A Warning About Labels – Why We Need to Stop Putting People into Boxes

A Warning About Labels – Why We Need to Stop Putting People into Boxes

Millennial, vegan, feminist, blogger, the girlfriend of… During the past years, I’ve been attributed many different labels. And each and every time I had a cold shiver running down my spine. I want to be a whole person, and one box just doesn’t cut it. Instead, it makes me feel limited and held back. Sounds familiar?

We are conditioned to judge people based on their appearance, behavior, job or who they spend their time with. It happens so subconsciously, that we don’t even realize it.

I remember the allegory of the baby elephant that was chained to a post by his keeper. The little one would learn that the chain keeps him within a certain radius of the post and that the space beyond was out of reach for him.

After a while, it would be so engraved in his brain, that when he grew up to be one of the world’s biggest and strongest living beings, a simple rope attached to a stick would keep him from escaping. The barrier then only existed in his mind.

Black, white, rich, poor, straight or gay. We put labels on humans or place them in boxes, which means we are limiting their options and restricting them in their freedom, preventing them from acting freely, even though the barriers might just be in our heads.

Through education and our life experiences, we make assumptions about others and in doing so, create division. Labels can be belittling and quite hurtful. Sometimes they put a lot of pressure on a person, a pressure to match expectations. Putting someone in a box can cause a lot of stress on all sides.

Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

Ever been labeled? Ever labeled someone yourself?

We all certainly have done both, sometimes it’s a good thing and sometimes it’s a bad thing. So why do we put labels on people?

Labeling people to “contain” those who disagree with us

We are tempted to ignore our adversaries and put them in a box when their views are wildly divergent or their lifestyles aren’t comparable to ours: The black queer, the vegan feminist or maybe the wealthy, white homestay mom.

In doing so we shut other people down, which might help us as individuals by making a very complex world less complicated and not having to confront a different opinion.

But labeling also works against making good group decisions and progress as an individual.

I actually quite enjoy speaking with people holding different views. I hope to challenge others and in the same way, I expect them to challenge me. If I walk out of a conversation having learned something new, then that’s progress.

Photo by Ben Duchac on Unsplash

Labeling is used to resolve the complexity of the world we grapple to perceive

Giving someone we just met a label, often gives us a false sense of familiarity toward something that is really new to us. It stops us from seeing the things as they really are and from thinking, evaluating and having genuine discussions.

If I decide to put a label on someone, how will this affect my relationships in the future? My ability to make friends or even have a conversation? Do I really only want to engage in relationships with people I’ve put into certain categories and ignore the rest?

Labeling others to find common interests

Looking around us, we tend to naturally be drawn to people similar to ourselves. None of us is above this social conditioning. But humans are complex, so how can we really know who someone is, just by looking at their appearance?

The truth is that we all have things – interests, values, experiences, personality trades – in common, and often more than you would think. We should not put limits on our self and others by assigning labels.

Peoples personalities are not fixed

Many aspects of our personality are subject to change throughout our life – not just between our teens and adult life. You’ve probably met one to the other person, that told you he or she has changed since you last met.

A criminal might not stay a criminal, an outgoing person might become more introvert over time. But what happens to the box you’ve put this person in so long ago? Will you be able to revoke your judgment and get to know this person?

Photo by Megan Lewis on Unsplash

One action doesn’t define someone’s character

When you say that someone is a bully, you not only mean that they tend to bully other people, but also that—at their core—they are the kind of person who bullies others.

Every time that someone treats you badly, you take that as evidence that they are a bad person, and not just that they are a possibly good person who just happened to do a bad thing. You are not just causing yourself a lot of stress by assuming such thing, but also affect the other person’s thoughts and actions in the future.

Labels can affect someone’s behavior

Have labels ever hurt you and kept you from being who you really are or doing what you want?

Researchers have tested what happens to a person when you give them a particular label.  Before an election, the scientists pretended to be setting up voter profiles, randomly giving the label “very likely to vote” and “normal likelihood to vote” to the test persons during the end of the one-on-one conversation.

How did these labels affect voter turnout? As you might have guessed, labeling people as likely to vote did increase turnout – 86.5% of this group voted, versus 75.3% of the ‘average’ group. (Now this is obviously a very simplified explanation of the experiment and its results, so you may want to check out a more coherent summary here).

There are many ways to ethically apply this knowledge. For example, a teacher telling her student, that she sees potential in her, could go a long way.  You also have to wonder, if a police officer tells you that you’re worthless criminal scum, what effect does that have on you?

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

The only way to stop an action is to become more aware of it

Ultimately, it is important to realize that you should not completely define the people in your life by their current behavior, beliefs, job or partner.

People are not one or the other. You should not take the right to define a human being, to make your own life or understanding of the world easier. So try to think about people’s personalities in a less fixed way, and perhaps that will decrease your overall stress as well.

Maybe this article can help you to become more aware of attempts to label you, too. If you can figure out your self-schema, you’ll be able to see what types of labels are more likely to affect you.

Let us allow people to be themselves, ever-shifting, beautiful human beings.


Jen May




Carroll, J. B. (ed.) (1997) [1956]. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Darley, J.M., Gross, P.H. (1983). A hypothesis-confirming bias in labeling effects. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 20-33.

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.

* Featured image by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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