Back in 1963, researcher David L. Rosenhan masterminded an elaborate hoax. It was a scam designed to study the effects of labelling upon clinical practice and to determine whether psychiatric diagnosis is based upon professional skill or simple expectation and prejudice. It was a bold experiment with profound implications for clinical practice even now almost half a century later.

The idea was simple enough. Rosenhan persuaded a group of confederates to approach state hospitals in America and request a consultation. Each told the psychiatrist who assessed them that they had begun to hear a voice which said “Empty”, “Hollow” or “Thud”. That was enough to secure them a bed in the local psychiatric hospital. But that wasn’t all, bad though that low threshold for admission might be, in itself.

Once admitted on to the ward Rosenhan’s confederates ceased any pretence of voice-hearing. They behaved perfectly normally and showed no symptoms of mental disorder at all. At this point we might expect the staff running the ward to smell a rat but that’s not what happened. Whilst the fellow patients could tell very quickly that their fellow patients weren’t actually ill, the staff apparently could not.

Even perfectly ordinary activities such as writing was seen as pathological. Pacing up and down through boredom in this secure, low-stimulus environment was interpreted as a sign of illness. It seems that once the label of ‘mentally ill patient’ was applied everything the confederate did was interpreted by those lights.

The staff saw precisely what they expected to see.

This mirrors an earlier study by Rosenhan and his colleague, Jacobson who examined teachers’ attitudes to students who had arbitrarily been tagged either as ‘bright’ or ‘not bright’ by the researchers. The school, known as ‘Oak school’ to protect the identities of all concerned, also lived up to expectations of labelling theory. Not only did teachers interact with children in accordance with the labels they had been assigned, but the children also began to live up or down to the expectations of the teachers – even though their actual test scores had been ignored when they were randomly assigned ‘bright’ or ‘not bright’ status. Each child took on the behaviours and traits of the label, regardless of their actual abilities and achievements.

This is why it is so important that we understand labelling in our work with people who have mental disorders. Whatever we believe and expect is likely to come true.

If you want the people you work with to recover you need to start believing that they can, and you need to act upon that belief. Remember that recovery is built upon lots of little steps in the right direction and we can encourage that simply and effectively by doing relatively simple things, things like offering praise, acknowledgement, recognition and practical help, repeatedly and well.

That’s hardly rocket science, is it?