Labeling: How Do College Students Perceive It?
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
RIEGEL, J.S. (1998). Labeling: How Do College Students Perceive It?. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 1. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Labeling: How Do College Students Perceive It?
Missouri Western State University Department of Psychology

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (
Labeling theory, also known as the Interactionist Perspective, deals with the concept of labeling. The word labeling, by definition, associates both negative and positive connotations placed on people to describe them. This study looked at college student`s perception of labeling. A total of 150 subjects were asked to participate. They were selected from either psychology or criminal justice classes. Five scenarios were used. The participants read about a theoretical "Johnny" and then answered six questions at the end. Each story had a variable sentence, which was placed in the middle of the paragraph. Two contained positive labels, two contained negative labels and one lacked the variable sentence all together. The results of this experiment showed that the students who read the positive stories perceived Johnny would be more likely to make good grades. Also, the participants that read the positive stories were more apt to mark that Johnny would tend to go to college. This supports other research performed on this topic. If a child is told they are bright and talented they will be more likely to believe it and they will become bright and talented. The concept of the Interactionist Perspective deals with how others perceive or "label" a person and how that person will then perceive or "label" him or her self. We need to remind ourselves as parents, teachers and peers not to place negative labels on a child today, because it may be a key factor in determining that child`s behavior tomorrow.

The Labeling Theory otherwise known as the Interactionist Perspective (Tannenbaum, 1951; Quicke & Winter, 1994), is based on a concept known as labeling. The definition of labeling is "the process by which a person becomes fixed with a negative identity, and is forced to suffer the consequences of outcast status." (Siegel, 1995). This means that if a person is told that he or she is stupid or no good then he/she will start to believe that and it will become a self fulfilling prophecy and that is, in fact, how he/she will act.

People have a natural tendency to attach labels to each other. We all do it, and in essence we all wear different labels. A label can be either positive or negative. Most of the research that has been done focuses on negatively labeling people and how it contributes to negative or deviant behavior (Ulmer, 1994).

There are two different types of negative labels. They are formal and informal (Zhang, 1997). Formal labeling is usually linked to our criminal justice system, psychiatric and medical systems. When a person is convicted of a crime and sent to prison that is one example of formal labeling. This attaches a stigma that will always be with that person. The second type of labeling known as informal deals with a lesser degree of stigmatization. Yet, it can be just as devastating to the person who wears this kind of label as it is with the person who is formally labeled. An example of informal labeling deals with more tangible aspects such as what a person wears or their hair length and style. Juveniles, especially, seem to be negatively labeled because of items such as these (Rosenbaum, 1991).

We typically receive informal labels from parents, teachers and peers. All of these relationships play key roles in a person`s life. Within the last few years many researchers have looked at labeling in general. Recently however, there have been studies done more specifically on informal labeling (Zhang, 1997: Rosenbaum, 1991). It is important to understand the psychological ramifications of negative labeling. How do people perceive labeling and what do they think about it? This leads me into the purpose for this experiment. I am going to measure people`s perception of informal labeling, both positive and negative, and how they categorize different people because of the ways in which they have been labeled by their parents and peers.



I collected my data from two lower level psychology classes, one upper level psychology class, and an upper level criminal justice class at Missouri Western State College in St. Joseph, MO. I total of 150 participants were used. They will receive a few extra credit points from their professors for participating.

The researcher developed five vignette scenarios to be used for this experiment. An example of the scenario is as follows:

Johnny is from a small town in Massachusetts. He is moving to New York tomorrow in search of a job. __________________________________________________Johnny liked to hunt and fish. He went every chance he could get. Also, on weekends, he loved to hang out with his friends. They did tons of stuff together. He really enjoyed going to the mall and playing arcade games.

The blank line contained the variable sentence. In story number 1 the sentence read: When Johnny was a young boy his parents told him what a bright and talented young man he was. In story number 2 the sentence read: When Johnny was a young boy his peers told him what a bright and talented young man he was. In number three it read: When Johnny was a young boy his peers told him what an ignorant and incompetent young man he was. In number four the sentence read: When Johnny was a young boy his parents told him what an ignorant and incompetent young man he was. The last story was the control scenario. It didn`t contain the variable sentence. The first two scenarios used positive labels and the next two contained negative labels. The last scenario was neutral.

