I’m A Loser: Labeling and Its Consequences

How many of you have a nickname that was (kindly) given to you by those around you? Some nicknames may pass as inside jokes, while for some others, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words”… hurt.

Labels and nicknames can really hit us hard, and a dire outcome of this kind of ‘name-calling’ is when the nickname affects how the labeled views him or herself – after several instances of being called a loser, the individual may internalize the label and act in ways that correspond to it. Jane Elliott, a prominent educator, observed this in her classroom when she carried out the infamous Blue Eye-Brown Eye study in the late sixties.

At the time, racism was a serious (and often under-conversed) issue and Elliott wanted to ensure that every student in her third grade class grew up to become just and accepting. To achieve this, she decided that the students must directly get a taste of what it is like to be discriminated against based on physical appearances; in their case, based on eye color.

Elliott announced to the class one day that blue-eyed people were better than the brown-eyed peers, and the former group was given privileges that the latter were denied. The inferior group (brown-eyed students) had to wear a collar to make them easily identifiable, and they were told that they must not share any utilities with the blue-eyed students. After a day of this rather distressful exercise, the superior and inferior group switched – the brown-eyed students were now deemed superior, and they were the ones to enjoy the privileges, while the blue-eyed students were denied of them. What Elliott observed was striking – aside from feeling neglected, the inferior group started to internalize the label and had lower levels of confidence, thereby affecting their performance on tasks they normally would have had no problems overcoming.

This study was carried out with Elliott’s intention of teaching her students of the direct consequences of racism and discrimination, which she achieved. However, I strongly feel that this also had important take-home messages for educators, parents, and classmates alike. Criminologists refer to what Jane Elliott observed as labeling theory: where the individual begins to act out their label (be it loser, deviant etc.), which only encourages more segregation. Unfortunately, in some classrooms, teachers identify students in relation to their performance, and label them accordingly – comments like “You’ll never get a job with these grades” loom overhead. For those of you with siblings, have you ever heard your parents compare you with your brother or sister with comments like “(S)he is the smarter one”?

As mentioned, some nicknames may be good-hearted and even funny. However, it is worth considering the unwanted and often unexpected consequences of labeling. As the saying goes, “treat others the way you want to be treated” – if you like others calling you a loser (among other cruel nicknames…), that’s cool, but if you don’t… chances are, neither do the people around you.

Moeka Komachi

About Moeka Komachi

"There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." - Maya Angelou

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