The Negative Label Challenge

It takes will and practice to overcome the adrenaline addiction.

Posted Jul 01, 2018

Back in the 1980s, when I was starting my career, the future Internet was heralded as the information superhighway. No one I talked to really got what the term meant, and I doubt that anyone could have imagined then what it's evolved to in 2018.

If the Internet is a highway, it’s like those of my childhood, cluttered with trash – before anti-littering laws were passed. Mean-spirited negative labels have become the constant refuse of the Internet. Ironically, the pioneers of the commercial part of the Internet were from my college generation, which rebelled against the use of labels to classify and describe people. My campus, like several others, held a march to protest the use of labels in student records.

The use of negative labels then was nothing compared to the current Internet. Then their use oversimplified and stereotyped. That was bad enough. Now they’re also used as a shorthand for dehumanizing judgments mired in bias and prejudice, inhibiting the growth and development of those who inflict them on others. Now nearly everyone feels entitled to pollute the web with negative labels, just as they felt entitled to litter highways when I was a child.

Negative labels so dominate the Internet that many people find it difficult to think, much less write, without using them. This is due in large part to the dual factors of emotion contagion and adrenaline tolerance.

Negative emotions are more salient than the positive. Due to their immediate survival importance, they get priority processing in the brain. They’re also more contagious. We’re more likely to take on the resentment of others than to influence them with compassion and kindness. On the Internet, negative labels are like nuclear weapons, when one uses them, everyone needs them. 

The more insidious culprit in the proliferation of negative labels is adrenaline tolerance. The use of negative labels gives a tiny dose of adrenaline, which temporarily increases energy and confidence, while diminishing the ability to see multiple perspectives or to analyze issues with depth and nuanced reasoning. Adrenaline creates a sense of certainty, which is an emotional state, requiring the elimination of certain intellectual evidence. The more certain we feel, the more evidence we ignore. (We feel certain, when probability is the best we can hope for in the real world.) Adrenaline tolerance means that it takes increasingly higher doses of the hormone to get the same level of energy and confidence that was initially experienced. It can drive us to the point where we can’t feel confident or energetic at all without using negative labels.

Here’s a little exercise that can help break the addiction to negative labels. Write a meaningful post of at least 600 words, describing a person or group of people whose behavior or ideas you oppose, without using negative labels. If you’re able to do it, you should feel better about yourself, more empowered, less resentful, and more rational.