The labels we use

0 0 981

Observational learning is a powerful thing. We use the labels that those around us use, and often without giving much thought to the connotations those labels have. They are worth thinking about.

APA recently released Inclusive Language Guidelines (American Psychological Association, 2021). With little preamble, the guidelines dive into the terminology. First, some terms—such as privilege and social justice—are defined to ensure that we are all on the same page. The bulk of the document identifies and provides rationale for terms that are best avoided and suggested terms to use instead.

It’s important to acknowledge that not everyone reacts the same way to the terms the guidelines recommend for avoidance or recommend for use. When it comes to language, there is simply no way to please everybody. Instead, the best we can do is use the least polarizing and most innocuous language we can. The more we can model this for students in our teaching and writing, the more thoughtful our students will become in the language they use.

At the beginning of your course, ask students to download the free APA Inclusive Language Guidelines. Suggest that students refer to it often during your course. Invite students to flag the less inclusive terms used in your presentation slides, your lectures, your exams and assignments, and your course readings, including their textbook. Remind your students that a society’s language changes over time, and it takes effort for each of us to change the language we use. You would like to enlist their help in ensuring that the most inclusive language is used in your course. If students are looking for non-inclusive language in the course, they should be more cognizant of the language they use in their own writing.

If you cover thinking and language in your Intro Psych course, you may want to refer students back to the APA Inclusive Language Guidelines as an example of how our language can influence our thinking.

The terms “third world” and “developing countries” were not included in this edition of the APA Inclusive Language Guidelines. If you would like your students to explore the concerns with these terms, invite students to read an essay from Science written by a Kenyan scientist (M’Ikanatha, 2022) or this article from NPR (Silver, 2021). Both agree that the terms “third world” and “developing countries” are problematic. Both struggle with what term would be best. Both land on the same conclusion: name the countries. From a research and teaching perspective, naming the countries is more accurate than boxing them up into a category that may or may not be relevant.



American Psychological Association. (2021). Inclusive language guidelines.

M’Ikanatha, N. (2022, March 17). I’m a scientist from Kenya—Not the ‘third world’ or a ‘developing country.’ Science, 375(6586).

Silver, M. (2021, January 8). Memo to people of Earth: “Third world” is an offensive term! NPR.



About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.