Cultural Labeling and “Motive Glasses”


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

Labels are often seen as giving stereotyped characteristics. As an American, some people may make assumptions about how I am supposed to act, think, and feel. But perhaps more insidious is the tendency to affect one’s assumptions on motives. In the above quote, staff workers were not stereotyping behavior, but making assumptions on motives. Non-schizophrenic researchers were behaving very much different than typical schizophrenic patients. Instead of questioning the label “schizophrenic” based on new facts, the staff questioned motives… The individuals must be imitating sane researchers because they are schizophrenic, and schizophrenics must seek to behave like people they are not.

The danger with labels is that they can make stereotypes incontestable. After all, if one has the stereotype that a certain racial group is lazy, it can be quickly challenged on a fact level by meeting a person in that race who is not lazy. But if one accepts the label on a motivation level… one will never meet a “non-lazy” member of that race. Rather, one will come across deceptive manipulators who try to appear hard-working to “trick” others, disguising their own laziness.

I first took time to think about this problem back decades ago when I was living in the US. I liked to listen to talk radio while I was driving (never really enjoyed listening to music much on the road… or off the road). This was during the presidential administration of Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was labelled as a Democrat and as a Liberal. The talk show hosts were typically Republican and Conservative (all within the American political definitions of these terms). I began to notice that when President Clinton did something that the talk show hosts disliked… they would attack him for his words and actions. However, when he did or said something that they would normally approve of, rather than commending him, they would attack his motives. He is try to pander to a certain political block… he was doing it to garner financial support, seeking to fool conservatives, etc. To be quite upfront here, I never cared for Bill Clinton as a political leader and that is unlikely to change any time soon… but I did see that the labels he was given as a Liberal Democrat had gotten to the point that it would be nearly impossible have either label removed. Everything he did supported those labels since people were wearing “motive glasses” and saw all behavior springing from motives consistent with the labels.

<Remember, it took a divine prophecy to get the church of Damascus to remove the label from Saul of “Killer of the Followers of Christ.” Labels are not easily removed.>

Of course, “motive glasses” can also work for you. Many saw Ronald Reagan’s actions in ending the Cold War with the USSR as courageous. A different president may have been viewed “giving up” or as acting in accordance to “commie inclinations.” Either way, motive glasses make it difficult to learn and grow.

In Missions, “Motive Glasses” are particularly dangerous. We need to constantly learn and grow while motive glasses impede learning. Additionally, since motive glasses come from labeling and justifying labels, in the end, they perpetuate the myth that individuals are lost in cultural groupings. While there are many values to studying cultures, it is dangerous to ignore the uniqueness of each person. Finally, motive glasses tend to demonize some people or groups and provide absolution for others.

Cultural Anthropology can be seen as flawed in that it can, at times, perpetuate stereotypes because it often focuses more on group characteristics (labeling) than individual uniqueness. However, as long as it remains open to learning, the process of the study has value. But when labeling begins to lead us to “see” motives clearly, we most likely have crossed into a dangerous area.

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