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Social Roles and Labeling: Impact on Abnormal Functioning

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Instructor: Natalie Boyd

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

Behavior considered abnormal functioning is defined by the societal context, including social roles and labeling. Explore the concept of abnormality, social roles and labels, and the impact of stigma in Rosenhan's experiment. Updated: 09/20/2021

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?

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  • 0:05 What Makes a Person Abnormal?
  • 0:52 Social Roles & Labels
  • 2:54 Rosenhan's Experiment
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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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.

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