By Nicole M. Schlegel
Labeling theory states that people act in ways that correspond with how they are labeled by their peers. It is most often used in the study of crime and deviance, where labeling criminally deviant individuals tends to foster actual deviant behavior. However, labeling theory has applications beyond criminology, especially in the discipline of child and adult developmental psychology.
Young adults are often quick to judge their peers and label them (as either nerdy, weird, cool, etc.) The impact of these labels on general mental health is colloquially and scientifically known, but lacks practical application to a young-adult population. Applying research on labeling theory to help youth navigate the trials and tribulations of adolescence can change the way youth behavior is evaluated, stigmatized, and carried out. Future implications of this study include an ability to rethink common challenges of young adulthood (such as bullying, mental health issues, peer pressure, etc.) and an attitude shift towards fostering an inclusive environment for youth to socially exist in.
The primary goals of this research are to 1) synthesize one sociological perspective and three psychological perspectives that explain the negative enduring effect of labels on teenage well-being and 2) equip young people with the skills needed to make educated choices about labeling peers and maintaining inclusive mindsets towards others. In doing so, the following questions should be answered:
- How can the theory of social labeling be used to explain the motives, procedures, and consequences of labeling others?
- How can an interdisciplinary approach be used to holistically understand the social and emotional significance of labels on teens?
- How can young people find the courage to resist harmful labeling and treat others with dignity?
Reviewing the Literature
Labels in social, sensational, and perceptual psychology
Labeling others is an adaptive trait. Our attentional resources as human beings are limited in capacity, meaning that only so much can be focused on at once. Labels allow us to quickly summarize and free up our capacity for complex thought.
Labels serve a range of functions, from simplifying ingroups and outgroups, to establishing us vs. them mentality, to clarifying the world around us and making interactions easier. Labels are heuristics – mental shortcuts that quickly summarize behaviors and identities. However, these heuristics can reinforce stereotyping and emphasize reputations. Perceptual load theory states that all of our attentional resources must be used up. Therefore, task-relevant stimuli take priority in our perception, while task-irrelevant stimuli are ignored. So, if we label someone as “sporty,” our brains prioritize and remember all athletic-related traits about them and leave a limited amount of space in our perceptual load to notice non-athletic qualities. This is why stereotyping through labels is so enduring and reputations are so difficult to see beyond unless they are actively resisted.
Labels in biological psychology
Labels create neural networks of association in our brains. Neural networks of association can be thought of as distinctive features of an item that are linked to better identify the item. These networks are activated during memory reconsolidation, in which a memory is remembered again, and are helpful for encoding information into our long term memory from our short term memory. What stimuli is worthy of being linked together is determined by the individual through vicarious, conditional, and operant learning. For example, the neural network of popular may comprise of words, phrases, ideas, and visualizations related to blonde, attractive, rude to parents, rich, and many friends (each of these words is considered a node – a building block of the neural network of popular). This network of association is likely created from external stimuli such as familiar archetypes in popular media and social environment.
Like heuristics, neural networks allow for quick processing of external stimuli. But their most significant consequence is their ability to deepen stereotyping and reinforce clique myths. Neural networks are strengthened the more they are used. After the brain learns the word popular for the first time, the words and phrases comprising the network are the automatic response. This constant reinforcement explains why Regina George is the face of the stereotypical Mean Girl – she represents what we have been taught to see as popular and what our brains have solidified in our neural networks as social fact.
Labels in clinical psychology
Humans crave definitions. They allow us the mental satisfaction to give meaning to the unknown. The inability to resist defining behavior lead to the labeling of nearly 300 mental disorders through the DSM-5. However, many disorders are comorbid with each other. Obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders have similar cognitive patterns of thinking. Schizophrenia and Bipolar I disorder are both marked with manic symptoms and thought disorder.
The fact that similar causes, biological markers, and symptoms exist within different classified disorders suggests that human disorder may not be as stratified as we once thought. Labels can be misleading, not only with their tendency to draw a hyperbolic line between disorders, but with their tendency to exaggerate the difference between normal and abnormal.
While labels may be useful for specificity of treatment (anxiety disorders are treated with Xanax and fear hierarchy desensitization, while mood disorders are treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy and SSRIs), what is labeled as normal and abnormal is an oversimplification of the human condition. Labels often serve as fuel to stigmatize behavior and make it difficult to holistically see oneself outside of a diagnosis.
