The ‘Stickiness’ of Labels

5 Feb


My blog this week is going to be looking at the dangers of giving people a label, especially a psychiatric one, but also why labels can be good when used in the right way.

We label people in many different ways according to things about them, for example descriptive features such appearance or behaviours that they display. Most labels therefore are pretty harmless and they don’t majorly alter a persons’ perception of someone. Although, when we start using labels that can be considered as negative such as labeling someone as a ‘criminal’, our perceptions and actions toward that person are altered due to the stigma represented by that label. In 1973 David Rosenhan carried out research looking into the effect of labeling people and the difficulty of getting rid of the label once it has been given. He and his colleagues took on the role of pseudopatients and managed to be admitted into 11 psychiatric hospitals after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. Once in the hospitals they acted as normal and told doctors and nurses that they didn’t have a psychiatric disorder until they were discharged. On average it took them 19 days to get discharged (range of 7 to 52 days) and they were diagnosed as ‘being in remission’, and therefore the label stayed with them. The pseudopatients took notes while they were in the hospital, the nurses believed this note-taking to be due to them having schizophrenia. You can read the full research at Advantages of labels:

  • Classification of mental disorders means better and quicker diagnosis as well as better understanding, the DSM-IV-R organizes and categorizes known psychiatric disorders up to date. (
  • Specialized behaviour can be given to people with disadvantages, if someone is labeled as ‘dyslexic’ they will be given better support in schools and exams.

Disadvantages and Dangers of labels.

  • As explained earlier people will change their behaviours towards someone who has been labeled due to preconceptions, this change in behaviours can be negative, for example can restrict people finding certain jobs or are treated unfairly. This can be dangerous when the person with the label doesn’t actually display symptoms of their label or never did in the first place.
  •  People with a certain label may alter their own behaviour to fit peoples’ preconceptions about them, and this could then be reinforced. Staff in hospitals reinforced schizophrenic behaviour in their patients by paying more attention to those who display characteristics of the disorder (Ullman & Krasner, 1969).

Labels can have a serious effect so much that there is a campaign in effect to try and increase awareness about the effects of someone have a psychiatric label. raise the following issue –

‘For those living with mental illness, the stigma imposed upon them in society can lead to a lack of funding for services and public education, difficulty in finding employment, or in getting a mortgage, or even holiday insurance.’ runs fundraising events in order to finance research into the effects of psychiatric labels and also to help people deal with the stigma surrounding them.


18 Responses to “The ‘Stickiness’ of Labels”

  1. Bones February 8, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    You have brought up some good points about the advantages and disadvantages of using labels. However a conclusion would be good to sum up what you have discussed. Picking up on what you have said.. The major disadvantages of labels is that they affect the person being labeled. Gottlieb, 1975 ( did a study on the label ‘mentally retarded’ and found that when the actor was given the label mentally retarded participants acted more negatively towards them compared to when the actor hadn’t been labelled even though the behaviour was the same in both conditions. This shows, like Rosenhans study, that people react badly towards labels and this disadvantages those being labelled.
    However in psychology it is impossible to avoid using labels as like you said it helps to give a better understanding of ones behaviour and easier communication between psychologists.
    Therefore, in psychology, I think it is important to be careful when using labels so that no patients are harmed or discriminated.
    All in all, I enjoyed reading your blog :).

  2. ishani2110 February 8, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. I thought it is both very informative and well structured. In terms of content I think it’s very precise and to the point. I like the way you have brought out important points about both the advantages and disadvantages of labeling. As I like to call it clinically or otherwise working with special ppl. or vulnerable adults, we should be careful how we call them because it is not very easy to be 100% politically correct but it is very important to be careful about how we label individuals. The whole purpose of Labeling seems to be the fact that it is functional to name a disorder that an individual is suffering and it is important to remember that the individual is not the disorder or dis-ease. The individual is the one suffering the disorder. We should not forget that and avoid any kind of stereotyping and another, and hopefully that will help remove the stigma and also help reduce the self -fulfilling prophecy.

