Psychological Labeling

A fascinating study done by David Rosenhan of Stanford University illustrates the impact of psychiatric labeling. Rosenhan and several colleagues had themselves committed to mental hospitals  with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia.” After being admitted, each of these pseudo-patients dropped all pretense of mental illness. Yet, even though they acted completely normal, none of the researchers was ever recognized by hospital staff as a phony patient. Real patients were not so easily fooled. It was not unusual for a patient to say to one of the researchers, “You’re not crazy, you’re checking up on the hospital!” or “You’re a journalist.”

To record his observations, Rosenham took notes by carefully jotting things on a small piece of paper hidden in his hand. However, he soon learned that stealth was totally unnecessary. Rosenhan simply walked around with a clipboard, recording observations and collecting data. No one questioned this behavior. Rosenhan’s note taking was just regarded as a symptom of his “illness.” This observation clarifies why staff members failed to detect the fake patients. Because they were in a mental ward, and because they had been labeled schizophrenic, anything the pseudo-patients did was seen as a symptom of psychopathology.

As Rosenham’s study shows, it is far better to label problems than to label people. Think of the difference in impact between saying “You are experiencing a serious psychological disorder” and saying, “You are a schizophrenic.”

-Dennis Coon, “Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior,” 9th edition. pages 556-557

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