Thursday, 15 April 2010

"Labeling" is an Issue, not Just with Products, but People

I watched an episode of "Bones" the other day that was poignant (for me and thousands of others, it's safe to say, having stumbled upon an intense online conversation about the episode on Pop Watch).  I was married to Bones for many years (no, not the actual character, but very much the same type of person her character is based on, and I'll get back to why what I've just done is so misleading) and learned a lot about the challenges, pitfalls and brick walls these brilliant individuals face, as well as difficulties the tragic folks who attempt to partner with them have to deal with. I also learned the truth about 'labels' that psychologists and, more and more commonly today, lay people, use to describe unique individuals.
The problem with labels is that most of us throw them around as though the label is the individual's personality. Maybe I'm not being very clear. What I mean is that, once we ascribe a label to someone, we stop thinking about them as a complex amalgam of traits and, smugly (quite frankly), assume we've got a clear picture and stop trying to understand them, their complexities, their more subtle strengths and weaknesses. They become lumped into the 'cookie cutter' personality type that describes what the average person diagnosed with that label has.

What TV shows like Bones, Monk and even Macgyver do is actually dig deep into the inner workings of complex personalities and exploit them to create an ongoing narrative without coming out and stating what the 'label' is that these individuals would painted with if they took a standard psychological profile. These shows actually do a much better job at demonstrating just how unique an individual with, for example, Asperger's Syndrome can be from others with the same diagnosis than most people do after having watched the show, yet most folks tend to assume that, having 'got to know' Bones, they know exactly what others with that diagnosis are like, intimately. So often I hear people say "Oh yeah, I know what he/she must be like, I've seen a few episodes of Bones."

What I think most people on the planet never 'get' is that 'labeled' individuals are not unfortunate victims of fate who 'were born with a disability,' or 'came down with a problem,' or even 'succumbed to a weakness.' These unique people don't 'have' something, they're merely more at the extreme end of a series of 'sliding scales' of personality traits than you or me. We ALL have all of the same traits, just at a different level. YOU have ADHD, Tourette's and anorexia. I have all of them, too, just to varying (perhaps negligible) degrees.

One of my clients, one of several who struggle with Founder's Syndrome (the latter is a 'label' describing successful entrepreneurs, MANY of whom have what is called ADHD and use it to accomplish much more breadth and depth of business start-up steps than average people do), in her initial 'defensive/denial' phase of dealing with this new information, angrily 'projected' back onto me: "You're telling me I have ADHD, I don't! YOU do! I know people who have it, I'm not one of them!" To which I kind of smiled and replied: "Well of COURSE I have ADHD! We all do to some extent. Mine is fairly high -- just not high enough to be a successful millionaire..." (Note that what is called ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is really mixed with a very high degree of OC, obsessive compulsive disorder, in the individuals who end up doing quite well in business, I'm convinced.)

I suspect my client did not understand me, however, as she's busy trying to avoid the stigmatism that most people think comes with being labelled.  I get that, hence this post. Here's the thing, there is no such thing as a 'normal' person.  There is a 'normal' median on every scale of personality extremes and there is a theoretical center point when we merge all the scales together, but no human being, with all our individual eccentricities and predilections, is at the exact middle on every scale.  To illustrate, here are a few 'scales' to think about:
Now there are not really an infinite number of these scales, but there are a HUGE number of subtly different scales (e.g. the 'jealous scale' being different than the 'envious scale').  When you start lumping together (weighting) any individual's strongest scores, you end up with (I'm visualizing) an egg-shape  that is more heavily skewed in one direction than someone elses 'egg':
Now we commonly think that all of us can work hard to be a better employee and push our scores toward the right on every attribute, but the reality is that on any scale, there's actually going to be a 'bell curve' wherein the average people score around the center and only a few people are a naturally good 'fit' for the extreme ends of any given scale:
When you think about this bell curve phenomena and what the scale would look like if we selected only the people you who score high on certain attributes we want in hiring a retail team of staff, for example, the 2-D visuals would look like this:
Given that none of us are 'normal,' however, it's impossible that we'd end up with consistency in this group. Despite the fact we selected for high scores on all these attributes, one individual might score well as an ideal employee, but might have one attribute that throws their 'egg-shape' off (unbalances it):
(The scale above originated at the time that a Tim Horton's Coffee Shop employee in Canada was fired for giving a crying child a small piece of doughnut.  What emerged in the ensuing discussion was a study that identified the 26% of employees convicted of theft who, when asked, said they'd steal from their employers again if they got the chance.  Many of them were good employees on other measures, but they couldn't shake their feeling that, as workers being 'exploited' by a profitable employer, their company could afford to provide them with additional benefits. On the 'moral/ethical scale,' they'd likely score low.)

The only way to really visualize an individual's full personality spectrum would be in 3-D (but I don't have the resources!).  Essentially our complex individual 3-D shapes would, given each of our tendencies to be more one way than another, a lumpy blob, with some people looking neatly egg-shaped, while others might have many bumps and spikes, or even blobs on spikes.  Here's the example above in an attempt to bring the 2-D to life (mouse over and use the 'pause' button if it's going too fast):

The point, however, is that we are ALL on each scale, the one that has 'Tourette's Syndrome-like' propensity to blurt out whatever is on his/her mind at one end, the one that has ADHD, the one with antisocial, the schizophrenia scale, autism, dyslexia, Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), genius (IQ), etc.  Being labelled with one of these extremes doesn't mean you cannot score high (or low) on another scale that would surprise the psychologists, even if most of the people with one diagnosis TEND to not be high (or low) on other specific scales.  Some people who have Asperger's Syndrome are very romantic, or very sexually charged (TV's "Bones" claims to be GIB!), but most aren't.

Many people with ADHD are really clever, many are not.   My point?  People can't be pigeon-holed, not even people who happen to fall into a specific 'label'.  Our human brains are just too complex to be conveniently and simply labelled and categorized.  So next time you find yourself, or someone else, assuming a lot about the personality or predilections of anyone who has been 'labelled', just keep in mind they're likely to surprise you!  Many low-functioning autistics are WAY smarter than the people who look down on them, as Raymond's brother learned in Rainman.

If you liked this post, you might like:  Most CMO's Think They're "Visionaries." NOT!

1 comment:

  1. You need to send this post to the psychiatrists who are voting on 'labels' to include in the new DSM V!!

    The fact they are taking so long and arguing so much proves their pigeonholing labels are a crock of proverbial.



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