Three women and five men showed up at a hospital complaining that they were hearing strange voices. Actually, each person went to a different hospital. All eight of them were evaluated by highly trained personnel, subsequently diagnosed with psychiatric disorders, and each admitted into the hospital.
After admission, each patient told the staff they no longer heard the voices and acted perfectly normal.
They acted perfectly normal because they were perfectly normal. One was a pediatrician, one a housewife, one a painter, three were psychologists, one a psychiatrist, and one was a student. This was a clandestine experiment conducted by the psychologist David Rosenhan to test the nature of labeling and pattern fitting.
Surely the staff at each of the hospitals would quickly recognize the ruse. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth.
The hospital personnel (doctors, nurses, administrators) at each facility interpreted the behavior of these “pseudo-patients” through the lens of insanity. When one “patient” was observed writing in his journal, the doctor updated the patient chart to read “patient engages in writing behavior”. No matter what the patients did, once diagnosed as insane, their behavior was interpreted by the staff as further reinforcement for the diagnosis – including showing up five minutes before the cafeteria was due to open. Who in their right mind would do that?
Luckily the patients were determined not to be a danger to themselves and others – and after an average of nineteen days were released. But not without first being required to admit to having a mental illness and agreeing to take anti-psychotic drugs.
You can imagine the uproar this caused once the hospitals were made aware of the scam. Each one denied they were at fault. Another hospital that wasn’t even targeted challenged the experimenter (Dr. Rosenhan) to send pseudo-patients to his facility assuring him that his staff could easily spot imposters. Rosenhan agreed to take him up on the challenge.
Over the next several weeks, nearly 200 new patients showed up at the hospital. Of those, about 40 were identified by the staff to be pseudo-patients. In fact, Rosenhan hadn’t sent a single patient.
Now, before we go charging off blaming the medical community for improper diagnoses and mistreatment, consider this: we all do the same thing. Sure, we might not be in a position to make a diagnosis, order tests, and prescribe medications – but we certainly apply labels and base our interpretations from those [often unconsciously assigned] labels.
In another famous experiment, researchers showed a video of a young girl named Hannah playing in her neighborhood. Half of the people were shown a video of Hannah playing in a low-income housing project and her parents were described as high-school graduates. The other half were shown a video of Hannah playing in a middle-class neighborhood and told that her parents were college-educated professionals. Then, all the people in the experiment watched as Hannah responded to a series of test questions designed to measure her academic skills. She answered the questions inconsistently – sometimes getting a difficult question correct, and sometimes incorrectly answering simple questions. Following which, each of the participants was asked to assess Hannah’s academic ability.
As you can probably guess, the people who thought Hannah came from a middle-class environment marked her abilities as much higher than those who thought she was poor.
And this effect of labeling leading to wildly divergent opinions isn’t just seen in medical conditions or socio-economic status. It applies across gender, age, race, appearance, and just about every other “differentiating” characteristic you can think of.
And perhaps equally as misleading and dangerous as labeling others is labeling ourselves. Have you ever considered yourself to be not good enough, not smart enough, not pretty enough, not funny enough, and so on? Once we do that, we not only view ourselves through the lens of those labels, but we pattern-fit experiences to that label. In other words, when something doesn’t go the way we hoped, we see that as further evidence that our label is correct. A self-fulfilling prophecy, so-to-speak.
Dr. Rosenhan concluded his experiments with this observation: “Once a person is abnormal, all of his other behaviors and characteristics are colored by that label.” This is not only true for how we see others, but obviously ourselves. Especially when we are joined with the thought system of the ego.
As long as you perceive the body as your reality, so long will you perceive yourself as lonely and deprived. And so long will you also perceive yourself as a victim of sacrifice. (T-15.XI.5)
[Once you choose the thought system of the ego] you will perceive yourself as lacking. (T-7.VII.7)
One could rightfully argue that in such a state we are crazy. Crazy for choosing such a delusional thought system of ourselves and others. Thankfully, there is another way of seeing – one that leads not to lack, separation, and loneliness – but rather toward abundance, gratitude, and joy.
Join us in Monday’s class where we will further explore these concepts of labeling, pattern fitting, and misperception – as well the way out of such a crazy hell. I look forward to seeing you then.