Labeling theory: the labels we apply change our reality

"Be curious, not critical," wrote Walt Whitman. Life is neither good nor bad. Where some see a problem, others may find an opportunity. Every time we label events we turn them into good or bad. Whenever we judge what happens to us, we start a battle against reality that we will almost always lose.

Labels, the rudimentary reaction mechanism with which we limit reality

Labels can be so useful that it is difficult for us to avoid them. In some situations they make our life easier because they become cardinal points, a rapid orientation system that activates the response mechanisms we have learned without having to think too much. They are a kind of effective system that links a complex reality to a simple answer.

Our deep passion for labels stems, in large part, from our need to feel safe and to control our environment. A label is a quick response that makes us feel in control, even if it's just an illusory perception.

If we have labeled a person as "toxic" we will always make sure to stay away from them. If we have labeled a situation as "unpleasant" we will do everything possible to avoid it. We don't need anything else.

The problem is, the world isn't that simple. Every time we apply a label, we are limiting the richness of what we label. When we classify events as "good" or "bad", we stop perceiving the whole picture. As Søren Kierkegaard said: “When you label me, you deny me”, because every time we label someone, we deny their richness and complexity.

The theory of labeling: how do the labels we use shape our reality?

Psychologists began studying labels in the 30s, 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 proved this in an experiment. He asked native speakers of English or Russian to distinguish between two very similar but subtly different shades of blue. In English, there is only one word for the color blue, but Russians automatically divide the spectrum of blue into lighter blue (goluboy) and darker blue (siniy). Interestingly, those who spoke Russian distinguished the difference between the two tones faster, while for those who spoke English it was more difficult.

Labels not only shape our perception of color, they also change the way we perceive more complex situations. A classic study conducted at Princeton University showed the enormous impact of labels.

These psychologists showed one group of people a video of a little girl playing in a low-income neighborhood and another group showed the same little girl, playing the same way, but in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. The video also asked the little girl questions, some she answered well, others she didn't.

Darley and Gross found that people used the socioeconomic status label as an index of academic prowess. When the girl was labeled "middle class", people believed her cognitive performance was better. This reveals to us that a simple label, apparently harmless and objective, activates a series of prejudices or preconceived ideas that end up determining our image of people or of 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 a child has fewer intellectual abilities - even if this is not true - they will treat him as such and the child will end up getting worse grades, not because he lacks the necessary skills but simply because he has received less. attention in class. It is 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 theory of tagging indicates that our identity and behaviors are determined or influenced by the terms we or others use to describe us.

Labels say more about who uses them than about who is labeled

Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize-winning and Nobel Prize-winning American writer for literature, wrote: "Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined ones." Every label we apply, with the goal of limiting others, actually narrows our world. Each label is the expression of our inability to deal with complexity and uncertainty, the unexpected and the ambivalent.

In fact, we often use labels when reality is so complex that it overwhelms us psychologically, or when we don't have the cognitive tools to assess what is happening in perspective.

From this perspective, each label is like a tunnel that closes our vision to a wider and more complex reality. And if we don't have a global perspective of what's happening, we can't respond adaptively. In that moment we stop responding to reality to start responding to the distorted image of reality that we have built in our mind.

Flexible labels reduce stress

Using fixed terms to describe people or ourselves is not only limiting, but also stressful. Conversely, thinking about identity more flexibly will lessen our stress, as pointed out by psychologists at the University of Texas.

The study, conducted with the students, revealed that those who believed that personalities can change, both their own and that of the colleagues they labeled, were less stressed in situations of social exclusion and, by the end of the year, had become ill less than to those who tended to apply fixed labels.

Having a more flexible view of the world allows us to adapt more easily to changes, and therefore to stress ourselves much less. Also, understanding that everything can change - ourselves or people - will prevent us from falling into fatalism, so we can develop a more optimistic outlook on life.

How to escape the labels?

We must remember that "good" and "bad" are two sides of the same coin. Until we truly understand it, we will be trapped in dichotomous thinking, victims of the labels we apply ourselves.

We must also understand that if someone does something wrong from our point of view, it does not mean that they are a bad person, but simply a person who has done something that does not correspond to our value system.

We remember that "sometimes it is the very people from whom no one expects anything, who do things that no one can imagine," said Alan Turing. Because sometimes, we just have to open up to experiences, without pre-established ideas, and let them surprise us.

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