  3. psucfb February 8, 2012 at 8:53 pm #

    I think this is a great topic, that I’ve not really thought all that much about.

    An example of the negative effects labels can cause, is the that of Christopher Jefferies. Jefferies was arrested on suspicion of Jo Yeates’s murder last Christams, and led to newspapers linking him to paedophile offences and other murders, which caused the public to perceive him incorrectly. Jefferies was released on bail, yet as negative impressions are harder to change than positive feelings, he has only now, a year later, been able to move on from the event.

    All labels can effect a person negatively, and so precision must be used, when defining individuals and groups, in order to avoid insulting readers and the participants through the use of vague labels which are, therefore, unrepresentative (American Psychological Association, 2009).

    You covered both sides of the argument, which was great, and had plenty of research and evidence. The only thing I can add is maybe a bit more of a conclusion 🙂

  4. psucc3 February 10, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

    Powerful video, it really added to your point, just through little things like the number of times she said ill herself. I find it hard to see a solution to this problem, humans label everything, even each other. we all have names that’s how we understand the world, forcing it into little categories to make it easier to deal with. But as psychologist we need to understand that these arn’t labels or diseases, they are people with serious problems and they need to be treated independently as people not symptoms.

  5. ellislee15 February 10, 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    Thanks for the feedback guys, after reading your comments I’ve had another thought, are we being too ‘PC’?! Do you remember in one of Fay’s lectures when we talked about people who suffer with epilepsy and how we apparently offend them with term ‘brainstorming’ but in reality they do not find it offensive at all and actually use the term themselves. Could this be the case with sufferers of other disorders, do the names really offend them or are we just being pedantic? I guess what offends them is not the label, but the way people react to the label?

    • psud74 February 10, 2012 at 8:10 pm #

      Hey i really liked your blog well balanced and an easy read. In response to your previous comment i think its the way people then act towards those with the label that creates the problem. An article, Gifted? Autistic? Or Just Quirky?, presents two particular cases that stood out to me that of Phil Schwarz and Dan Grover they both liked the way the label provided an insight into why they were different however its the way people then behave around them that’s offensive. Arkar and Eker (1994) also found psychiatric labels had a significant effect on attitudes. so perhaps research needs to be aimed at perhaps changing those attitudes.
      Arkar and Eker (1994) Effect of Psychiatric Labels On Attitudes Toward Mental Illness in a Turkish Sample

  6. psuae5 February 18, 2012 at 2:54 pm #

    [Commenting on the orignial post]

    I definitely agree that some labels are essential in the medical world. Some hidden mental illnesses such as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalitis (CFS/ME) can often be very difficult to diagnose. (Chew-Graham, Dowrick, Wearden, Richardson & Peters, 2010) This means some people can go for years without diagnosis and until then, just have to carry on their daily lives as if they were healthy, rather than having their needs met differently (AYME). If you are a secondary school student for example and you have not been labelled ‘CFS/ME Sufferer’, you would have to attempt to do full days at school, which could result in you being too ill to walk for many hours because you would not have a reduced school timetable. You wouldn’t be able to complete your exams because you wouldn’t have rest breaks. Therefore your arm muscles would stop working and you wouldn’t be able to think or concentrate properly enough to read or write a sentence. You would fail the majority of your coursework because you’d have a small percentage of time that everybody else has to complete the coursework, but would have the same deadline as everyone else. These are just some examples, as I know CFS/ME suffers have different symptoms and suffer in different ways (AYME). But these examples all happen because the doctors have not yet labelled their patient’s illness as ‘CFS’ or ‘ME’ to have on a medical certificate to give to the school. In my opinion, labelling illnesses is essential for the health and wellbeing of the client.

