Can Labeling really be avoided at all times?

After reading Rosenhan’s (1973) ‘sane in insane places’ I can agree about the dangers with labeling, and I also agree with the APA that one should always be cautious*when labeling groups during research. Even after a discussion with Dr Martin, the conclusions were that labeling is always bad, and we should never label or judge other people. We even learned from Dweck’s paper, Self Theories: The Mindset of a Champion, (2000). That learning styles are not real, they are imaginary and results of the placebo effect. And by labeling ourselves and others a learning style, we restrict our learning capacity and knowledge.

Despite all of these theories (facts) People judge and label each other all the time. We receive a first impression about someone, from their cloths, their accent, and their hobbies or just by their appearance. Judging someone takes 2 seconds, and we are not even aware of that we are doing it. It is a subconscious act of our brain. Malcolm Gladwell (2005) explains this as Rapid Cognition in his book ‘Blink’. There are lots of more books to be found on how to judge people, “read other people’s minds” and such. However, if labeling always was bad how could we justify all these books that tell us How to judge others?

Giving someone a label is always easier than to get to know someone in depth. It gives us an idea about someone and whether we a likely to like this person or not. Is he friend or enemy? Biologically this behavior of labeling could be necessary to our ancestor’s survival, instead of rushing into things out of curiosity; they labeled something as Dangerous and survived. Labeling and judging would therefore have been necessary for our survival.

* I my first entry it said “One must always be couscous”


8 comments on “Can Labeling really be avoided at all times?

  1. lealeason says:

    I agree with you that we need certain labels so that we don not have to learn everything about people again and again but get an idea on first sight.
    How ever, this fact should make us even more careful since the words we use have a deeper impact than simply being place holders only making guidelines on which words to choose when labeling people even more important.
    Jennifer Eberhardt and her colleagues, for example, did a study about how racial labels narrow our view on individuals by presenting white college students with the picture of a racially ambiguous man and described it to them as either belonging to a white or black man. The students were then told to draw the face. Although they were all looking at the same face, they matched the stereotypes associated with the skin colour and were unable to separate their view of the man from the label.So what if we have bad associations with a label?

    Eberhardt, J. L., Dasgupta, N., & Banaszynski, T. L. (2003). Believing is seeing: The effects of racial labels and implicit beliefs on face perception. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 360-370.

    • Since what we say about a person affects another person’s feelings towards another person they’ve never met, we need to be very careful about what we say about others. Unless we want our friends to dislike this person along with us. So that you and your friends can dislike this person together. And in that since feel better about yourself. Although, this is another subject i will not discuss in this blog or comment. They study you address seems to me be a little bit about racism. Therefore i find it suitable to adress a study showing that there is a mindset among humans referred to as “unaware racists”. Meaning that a person may no problem at all with people of different ethnicity, but still react differently emotionally when confronting a coloured person, than a white person. Furthermore, showing that we carry with us subconscious feelings towards other people even though we know nothing about them. I think that this study can be linked to Eberhardts study which you address. One must also take media interference into account when speaking about fear of people of different origin.

      • lealeason says:

        Hi mrnorthernstor. This was not my intention. My comment and the study I mentioned referred to your second and third paragraph and was meant to be an example . As you said, if there were no labels, we would always have to learn everything again. You say: ‘It gives us an idea about someone and whether we a likely to like this person or not’. I do agree with you about this point but I wanted to add that the label we choose or are aware of has a greater intact than only describing and giving a basic idea about the person. Labels and the accuracy of our labels can also narrow our view on people as in my example.
        I will try to give a more general example which can not be associated with racism:
        Lena Boroditsky and her colleagues studied the the impact of our vocabulary on our ability to distinguish between different objects by analysed how quick Russian speakers and English speakers are in distinguishing between two different shades of blue. The Russian speaking people, who have different words for the different types of blue, were much faster than the English speaking since there is only one label for the two shades in English.

        Winawer, J., Witthoft, N., Frank, M. C., Wu, L., Wade, A., & Boroditsky, L. (2007). The Russian blues: Effects of language on color discrimination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 7780-7785.

