(or for my grandiloquent friends: The effect of Label-Derived Heuristics on Social Entropy)

We often inherit our political and religious dispositions from our parents. Often, before we learn any of the beliefs and values associated with these dispositions, we learn the labels associated with them. Our natural inclination to connect ourself to others draws us to these labels. We happily apply them to ourselves, knowing very little about them. We call ourselves Democrats, Republicans, Christians, Muslims, atheists, etc.

We become part of a tribe and we like it. We share a trait. We feel like we belong.

Part of imbedding ourselves in tribes is the assumption of authority and trust given to fellow members of the tribe. We are more likely to believe their claims, trust their motivations, and accept their opinions. We become less likely to challenge them or disagree.

If someone within one tribe criticizes another tribe, setting our tribe in opposition to the other, we can develop animosity toward the other tribe. We can feel compelled to agree with and, ultimately, defend the positions of our tribe against another.

With continued reinforcement, the labels we apply to our tribe—and the labels we use to identify opposing tribes—take on the role of a heuristic, a mental shortcut that allows us to make a quick assessment or value judgment.

When we hear a label that has become a heuristic in our minds, we use that label to make assumptions about the person(s) that label is being applied to. 

We may assume they hold certain beliefs which they may or may not hold. We may assume their goals align with the tribe for which the label applies.

The most problematic assumption we often make of others based on labels is that of inferred intent. We may assume that they are acting to further an agenda of the group that the label applies to or; even more damaging, we assume an intent in opposition to the tribe that we align with.

This has a tendency to stall or block engaging in conversations with other tribes. We might be tempted to use words like “typical _______” to describe them before knowing anything more than a label. Our assumed beliefs about them will act as a lens, by which, all observations of members of the group are distorted or filtered. Confirmation bias will allow us to see the things that confirm our heuristic while ignoring those things that run counter to it.

And, in many cases, this will be primarily based on a label that we inaccurately assume and apply to someone else because they display a single attribute of a group for which we have developed a label heuristic.

Animosity and suspicion become default positions. We stick with our own.

We may fail to realize that, within every group, there are different levels of conviction toward the goals of the group. There are outliers, radicals, and revolutionaries. There are those that applied the label out of convenience, or even ignorance. There may be those that hold similar beliefs and similar values common to our group.

But our tribal connections are important to us and we lead busy lives. Using labels as heuristics is convenient. They require little mental investment and they allow us the luxury of letting others within our group do the mental lifting.

But, as often happens, the radicals within our group become the loudest members of the group and, if we defer the mental lifting to the group, the loudest among us gain the most influence.

Those influencers can then further streamline our heuristic by vilifying opposing groups and by identifying all those that identify with a label by the most radical of those identified by the same label. (We may begin to associate the word “socialism” with Venezuela and nothing else, we may believe all Republicans support Trump, or that all Muslims are terrorists.)

Our groups then tend to move away from one another. We build false dichotomies; see in black and white, and lose sight of the growing expanse of gray between our tribes. We get further apart from other tribes and more imbedded in our own until, inevitably, a label is created to identify differences within our own tribe. Fractures form, the tribe divides, and we begin distancing ourselves from people with whom we have a lot in common…until someone within our group begins to vilify them.

So it seems that labels, those convenient words we use to signify inclusion, often work in our minds to further exclusion.

As much as we find labels to be convenient ways to add order to our world, they may actually lead to an increase in our social entropy. Humans divide to countries and religions, countries and religions divide into political tribes and denominations, political tribes and denominations fracture, and divide, and divide…