathy for people when they are ‘physically’ unwell.

But in our society, many people make comments about others having ‘mental illnesses’ and never give it a second thought. Have you ever used or heard someone refer to somebody else as a ‘psycho’, ‘schizo’ or ‘bipolar’ or even that he or she is ‘mental’ or ‘OCD’. We use these words without a full understanding of their meaning but this has a big impact on how we perceive ‘mental health’ and ‘psychological or mental disorders’ and this clearly plays a role in the stigma surrounding these topics. By using these words we tend to minimize these disorders by giving them ‘nicknames’ and we then use them to give others an identity or a label to describe something they are doing, saying or the way they are behaving.

In NLP, we make a difference between our behaviour (what we do and say, how we behave) and our identity (who we are). Our behaviours do not define who we are and the danger with calling someone a ‘psycho’ or ‘mental’ is that it suggests that it is something that they cannot change. It is a label that will be with them forever. It is much more difficult to change who you are than how you behave.

The effects of believing people can change

In their article The Far-reaching effects of believing people can change: implicit theories of personality shape stress, health and achievement during adolescence, Yeager, Johnson, Spitzer, Trzeniewski, Powers and Dweck look at the belief that personality is fixed (called an entity theory of personality) and how it can give rise to negative reactions to social adversities. Their three studies demonstrated that when social adversity is common – at the transition to high school – an entity theory can affect overall stress, health and achievement. Study 1 showed that an entity theory of personality, measured during the 1st month of 9th grade, predicted more negative immediate reactions to social adversity, and at the end of the year, greater stress, poorer health, and lower grades. Studies 2 and 3 tested a brief intervention that taught a malleable (incremental) theory of personality – the belief that people can change. The incremental theory group showed less negative reactions to an immediate experience of social adversity and 8 months later, reported lower overall stress and physical illness. They also achieved better academic performance over the year.

Their conclusion is that it is important to challenge the common idea in our societies that being labelled ‘cool’ or a ‘nerd’ early in high school defines a person forever after, regardless of the changes they may make later. Their research clearly shows that adolescents can learn to tell themselves a different story, a story in which people have the potential to change. When they do, they show better adjustment across the board: lower stress, better health and higher grades.

They finish by saying that ‘going forward, it will be important for researchers, educators, parents, and media outlets to find ways to emphasize this message of human potential for change’.

The study by Rosenthal and Jacobson detailed in Pygmalion in the classroom and published in 1965 seem to also strengthen this idea. The authors conducted an experiment in a public elementary school, telling teachers that certain children could be expected to be “growth spurters,” based on the students” results on the Harvard Test of inflected Acquisition. But in fact, the test was nonexistent and those children designated as “‘spurters'” were chosen at random. What Rosenthal and Jacobson hoped to determine by this experiment was the degree (if any) to which changes in teacher expectation produce changes in student achievement.

The results of this experiment provide further evidence that one person’s expectations of another’s behaviour may come to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. When teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development, those children did show greater intellectual development.

So, what do you believe? Do you believe you can change? And others?

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