The scenarios were handed out to the participants in their classes. They were asked to read the stories carefully and then answer the six questions at the bottom of the page. They were also asked to mark whether they were male or female and to write down their age in the blanks provided. The scenarios were then collected and the participants were debriefed on the experiment. If the participants had any questions they were answered at this time. The researcher thanked them for their time and cooperation and then departed.


The results were calculated using inferential statistics. Specifically, a one-way ANOVA was performed for each impression regarding positive and negative labeling by parents and peers. The main effect for question one (Do you think Johnny found a job?) was not significant (F (4,145) = .159, p> .05). For question two (Do you think Johnny has friends?) the main effect was not significant (F (4,145) = 1.880, p> .05). The main effect for question three (Do you think Johnny likes to hunt?), was not significant (F (4,145) = 1.746, p> .05). For question four (Do you think Johnny has ever been arrested?) the main affect was not significant. The main effect for question five (Do you think Johnny went to college?) showed a non-significant trend (F (4,145) = 1.995, p < .1). The students who read the positive stories, both one and two, tended to indicate that Johnny was almost more likely to go to college (33% & 36%), as opposed to the students who read the neutral or negative stories, (23%, 17% & 13%) tended to think he would not go to college. For question six (Do you think Johnny made good grades in school?) the main effect was significant (F (4,145) = 13.505, p < .001). This indicates that those students who read the positive stories, perceived that Johnny would make better grades (80% & 73%) while the students that read the neutral or negative stories (40%, 13& 27%) expected him to make bad grades.


In this study, I looked at both positive and negative labels placed on a theoretical "Johnny". I wanted to show that a person`s perception of either a positive or a negative label would predict "Johnny`s" behavior. What I found was that the two positive stories had a greater impact on whether or not the participants perceived that "Johnny" would make good grades and the participants tended to mark that if `Johnny" was positively labeled, he would be almost more likely to go to college as well.

This is interesting because most of the studies that have been done have focused on negative labels and it`s contribution to deviant behavior (Ulmer, 1994). I didn`t think, per se, that my findings would be focused more on the positive labels, actually I tended to think my outcome would deal with the negative labels more. But in essence the experiment leaned the opposite way, towards be positively oriented.

There are a few limitations to this study, one, is the number of participants that was used. I would have liked to use more subjects but I didn`t have enough time which is another limitation. Also, I think some of the subjects talked to each other which is a problem because they could have compared answers.

What I found supports all of the other research performed on this subject. Though this study gives another perspective to this topic because the findings lean more towards positive labeling. This experiment supports the concept that if a juvenile is told he/she is bright and talented then he/she may be perceived as such and this may cause the juvenile to believe that. And indeed they may become bright and talented and perform in such a manner.

As parents, teachers, and peers we need to think about how children respond to labeling, and try to put positive rather than negative labels on them. This might be a key factor in a child`s life and whether or not they become a juvenile delinquent or choose another more positive lifestyle.

For future research, I would like to use ten vignette scenarios instead of only five. One set would still use the term "Johnny" but the other five would say "Jane". And then I would look to see if the gender makes any difference on what the outcome is.


Quicke, J. & Winter, C. (1994). Labeling and learning: An interactionist perspective. Support for Learning, 9, 16-21.

Rosenbaum, J. L., & Prinsky, L. (1991). The presumption of influence:


Recent responses to popular music subcultures. Crime and Delinquency, 37,

Shang, L. (1997). Informal reactions and delinquency: Criminal Justice and Behavior, 24, 129-150.

Siegel, L. J. (1995). Criminology, 5th ed. Minneapolis, MN: West Publishing Company.

Tannenbaum, F. (1951). Crime and the Community, New York: Ginn.

Ulmer, J. T. (1994). Revisiting stebbins: Labeling and commitment to deviance. Sociological Quarterly, 35, 135-157.

Submitted 5/20/98 2:37:59 PM
Last Edited 9/14/2008 5:22:25 PM
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