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Can Labeling Affect Someone’s Mental Health?

Humans often resort to ‘categorical labeling.’ Sounds new? This is one of the finest tools that humans can use to resolve the complexities of the environments we try and perceive. To an extent, this ability is ‘adaptive’ and highly miraculous. But this is not without its fair share of problems that our minds face at large.

What Is Labeling?

Linguist Benjamin Whorf came up with the linguistic relativity hypothesis. Most researchers then delved into realities like cognitive power and the effects of labeling. This was during the 1930s. Going by the tenets of the hypothesis, the words we choose to use while describing what we see aren’t mere words. They essentially help us gauge what we can see. For instance, experts can distinguish between various types of snow, but as novices, we can’t.

Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive psychologist, and a few colleagues suggest that the previous theory was partially true. To validate it, Boroditsky and her colleagues insisted English and Russian speakers classify between two similar-looking shades of blue. From the English perspective, there’s just one single color, ‘blue.’

Now, Russians chose to divide the entire spectrum of blue into two parts – lighter blue and darker blue. This was possible because they have exposed top the two shades that English speakers didn’t care about and clubbed it as a single ‘blue.’ The Russian speakers could thus read through quicker than their English counterparts when speaking about the two shades of blue.

Racial Labeling

Besides this, it also helps us perceive highly complex targets. Our perception of color is also shaped to a large extent by labels.  Jennifer Eberhardt, a successful social psychologist at Stanford experimented to understand this. A bunch of white college students was shown snapshots of a man. The race of the person was ambiguous. The face belonged to a white man for one-half of the students, while the remaining half described it as a black person.

On a specific task, the experimenter had asked students to spend no less than 4 minutes and draw the face as it appeared before them. Students were exposed to one face only, and they approached upon the fact that race is a human characteristic, drawing faces that would match the typical stereotype linked with the label is normal.

Racial labels became so entrenched with the students who saw the man the way he is that it seemed like an invisible lens worn by students. So they were practically incapable of seeing and perceiving him, sans any independence of that label.

Labeling Is A Complex Psychological Process

It’s not merely about racial labeling, or should we say profiling. There are some classic studies by Paget Gross and John Darley, where they wanted to see similar effects on Hannah, as in if she was poor or wealthy. As per a video where Hannah played in the neighborhood, college students read a very brief fact sheet describing her background.

Some students watched Hannah coming out from a very low-income housing estate, and her parents were mere high school graduates, having blue-collar jobs. On the other hand, the remaining students saw Hannah playing against a tree-lined neighborhood. There, people perceived her parents as educated professionals.

Students also had to assess Hannah’s academic records after she responded to a series of achievement-test questions. Though it was difficult to gauge Hannah’s academic prowess, students still believed her socioeconomic status as a proxy to her intellectual abilities. Typically, when she was labeled a ‘middle-class woman,’ students’ perception was that she came close to a fifth-grade level, but as a ‘poor woman.’, she would be forming a fourth-grade level pass out.

So How Far Is Labelling Justified?

Is labeling a matter of concern? Not always! To collect the information that we tend to, use labels like ‘friendly,’ ‘tasty’ and harmful ‘are common. Even adjectives like ‘rich,’ ‘poor,’ ‘black,’ and ‘grey’ are labeling options that we frequently use. But from the mental health perspective, it must be understood how far one should tread.

Lest we forget, it might stigmatize people in our society for their skin color, academic or family background, and many other reasons. We must know whom we are labeling and how so they do not feel isolated or lonely.

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