  2. psue3e says:

    As much as I agree with both the post and the previous comment, I believe that they are discussing two different, although closely-related issues. The blog emphasises the importance and the inevitability of labels, which are a very quick and effective way to form an impression of someone. Psychology, in particular, needs to label and classify people in order to statistically analyse its results. It would be much easier to conduct research on the sleeping patterns of two clearly defined groups, such as ‘introverts’ and ‘extroverts’, rather than form a group for every personality trait either of these group entails and explore that, in particular.

    On the other hand, Lea’s comment highlighted the significance not so much of labels as such but the negative stereotypes some labels are associated with. Racial and gender discrimination, the stigma about mental disorders and homosexuality are all examples of that.

    Labels cannot be avoided, negative stereotypes can.

    • Labels cannot be avoided but the way you form your label seems important. It changes the way you look upon yourself and other. If I label myself ‘as a stammer’ then i would feel that this is Who I Am – and I cannot change who i am. This would withhold me from speaking in public, and keep my opinions for myself, since I would only get half a sentence out anyway. I would be shy and limited in my lifestyle. But if a label myself as a person of equal value to everyone else I feel that this is something that I Can Change. I can lose this handicap of mine through practice and by engaging conversation. Saying that my stammer is a handicap I’m unfortunate with, but I won’t let it hold me back from being equal to everybody else. Therefore it’s a Label not a Stigma.

      Negative stereotypes can of course be avoided, especially within scientific writing because of the APA. But I still don’t think is that easy to avoid labeling, unless you are that kind of person who doesn’t “judge others”. Stereotypes are something we’re fed with by media, friends and parents. But the choice to believe in the stereotypes is your own.

  3. Haha, I wish I had read this post and the comments above when I was writing my labelling essay, I don’t think that I had come up with any points nearly as interesting as the ones raised here. I see the issue with labelling is that it leads to stereotypes and potentially the deeper issues of racism and discrimination. However it also means that the researcher could also loose their objectivity due to their own biases, which compromises the results. I found the study, ‘Langer, E.J., Abelson, R.P., (1974) A patient by any other name . . . : Clinician group difference in labeling bias.’ ( to be a relevant example of the effects of labelling bias.
    Redirecting my comment back to the original blog, I believe that within a science,labels are vital. For example biology would struggle without labels for each organism/species, why should psychology not be the same?
    I wonder to what extent the labelling within society can be put down to the media. Many aspects of todays society consists of fitting within a group (music, fashion, schooling etc etc), was the world always like this? Or is it just a pervasive money-making scheme that has emerged within recent years?
    On a slightly different note, I would always be careful when trying to attribute findings to our cavemen ancestors. I personally am mistrustful of evolutionary psychology as I don’t see how it can be falsified, as you cannot make predictions, only retrospective speculations.

  4. psuf10 says:

    Hey MrNorthernstrom
    I totally agree that labeling is something which is just part of our DNA. Your making it out that all labeling is bad, however surely labeling has its positives as well. This because it is a fast method of testing and diagnosing what people have. The reason for this is that if you do a general test people will fit criteria, which they allows them to be labeled, and get the appropriate help. An example of this is autism is that no two peoples autism are the same due to a general trend in symptoms people can be diagnosed and get the appropriate help. And in the Rosenhan experiment, surely there are some positives to be shown that even though all were accepted it meant that if you really had a problem you would be able to get accepted no matter what. also this was 30 years ago (1973) since then the medical system has cracked down on this sort of thing.

  5. fjwbu says:

    Labelling other people is innate in humans, as you point out in your blog, it’s helped to keep us alive. The majority of the labelling we do is rushed and often incorrect, however some labelling is good and in some cases it is necessary, e.g. sometimes in Psychology. If we don’t label anyone how do we test groups? Also labels are there. They’re real and saying we shouldn’t doesn’t change that some of us are older men with an arrogance problem, some of us are gossiping women, etc, etc. More importantly though, if we acknowledge the labelling we do then we can take that into account, however if we say we must not label, all that happens is we do it anyway but don’t say it out loud and it subconsciously alters e.g. how we interpret results, but because we’re not acknowledging it we can’t ‘fix’ it. Nice blog.

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