Why we label

Humans naturally desire to seek understanding in the world. We are creative, curious, and critical-thinking individuals constantly on the brink of discovery.

These admirable attributes have led to some of the most impressive breakthroughs, both artistic and scientific.

However, these characteristics also make us try to simplify the complicated, and break the world down into more easily digested pieces. This could be a reason behind why we are so fond of labeling everything — even each other.

Everyone is familiar with the popularity of labeling people. It has become expected as well as accepted.

If an unfamiliar face makes an appearance in the workplace or classroom, minds immediately race to “figure them out,” as if a five-second stare could determine their entire life story.

Nonetheless, it happens, and labels are placed. Jock, hick, stoner, hipster, prep, etc., have made it easier for us to feel in control of our surroundings and secure.

“When people start believing a label, they don’t see anything about the person except for whatever the label is. The rest of a person’s traits are crossed-out by the label,” reads a blog posting on social-psychiatry.com called “Why We Should Not Label People.”

I find this to be true in the sense that when we subconsciously label a person, we rid ourselves from the painstaking inconvenience of actually getting to know them. It takes the place of tangible, old-fashioned communication.

In a sense, it saves us the trouble of actually getting to know them, while still giving the satisfaction that we have figured something, or someone, out.

The trend of labeling our peers, co-workers and even complete strangers can have negative consequences beyond naivety.

“Categorical labeling is a tool that humans use to resolve the impossible complexity of the environments we grapple to perceive. Like so many human faculties, it’s adaptive and miraculous, but it also contributes to some of the deepest problems that face our species,” writes New York University business and psychology professor Adam Alter on psychologytoday.com.

Labeling encourages closed-mindedness, stereotypes, and the impersonal notion that essentially every person can fit under a specific category.

Perhaps the biggest problem with labeling is what it promotes. Instead of viewing everyone as equal or relatable in some sense, it showcases differences, something society has done enough without our help. The immediate effects of labeling throw words like “acceptance” out the window and welcome “judgment” instead.

Is it possible to erase the temptation of labeling from our minds? I really do doubt it. However, we can change the amount of merit or consideration put into these labels. After all, the reliability of them is almost never up to par with the genuine discovery of a person. There is too much pressure already in the world to fit a certain image.

If everyone I met really did meet the textbook description of jock or hipster, I doubt I would be interested enough in the outside world to ever leave my room.

Contact Isabelle at inovak@asu.edu