A rose by any other name would smell as sweet?
This line taken from Act II of Romeo & Juliet makes us wonder: wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where names and labels didn’t matter? But they do – and more profoundly than might be expected.
At the most basic level, it is sadly the case that people do judge things on the basis of their names. For example, David N. Figlio at the University of Florida has conducted research that suggests “teachers may us a child’s name as a signal of unobserved parental contributions to that child’s education, and expect less from children with names that ‘sound’ like they were given by uneducated parents.” Anecdotal evidence accords with this. Think, for example, how comedy characters almost always have names that play to the prejudices of viewers.
Perception turns out to be a very complex thing which is deeply affected by expectation. For instance, in experiments, drinkers have been found to enjoy wine more if they think it is expensive. The critical finding of this research is that these drinkers don’t merely say of believe that the wine is better, to them it really tastes as though it is. The way in which we process taste and smell is heavily influenced by what we think. Hence, for example, people can be blindfolded and told that the chocolate ice-cream they are eating is strawberry, or the red wine white, and it will taste to them as though it really is.
None of this means that there aren’t any real differences between good wine and bad, the smell of roses and the odour of manure. All it means is that the way we talk and think about things is not just incidental: it has the power to change our experiences of them.
(Adapted from Julian Baggini, ‘Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?‘)