Social Roles and Labeling: Impact on Abnormal Functioning

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: The Role of Social Networks and Support in Abnormal Functioning

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:05 What Makes a Person Abnormal?
  • 0:52 Social Roles & Labels
  • 2:54 Rosenhan's Experiment
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed
Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

What happens if someone is labeled mentally ill, but they aren't? In this lesson, we'll examine the way that society shapes how we view certain behaviors, as well as the impact of psychological labeling and a famous study done by David Rosenhan that illustrates some issues with psychological diagnosis.

What Makes a Person Abnormal?

Jazz has schizophrenia. Among other symptoms, he hears and sees things that aren't there. But, the hallucinations seem so real that he sometimes responds to them even without realizing that they aren't actually there. People around Jazz see him talking to imaginary people and think he's crazy. Many people are scared of him. People like Jazz experience the world differently than most people.

Abnormal psychology is the study of abnormal thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. Most people would recognize that Jazz is abnormal. After all, most people don't have hallucinations! But, what if Jazz didn't experience hallucinations? What if he just felt a little depressed? Would he still be considered abnormal?

Social Roles and Labels

Abnormality is often defined by how people act in the context of society's expectations. Everyone has certain roles that they are expected to play in society. For example, Zack is from a very traditional culture. Society expects that, because he is a man, he will provide for his family financially.

But, what if Zack doesn't provide for his family? What if he chooses to stay at home and take care of the kids and the house while his wife makes the money for their family? In the context of his society, Zack would be considered abnormal. For most societies, Zack would be considered abnormal but not necessarily mentally ill. But, at some points in history and in some societies, a stay-at-home dad would be considered to have something mentally wrong with him.

The label of abnormal can have serious consequences for a person. Once a person has been diagnosed with a mental illness, they can face discrimination and other issues that could prevent them from living a full and productive life. That's why diagnosis of mental disorders is so important. There are two major concerns when it comes to psychological labeling: whether or not the condition is actually abnormal and whether or not the diagnosis is accurate.

Think back to Zack for a moment. He's made the choice to be a stay-at-home dad, but his society thinks that this is not normal. Now, many people in the United States today would say that there's nothing wrong with him choosing to take care of his kids instead of working. So, is Zack abnormal? Should he be diagnosed with a mental disorder? These questions address whether or not Zack's condition (being a stay-at-home dad) is actually abnormal or not.

Remember Jazz? He's having hallucinations. Pretty much every society would agree that hallucinations are abnormal. But, there's another issue with diagnosing Jazz: there are several things that could cause hallucinations. So, how does his psychologist know that he's giving an accurate diagnosis?

Rosenhan's Experiment

Psychologist David Rosenhan was interested in that question. He wanted to know how accurate diagnoses of mental disorders were in psychiatric institutions. So, in the early 1970s, he set up a famous experiment to see how accurate psychiatrists were at diagnosing patients. What he found was shocking and went far beyond the diagnosis. Rosenhan and seven other people checked themselves into psychiatric hospitals by claiming to hear voices. That is, they were claiming to be suffering from auditory hallucinations. They did not display any other symptoms of mental illness.

All eight pseudopatients, or pretend patients, were diagnosed with a serious mental illness. Seven of them were diagnosed with schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder that comes with many symptoms including hallucinations. The eighth pseudopatient was diagnosed with manic-depressive psychosis, another mental illness that includes many different symptoms. Both schizophrenia and manic-depressive psychosis are treated with heavy drugs and extended stays in mental institutions.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account