The psychological reasons why we use labels in social settings.
It’s an average Monday at Pinnacle High School in Phoenix, Ariz. Students shuffle through the halls, making a game of ducking and dodging through hordes of people.
Crammed with students, the halls become a place of overheard conversation. With labels and slurs being casually thrown about between friends and yelled from jealous peers, outsiders may find the typical teenage chatter offensive. Regardless, nearly all students take part in this verbal exchange because this kind of categorization is easier to process when dealing with such a large population of people.
Anatomy of A Label
While labeling is prevalent in all levels of society, it is especially prevalent in high school. To truly understand this process, we must start with the human need to condense
information into a manageable form. The human mind likes to simplify concepts, so we attach labels to things to make life easier. In fact, labeling is inherent in the very structure of language itself.For example, we call the combustion of wood “fire,” compressing the notion of fire—and all of the things associated with it—into a single, short phrase. Just imagine if we had to write out the chemical equation that is the basis for fire every time we wanted to convey the idea. To fix that problem, we manufacture a nice, simple moniker and then slap it onto the concept we mean to convey. By combining this behavior with our incessant need to categorize, you’ve got a great recipe for applying such labels to people, too .In the complex equation that is the high school social scene, there are hundreds of variables that must be considered. Factoring people into that equation would be impossible to do on a large scale. Understanding all of the students in high school—let alone all of the students in one grade—and attempting to make informed social decisions based on that understanding would be completely unattainable. We have a much less accurate system in place to aid social decision-making. Call it labeling, stereotyping or prejudice—whatever you call it, it boils down to the same thing in the end.
Climbing the Social Ladder
Labels have changed since our parents’ high school days. While the social ladder is different for every high school, the social hierarchy at Pinnacle is nearly opposite of the cliques seen in “The Breakfast Club. At the top are the creative, bubbly drama and choir kids, proud to be starring in the latest school play. Second in line are the more social jocks and cheerleaders, the students who are at every tailgate and post-game party in existence. Next up are the nerdy-chic hipsters, the students that are constantly complaining that they can’t find the latest indie record on vinyl. But as the social ladder trickles down, the more vague it becomes. Somewhere mixed into these groups are the emo kids, the nerds, the preppie kids and what the advance placement and honors students unaffectionately refer to as the “regulars,” or those in the regular level classes. Near the bottom of the ladder are the kids who used to be “popular” in middle school. They were the stoners and they ruled the halls in seventh and eighth grade. They intimidated everyone, and everyone wanted to be as careless as they were. Yet somehow, in a cruel twist of fate, they entered high school and their drinking and drug-use became juvenile and looked down upon. While sub-sects of each social group drink or even smoke on the weekends, the majority of students at Pinnacle look towards their future more than anything else, causing a social hierarchy much different from that of previous generations.
Boys vs. Girls
Teens give each other these labels not only as a way to categorize information, but also to assert power and authority over those we believe to be “below” us. For instance, some girls may obsess over every little thing they do. The hallway becomes a runway in their mind’s eye, causing them to over-analyze every step they take and every possible flaw in their outfit. In order to draw attention away from themselves, they chastise their friends and peers. Boys operate in a slightly different vein than girls. Instead of seeing the school hallway as a fashion runway, for them, it’s a place to express social dominance and gain the respect of their peers through typical teenage methodologies: overt displays of confidence, careless language and all manner of conversation on topics that appeal to traditional male stereotypes. Innocent as they may seem, these conversations stay with individuals, causing them to try to find a deeper meaning in these words and translate them into simple terms. When confronted with an assault of adjectives and nouns describing who a person is, the brain creates a moniker in an attempt to solve the puzzle of who a person truly is. As jeers and comments are made, even in jest, the brain translates them into labels in order to define who that person must be.
Story // Alexandra Dersch and Bryant Morrow