Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Eye of the beholder

Once again I've come across a famous experiment that I'd never heard of. Back in the early 1970s, Stanford University Professor David Rosenhan and a handful of his students and colleagues faked vague symptoms and got themselves admitted to a mental hospital. (They arrived at different times, and nobody at the facility knew they were up to something.)

But once admitted, they reverted immediately to their "normal" behavior. Observing them anywhere else, no one in the psychiatric community would have thought these people might be in need of psychiatric treatment. However, it turned out that to the hospital staff, the experimenters had become "types" - types in need of help, no matter how they acted. In fact, one of them - a nationally recognized expert in the treatment of depression - discussed with a hospital staffer at length and in detail his view that another patient suffering from depression was being given the wrong drug. Here's what the staffer wrote as his evaluation: "suffers from grandiosity."

Rosenhan wrote up his study of this sort of "typecasting" in the January, 1973, issue of "Science." He called his paper "On Being Sane in Insane Places." (And no, I really don't feel like talking about your office environment.)

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