    Carolyn Chew-Graham, Christopher Dowrick, Alison Wearden, Victoria Richardson and Sarah Peters. Making the diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/Myalgic Encephalitis in primary care: a qualitative study BMC Family Practice 2010, 11:16 doi:10.1186/1471-2296-11-16

  7. lisaoliver1613 February 21, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

    I think a study that highlights this is Rosenhan’s Sane in Insane Places (1973). Where psychologically healthy participants were admitted complaining of auditory hallucinations. The study was done to test the validity of psychiatric diagnosis, however I feel it also shows how labels can take effect on peoples perceptions of you. Whilst in the ward pseudo-patients were to keep notes on what was happening, something that in everyday life seems completely normal, but was interpreted by nurses as being because of their condition. The label they had been assigned when admitted dehumanized them and made there behaviour seem no more than a result of their condition. Similar has been reconstructed in the BBC’s panorama “How Mad Are You?” (2008), the show contained five participants whom had been previously diagnosed with mental health conditions and five with no diagnosis. Three experts in mental health diagnoses observed and then had to diagnose the right five participants with the right condition. They managed to correctly identify the diagnosis for two participants, misdiagnosed one participant and diagnosed two healthy participants. Showing that just because a person has been labelled does not always mean they are different from those who have not, therefore a label/diagnosis should not become something that defines an individual.

    • psucb2 February 22, 2012 at 11:47 am #

      I love this blog! i think its really interesting as we use labels every day. I think that all of the points that you put forward are correct and you give a valid argument showing both sides of the argument. I do however have one more point to add. One difficulty with labels is that they differ in meaning both cross culturally and historically. The term ‘mentally retarded’ was widely used in medical terms in the past to describe what they believed to be an illness. It then became used as a term to describe someone who was below average intelligence, then a derrogatory term which then became politically incorrect. History and social circumstances matter hugely when discussing labels. Also, although the DSM-IV-TR is widely used around the world, there are other manuals used which have slightly different definitions of disorders. This makes labelling more difficult to use because it depends on which culture you belong to as to what a particular label means to you.l it is for these reasons that i believe that labels should never be taken as fact

  8. Sinae April 18, 2012 at 2:40 pm #

    This is a very interesting topic! It is shocking to think that people change the way they treat someone due to their “label” and that those with mental disorders are disadvantaged in terms of finding jobs or getting houses etc!

    *The BBC attempted to support those with mental disorders who are being stigmatised through the reality TV show “Horizon special How Mad Are You? ”. The program contained 10 people, 5 who had a mental disorder and 5 who did not, the contestants were asked to perform a variety of tasks and the “panel” (3 experts in mental health!!!) were asked to state who had a mental illness and who did not. Interestingly, the panel was extremely wrong on their guessing. The person they stated who was least likely to have a diagnosis, did infact have a mental disorder and the candidate who they believed had a severe psychiatric diagnosis did not!

    So if we are unable to tell who has a mental disorder and who does not, It appears that the stigma that comes with the mental disorder is unnecessary! These people with mental health are able to get on with their lives and blend in with everyone else. So if we can treat them normally and equally when we’re unaware of their illness, why should we treat them any differently just because we know their ‘label’/ their illness.



  1. Comments for Wendy :) « psucfb - February 8, 2012

    […] Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  2. Homework for Wendy- Week 2/3 | psuc7f - February 9, 2012

    […] […]

  3. HW FOR WENDY! « psucc3 - February 10, 2012

    […] Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  4. Homework for Wendy :) « ellislee15 - February 10, 2012

    […] […]

  5. Homework for Wendy :) « psud74 - February 10, 2012

    […] […]

  6. Homework for Wendy: 2nd set of comments for semester 2 « psuae5 - February 18, 2012

    […] (Awaiting moderation at the moment) […]

  7. Homework for My TA – 22.02.12 « lisamarieoliver - February 21, 2012

    […] 7. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]

  8. Final set of comments for Wendy, yay :-) « sinaealice - April 18, 2012

    […] […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: