Canned Soup Has Labels, People Shouldn’t
Assessment is the goal of some parts of police psychology, but certainly not if you are working with the police officer on fixing their problems. When my brother was younger, he was known as a rambunctious child, the class clown, always running around, crazy with very high energy. People would have said he was “minimally brain damaged,” because at the time that is what they later called “minimal brain dysfunction.” A little later he would have been called “hyperactive,” then “emotionally disturbed.” If he was born now however he would be called “attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity” (he’s over 60). No longer was he just a noisy and fun-loving child—now he was something more: an individual with a syndrome that had to be treated. And of course, since he has the proper label, you know a lot about the cause of the problem, right? No way.
This is what I call the Rumpelstiltskin effect, a name I adapted from the Grimm’s fairytale character. In the story, this man is a pathological liar, and lies that his daughter can spin gold, like her blonde hair, from straw. Well, the king catches hold of the lie, and puts the girl in a room and says spin gold from straw or I will cut your head off (not quite the nose job she wanted). He agreed to marry her if she could in fact spin gold from straw. Well, the girl looked at the options, to become the queen or walk around headless, and decided she would rather become the queen. She paced and fretted and downright cried until this imp appeared and said he would spin gold from straw if she agreed to give him her first born child. Well she did, and they did and she got pregnant as the new queen. When it was time to collect on the bargain, however, the now-queen did not want to give up her child. Rumpelstiltskin agreed that if she could guess his name within three days, she could keep her child. On the final day, the desperate queen rides around outside looking for the imp to beg mercy, and she overhears Rumpelstiltskin singing his name. With this information in hand, she names the creature and gets to keep her child. The imp goes away forever and she and the king live happily ever after. Because naming the imp made everything better! Just like in life, if I name the problem the other questions in life get answered.
The problem is there are a lot of derivatives that come along with putting a name to something. There is a tendency among many people today to believe there is a singular cause of a business problem, psychological problem or a medical problem that has a name. When something becomes a syndrome the universal thing is to look toward someone’s diet, or bad market projections or a vitamin deficiency or an over-bearing mother. It is just plain human nature and we miss the proverbial forest for the trees because the symptom is the problem and the cause is really minor in fixing it. When someone is labeled with a certain diagnoses, it is very hard to lose it and what comes with it.
I’ve Been Labeled and I Can’t Get Out
A famous study by Rosenhan in the seventies proved this very point. In his article “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” he demonstrated that pseudo-patients (individuals who were perfectly healthy, with no signs of mental illness whatsoever) who checked themselves into mental institutions claiming they had schizophrenia were quickly pigeonholed into having many other problems, but they showed no symptoms. To illustrate, during the long hours when they were in the institution, there was often nothing for them to do so they often gathered outside the meal hall a half hour before the doors would open. Nurses and doctors who noticed this (very normal) behavior quickly labeled these individuals as having “oral inquisitory syndrome” or “an oral fixation” when it should have been “bored-out-of-their-wits” syndrome. Additionally, these pseudo-patients had been instructed to record what it was like in the mental institutions for the purposes of the experiment. Because of this, they constantly took notes throughout the day. The nurses and doctors labeled this “writing behavior” calling it from paranoia to obsessive-compulsion and recorded it in the patients’ charts. It is interesting to see how the behavior of these perfectly healthy and sane individuals was seen in a new way, just because they had been given the label “schizophrenic” when they checked themselves into the institution. None of the staff saw any of the 118 pseudo-patients as imposters, although mental patients in the hospital identified 35 of them as researchers checking up on the staff. By the way, it took the average pseudo-patient 19 days to be released with a high of 52 days, all because of a label put on them at admission!
The point is there is very rarely one single cause of a problem. It is much more typical that there are multiple causes for any behavior, business fluctuation or medical symptom. Each individual is different with different experiences. Hyperactivity does not have to be due to a mental illness—it can just as easily (and more likely) be due to consumption of lead, or too much sugar, or genetics. In fact, most likely it is due to a combination of a couple of these causes! We need to move away from the assumption that giving a name to something means we understand it, or that we have diagnosed it completely. We need to move away from the idea that creating a name for something that is happening gives us any more than a name, and could hurt us considerably. And my brother is retired now after two wonderful fully grown kids and a long healthy career. And he had no labels.
- Avoid egocentricism. When people think they are the center of the world, they tend to believe that anyone who behaves in a way counter to their own is wrong, or deficient. This can lead people to naming others and incorrectly diagnosing their behavior. If you are a very composed person, when you see someone who can’t sit still, it is easy to prescribe a defect in the other person. You need to accept that there is always more to the story than you know, and just because they look or behave differently, does not mean they have a problem. Avoid spreading rumors or gossip about someone just because they don’t neatly fit into your definition of normal. Perhaps our columnists and news people should hear this.
- Evaluate externally. Along the lines of avoiding egocentricism, you need to look at your own behavior objectively. If you are having an off day because of random circumstances, and you snap at everyone at work, or avoid eye-contact and don’t greet anyone, think about how that will look to other people. It is very possible they are evaluating your behavior and naming you as suffering from some mental illness, or syndrome or creating a problem employee. In fact, you are just having a bad day because you overslept and didn’t have time for breakfast, or there was no hot water when you tried to shower this morning, or you had a flat tire on the way to work. It is so easy to excuse our own behavior as being due to external causes, but we need to use that same mindset when we look at other people—perhaps their behavior, too, is not due to something internal, but to external circumstances. Cut down the judging and just evaluate the behavior for what is there now.
- Value the person not the Label. Even if someone’s behavior is given a name, you need to understand that they are still human and have feelings just like you do. If you value this person, then you should accept them for who they are, regardless of artificial names that can be places upon them. At the same time, if you feel other people are evaluating you, ignore their judgments—don’t let the pinball effect trap you in its claws. Leave Rumpelstiltskin to the Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm and make our world your happily ever after.
Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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