What’s in a name?
by Friederike Reichel (LMU Munich)

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

Spoken by Juliet, Act 2 Scene 2, Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare


Wild Roses, Vincent van Gogh (1853 - 1890), Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, May-June 1889

Our social world heavily relies on social labels. Often, it is hard to know what someone has actually been doing or saying, but we hear or read that they are labeled a fascist, a climate terrorist, or a bigot. Clearly, these labels matter because, based on them, we will decide whether to vote for a politician, support a social movement, or hire a person. Yet, the judgment about which set of actions should count as, say, bigoted is up for debate.

But would it make a difference to label more actions bigoted? Would people react if formerly accepted actions or statements were publicly denounced as bigoted? And if so, would people adjust their actions in systematic ways?

One might expect that raising the bar for avoiding a negative label, or earning a positive one, would cause people to engage in better behaviors. On the other hand, those who previously escaped judgment may start engaging in worse behaviors. They understand that using a stigmatizing label more broadly dilutes its reputational damage. In fact, the concern that disparaging terms lose their force when applied broadly is often voiced in public discourse. 

A new working paper (Reichel, 2023) shows that these two opposing effects exist. A significant share of participants in the study reduced their contributions to a common cause when higher contributions were required to escape a stigmatizing label; participants understood that others would judge people carrying that label less harshly. These findings may help explain why the last years have seen both a rise in right-wing populism (Guriev & Papaioannou, 2022) and heated debates around political correctness.  

“Activism changes the language,” says Peter Sokolowski, an editor of the Merriam-Webster dictionary, when interviewed about the dictionary’s revision of the ‘Racism’ entry at the request of an activist in 2020 (Hauser, 2020). It is reasonable to assume that activists hope to see such linguistic changes lead to behavioral changes in society. Effectively influencing others’ behavior through language, however, requires an understanding of their reactions. 

Reichel (2023) documents that participants misperceive the effects of using a stigmatizing term more broadly, incorrectly believing that this would lead to higher contributions. In fact, 70% of participants held these misperceptions. They believed that participants would increase their contributions when higher contributions were required to escape the stigmatizing label, even though contributions did not change on average. This misunderstanding gives people a motive to apply negative labels too broadly and positive ones too exclusively. 

Juliet is right; labels are interchangeable. Swapping “up” and “down,” “magic” and “ordinary” would virtually make no difference as long as we all were aware of it. Words derive their meaning from how we use them (Wittgenstein, 1953). The stigma that a term carries is no exception to this principle of ordinary language philosophy. The inflationary use of terms will reduce their stigma and preventive power. The findings in Reichel (2023) demonstrate that the study participants, however, do not fully appreciate the extent to which the meaning of stigmatizing terms is diluted when they are applied more broadly: there’s less to a name than one may think.

This text is jointly published by  BSoE Insights and Researching Misunderstandings


Guriev, S., & Papaioannou, E. (2022). The Political Economy of Populism. Journal of Economic Literature60

(3), 753–832.

Hauser, C. (2020, June 10). Merriam-Webster Revises `Racism’ Entry After Missouri Woman Asks for Changes. New York Times


Reichel, F. (2023). What’s in a name? The breadth of moral labels. Working Paper.

Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophische Untersuchungen (11th ed.). Suhrkamp Verlag.

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