How we view people with medical labels?

August 2, 2010 BY danariely

A few weeks ago we conducted an online study on this question (the link to the survey was the “Click to participate” on the right side of the screen), and I wanted to thank the participants and tell you a bit about what we found.

In this study all the participants viewed a potentially funny video involving an individual who would seem to have “issues.” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Sd-j0rKeKw) The video clip showed a college student getting upset in an arguably overdramatic fashion after she got in trouble for inadvertently setting off her sorority house’s fire alarm by using the house’s fire extinguisher just for fun. Her friend apparently found it amusing enough to post it on youtube, and the clip has received millions of views since then.

The study had three groups: The first one was not given any additional information regarding the person.  A second group was told that this person had suffered from stress since childhood.  The third group were told that the person student in the clip had suffered from OCD since childhood.

What we found was that participants who were told that the girl had suffered from OCD since childhood found the clip less funny, laughed out loud from it less, and were less likely to recommend it to others than other participants. They also felt worse for the student and thought she deserved a smaller fine for inadvertently setting off the sorority house’s fire alarm than if they were either told beforehand that the student had suffered from stress since childhood (or received no justification at all). Participants who were told she had OCD also thought she seemed more likeable, intelligent, and creative. But they also thought that she seemed like a bigger loner and more antisocial.

What I think this means (and we need more research on this) is that giving individuals a disorder-label causes others viewing them to place the blame on the disorder and not on the person.  Think for example about a parent who is told that their kid has ADHD – would this parent blame themselves less than if they were told that their kid is an active difficult kid?  I think the answer is yes, and maybe this is one of the reasons that we as a society seem to be obsessed with diagnostic labels (other reasons include incentives for psychologists, medical companies etc).

By the way, did I tell you that I have a Restless Hand Syndrome”?

Irrationally yours