Why Do We Label Everything?

Why do we label everything?

Our brain loves to label everything: “Pepito is arrogant”, “This video is creepy“, “What happened to me is very random”, “Menganito and Menganita are dating”… As you can see, even labels transcend language when looking for a precise term that is relevant.

Labels are quick subjective judgments we make of the elements around us. We can give different labels to objects, animals, people, situations, relationships, ways of dressing, foods, moods, diseases, psychological problems… Basically everything you can think of.

But why do we do it? Well, it has different causes, including biological ones. If you want to discover them, keep reading this article in which I explain why we label everything and if this is good or bad.

Why do we need to label everything?

We tend to label our surroundings and ourselves out of a biological need, and that is that naming things allows us to adapt to situations. Within this adaptive function, we can distinguish several factors that determine why we label everything.

1. Need to understand the world and how we are

The first reason to label everything is to understand the environment. Our brain is constantly analyzing what is happening inside and outside us, in order to react based on the information we receive. This analysis consumes a lot of energy in itself, but it would consume more if we had to interpret everything as if we had just seen it for the first time or had to examine it scrupulously.

Labels serve to simplify a lot of information into a single word, which makes it easier to make mental schemes and organize them. In turn, when we recognize some feature that allows us to label that element, we can predict characteristics that we are not seeing at first.

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In this way, instead of doing in-depth analysis, our brain briefly evaluates the environment and assigns labels to what it sees. This way we can get a rough idea at first glance, and we create expectations and predictions, in addition to giving an explanation about other people and certain situations. Even labels can help us understand what we are like, which provides peace of mind.

2. Fear of uncertainty

One of the things that causes the greatest discomfort to human beings is uncertainty, that is, the lack of safe and clear information in a situation, in which we have doubts about how it will develop or it is unpredictable. Uncertainty creates anxiety and fear, because the body, when it does not know what is going to happen, prepares for a possible problem.

This sensation creates in us the need to try to control the uncontrollable and “cognitive closure”: seek absolute certainties to erase any doubt. This is where labels come in. If we put labels that we know on what is around us, we will be able to predict and fill in the lack of information about the situation.

By making the world predictable thanks to labels, we partially reduce uncertainty. We manage to provide stability with our mental schemes and prepare ourselves for the situation predicted with the labels. Therefore, naming everything helps us take control of the situation.

3. Need to feel part of something

On the other hand, we are social beings, with what that implies. By nature, we need affection, support and company, and We do not like to feel that we do not fit into our environment, that we are not part of anything. In this specific case, putting labels on people and ourselves creates the perspective that we have something in common, that we are from the same group. A representative example of this is the LGTBIQ+ group.

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The increase in the collective’s acronym is not just a whim. They are incorporating new labels, so that people can understand themselves, so that they do not feel alone and know that there are people similar to them, without losing the individuality and idiosyncrasy of each person. The same occurs with other types of labels referring to people or groups, such as the terms otaku, gym bro or neurodivergent.

And is that good or bad?

If you are thinking about the answer to this question, you have stung, because… It was a trick question! You are already trying to label again, now labeling the very act of labeling as “good” or “bad.” Joking aside, I can tell you that labeling everything has its advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of labeling everything

Basically, the advantages of putting labels are all the characteristics and factors that I mentioned before, along with some more:

Disadvantages of labeling everything

The main drawbacks of labeling everything are that labels are subjective and superficial. This in itself should not be bad, in fact quite the opposite, as we have explained before. The problem comes when we believe labels as an undeniable truth. We run the risk of becoming inflexible and not being able to examine each situation separately, we remain only in the cursory analysis.

Furthermore, we may unfairly prejudge other people and treat them in a way that they do not deserve, according to their labels. It can even happen to us that we internalize labels that have been placed on us in our environment, even if they do not fully fit our current reality.

If we believe at face value the negative labels that have been placed on us, we can have a distorted self-concept and self-esteem problems. Labels can lead us to justify our own or other people’s characteristics or actions, under the typical phrase of “that’s just how it is,” when it is the other way around: the label depends on the characteristics.

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Labels shouldn’t be a limit for anyone, but they are. There are people who stay pigeonholed in their label and do not do anything to see it from another perspective, or to want to improve and move forward. In this way, the Pygmalion effect or self-fulfilling prophecy can occur: by thinking that something is going to happen, it will end up happening (for example: by calling a child lazy, he will have less motivation and desire to make an effort).

How can I avoid the inconvenience of labels?

In order to only take the positive part of the labels and not their disadvantages, the key is in the explanation that I have given you: do not believe the labels as an absolute truth. To do this, you can observe your surroundings and yourself with an open mind. What labels come to mind during your observation?

Then analyze whether or not these labels adjust to reality, especially if they are causing discomfort to you or other people, because they are making you see them as they are not. Once you see if they are in line with an objective view, ask yourself how the label is limiting or driving you to do certain things.

This is when you can change your decisions and actions. By observing the world and yourself with an open mind and not internalizing labels, you can improve how you relate to your environment and yourself. You will be able to live as if you were starting over, with the opportunity to learn and improve as a person.