Personal labels can be self-fulfilling, says professor

September 20, 2001

By labelling a person, we can end up creating a person who fits that label, says a University of Toronto philosophy professor.

Ian Hacking, who studies the way classifications affect people, says people may actually change their personality once they have been classified -- or labelled -- by a psychiatrist, psychologist or some other authority figure. "I'm interested in the way classifications such as 'football hooligan,' 'sex addict' and 'autistic' influence the people being classified," he says.

He also studies how the meaning of the classification can change because those being labelled change in response to it. "For example, the classification of 'genius' has changed numerous times over the centuries as have the consequences of being labelled a genius," he adds.

Hacking is not saying we should abandon classifications, but that there are both positive and negative repercussions in doing so. "Calling a horse a horse doesn't mean anything to the animal one way or another. But in many of the sciences that study humans, there is a strong drive to think one is producing classifications that are totally innocuous to the individual being classified."

Some classifications over the years have had detrimental effects on people and society, he says. "One instance is the label 'multiple personality' which created a whole gamut of behaviours from people once they were classified as having this ailment."
Hacking's research has been funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Canada Council through a Killam Research Fellowship, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation and a Connaught fellowship grant.

CONTACT: Professor Ian Hacking, philosophy department, 416-978-4951 or Michah Rynor, U of T public affairs, 416-978-2104,

University of Toronto

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