The important thing to remember is context. It is pertinent to know when labeling is appropriate, as those suffering from disorder should be allowed to feel validated. Mental illness is often an invisible disease, and people can use diagnostic labels to be granted access to the same medical resources as those suffering from biological (often observable) illnesses. But we must also recognize when casual labeling perpetuates harmful stereotypes about mental health. For example: When teens have mood swings, parents may jokingly call their children bipolar. This label oversimplifies the essence of the bipolar condition and tells the wrong narrative about what it means to live with bipolar disorder. Because parents are a primary agent of socialization in teens’ lives, this narrative will most likely be internalized.
Labels in the sociology of deviance
Labels are culturally constructed and informed. The process of labeling behavior defines who is deviant and who is socially tame. Deviance is subjective; something may be weird in one context and normal in another. Labels are a way to give arbitrary labels to subjective behavior.
Substituting the objective with the subjective has detrimental effects to mental health, self esteem, and sense of worth. Behavior is always defined as acceptable or unacceptable in context. If our peers make up the majority of our social context and source of validation and they label us as weird, we internalize that label, regardless if what we do is truly weird or not. Humans are defined by more than just one word, but social labeling limits this insight.
Rocco, Cultures of Dignity Intern
“What I label myself and what I am labeled by family and peers is important, because those labels set the basics of what to expect from me. (The labels) give me input on my outside appearance, and give me recommendations on what to change. However, my labels do set limited information about me that cause people to assume some of my traits and judge my personality just by the words used to describe me, rather than my actions.”
Micah, Cultures of Dignity Intern
“(What I label myself) is critical for understanding my future and where I want to be in the world because they represent what I strive to be. However, the labels I choose to embody only show the characteristics of myself that I’m proud of, and completely exclude all the fears, insecurities and negative qualities that we all have as human beings.”
David, Cultures Advisory Council
“I see my labels in different events throughout my life and reflected through other people onto me. The Jewish values of “honesty” and “hard working” were instilled in me since my upbringing. Having a family dynamic is what makes me embody things. (My labels) were taught to me.”
Marcos, Cultures Advisory Council
“Labels in the LGBTQ community are more for owning your existence. I want to live up to the labels I think I have, and I don’t want to think about it as positive and negative. I am incredibly challenging to people – calling out people all the time. People think I am loud or angry because of that, which is true. I embody my labels because I can’t exist without being loud and angry.”
Tré, Cultures Advisory Council
“I see each of my labels as having a positive and negative effect on how people see me. The more prevalent the label is in my life the more I feel like I need to live up to it. Identity based labels are incredibly important. I am always having to interact with people as a black man. I don’t have control over how people respond to what they see – I have to live my life in response to people’s perceptions or behaviors will be based on interacting with me. I want people to recognize my (visual) label but I hope they do it in a sense of understanding and critical thought rather than making broad negative assumptions about me.”
After an examination of various psycho-social perspectives on labels, the science points to a seemingly grim ultimatum. Labeling is a necessary evil: important to make sense of the world around us, but a primary enabler of stereotyping. How do we approach such a unique problem? Solutions take consciousness, awareness, and bravery to rethink how we classify and define our social worlds.
First, we must actively resist the automatic process of labeling. It will continue to occur (even after understanding the psychological consequences), but at least now we can recognize when we are using and misusing labels. Motivation is key to prioritizing what the mind focuses on. Ideally, after hearing about the application of labeling theory to young adult mental wellness, we should be motivated to rethink how we label their peers, and be motivated to change any problematic behavior. We must revisit old cliches like thinking about the power of a single word and being aware of the consequences of language.
Second, we must remember that context is key. We must learn what situations warrant helpful labeling and hurtful labeling. By doing this, bravery begets dignity when we can challenge and breakdown existing labels that we know are unjust, even if it means having difficult conversations with close peers and/or family members. Labels are reinforced by silence, and one way to break the silence is to rethink and speak up about how labels play a role in granting dignity. It’s on us to employ our empathy and decide when labels cross moral lines and deny basic human worth.
And third (but certainly not finally), we must incorporate holism in our interactions and resist judgement. Describing behavior with greater clarity than a single word is one way to illuminate the ways in which labels restrict identities. When greater clarity is missing, having the social respect to ask clarifying questions about others (when the situation warrants it) is a necessary step to completing a narrative unswayed by labels.
Labels present a unique conundrum to young people, but the paths for future research regarding labeling theory and mental health in youth are flourishing. Longitudinal studies about how labels are created, embodied, and changed over time, the role of labels in social media use, and the intersection of labeling theory and athletic identity should be explored further to add to the cannon of content dedicated to helping young adults approach the mental and emotional challenges of growing up. The more willing we are to recognize labeling as a critical component of youth culture, the more likely we are to create a culture of dignity where young people are free to label themselves as they see fit.
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