Labeling Theory: The labels we apply – or the others apply to us – determine our identity, our behaviour and also our reality.
“Be curious, not judgmental”, wrote Walt Whitman. Life is neither good nor bad. Where some see a problem, others may find an opportunity. Every time we label the events, we turn them into good or bad. Every time we judge what happens to us, we start a battle against the reality in which we will almost always have the chance to lose.
Labels, that rudimentary mechanism of reaction with which we limit reality
Labels can become so useful that we find it difficult to escape them. In some situations they make life easier for us since they become cardinal points, a rapid system of orientation that activates the response mechanisms we have learned without having to think too much. They are like a simplified trigger that connects a complex reality with a simple answer.
Our deep passion for labels comes, in large part, from our need to feel safe and control our environment. A label is a quick response that makes us feel that we have the control, even if it is only an illusionary perception.
If we labeled a person as “toxic”, we don’t need anything more, we will try to stay away from him. If we labeled a situation as “undesirable” we will do everything possible to escape it.
The problem is that the world is not so simple. Every time we apply a label we are reducing the wealth of what we’re labeling. When we classify the events as “good” or “bad”, we stop perceiving the complete image. As Søren Kierkegaard said: “When you label me, you deny me”, because every time we label someone we deny his wealth and complexity.
The Labeling Theory: How do the labels we use shape our reality?
Psychologists began to study labels in the 1930s, when linguist Benjamin Whorf proposed the hypothesis of linguistic relativity. He believed that the words we use to describe what we see are not mere labels, but end up determining what we see.
Decades later, cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky demonstrated it with an experiment. She asked people of English or Russian mother tongue to distinguish between two very similar but subtly different shades of blue. In English, there is only one word for the blue color, but the Russians automatically divide the spectrum of blue into lighter blues (goluboy) and darker blues (siniy). Interestingly, those who spoke Russian distinguished the difference between the two tones faster, while those who spoke English needed much more.
Labels not only shape our perception of the color, but also change the way we perceive more complex situations. A classic study conducted at Princeton University showed the enormous scope of labels.
These psychologists showed a group of people a video of a girl playing in a low-income neighborhood and to another group showed the same girl, playing in the same way, but in a high-middle class neighborhood. In the video were also asked some questions to the girl, to some she answered well, with others she made mistakes.
Darley and Gross discovered that people used the socioeconomic status label as an index of academic ability. When the girl was labeled as “middle class”, people believed that her cognitive performance was better. This reveals to us that a simple label, apparently innocuous and objective, activates a series of prejudices or preconceived ideas that end up determining our image of people or reality.
The problem goes much further, the implications of labeling are immense, as demonstrated by Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson. These educational psychologists found that if teachers believe that a child has less intellectual capacity – even if it’s not true – they will treat him as such and that child will end up getting worse grades, not because he lacks the necessary skills but simply because he received less attention during the lessons. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: when we believe that something is real, we can make it real with our attitudes and behaviors.
Nobody is immune to the influence of labels. The labeling theory indicates that our identity and behaviors are determined or influenced by the terms that we or others use to describe us.
The labels say more about who’s labeling, than who is labeled
Toni Morrison, the American writer, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize for Literature, wrote: “The definitions belong to the definers, not the defined”. Each label we place, with the objective of limiting the others, actually restricts our world. Each label is the expression of our inability to deal with complexity and uncertainty, with the unexpected and the ambivalent.
In fact, we usually resort to labels when reality is so complex that it overwhelms us psychologically, or when we don’t have the cognitive tools to assess in a fair measure what is happening.
From this perspective, each label is like a tunnel that closes our vision to a more vast, wide and complex reality. And if we don’t have a global perspective of what is happening, we cannot respond adaptively. In that moment we stop responding to reality to begin to respond to the biased image of reality that we have built in our mind.
Flexible labels reduce our stress
Using fixed terms to describe people or ourselves is not only limiting, but also stressful. On the contrary, thinking about identity more flexibly will decrease our level of stress, as indicated by psychologists at the University of Texas.
The study, carried out with students, revealed that those who believed that the personality could change, both their own and that of the classmates they labeled, were less stressed in situations of social exclusion and, at the end of the year, they become less ill than people who used to apply fixed labels.
Having a more flexible view of the world allows us to adapt more easily to changes, so we will stress much less. Furthermore, understanding that everything can change – ourselves or people – will prevent us from falling into the arms of fatalism, so that we can develop a more optimistic vision of life.
How to escape from labels?
We need to remember that “good” and “bad” are two sides of the same coin. If we don’t understand it, we will remain trapped in dichotomous thinking, victims of the labels we apply ourselves.
We also need to understand that if someone does something wrong from our point of view, it doesn’t mean that he is a bad person, but simply a person who did something that doesn’t correspond to our value system.
Remember that “Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine”, as Alan Turing said. Because sometimes, we just have to open up to experiences, without pre-established ideas, and let them surprise us.
Yeager, D.S. et. Al. (2014) The far-reaching effects of believing people can change: implicit theories of personality shape stress, health, and achievement during adolescence. J Pers Soc Psychol; 106(6): 867-884.
Boroditsky, L. et. Al. (2007) Russian blues reveal effects of language on color discrimination. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA; 104(19): 7780-7785.
Darley, J.M. & Gross, P.H. (1983) A hypothesis-confirming bias in labeling effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 44(1): 20-33.
Rosenthal, R., y Jacobson, L. (1980) Pygmalion en la escuela. Expectativas del maestro y desarrollo intelectual del alumno. Madrid: Ed. Marova.