Why are we obsessed with labelling?

From ethnic identity to sexual preference, political leaning, dietary needs and everything in between, humans are highly skilled at creating and using labels as cognitive shortcuts in an attempt to understand one another.

On the surface, it may seem relatively harmless to categorize people via the use of labels, right? On one hand, it could be argued that labelling is a helpful social filtering tool that could be used to discern friend from foe; who is worthy of trust and who is not; and what commonalities, or lack thereof, exist. On the other hand, loads of articles authored by field experts cite the consequences of labelling with a common theme emerging: labels distort our perceptions of people and can lead to either outright or unconscious bias against a person based on the label given.

As someone who has, realistically, been on both the giving and receiving end of the labelling phenomenon, I’ve started to question, how can I re-train my brain to not default to labeling others? This topic becomes increasingly important if we acknowledge how highly intersectional people are and realize that the lines and boundaries that once defined a particular category are more blurred than ever.

Re-train your brain to avoid labels

While I’m sure there is an ocean of credentialed psychologists and researchers that can share empirically tested ways to re-train your brain, I’ll share one, simple tactic that I’ve found helpful when I’m tempted to label someone:

Stop making it about yourself

Meaning, that while being able to label someone as “Liberal” or “Muslim” or “LGBTQ+” or “Vegan” may be cathartic for you and help alleviate any uncertainty you’ve had about that person, that doesn’t mean the other person shares your sentiments. Before you ask a person to self-identify, ask yourself:

-Why do I feel I need to know this information and what are my intentions for asking?

-If my question is answered, what do I plan to do with this information? Do I expect the person’s answer will change my perceptions of them?

If we can get better at living “in the gray”, where ambiguity is inevitable, we allow people to share their story instead of writing one for them with our own labels that push a person towards a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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