One of the most famous experiments in psychology in the one by psychology professor from Harvard, Robert Rosenthal. It convincingly demonstrates the self-fulfilling prophecy. As a reminder, I will say that after he tested 650 pupils, he randomly chose 20% of them and said the tests show those very pupils will make great progress in the next year. 18 teachers that were part of the experiment adjusted their behavior and expectations. That really made those randomly chosen pupils achieve much better results in intelligence tests by the end of the year, and they had better grades.
As far as this article is concerned, this is only a starting point, and what I’m interested in follows. The same effects were shown in the case when experimenters were given a group of 30 intelligent and less intelligent rats. Of course, rats were randomly chosen and didn’t differ between them by any relevant characteristic. Rats learned going through the maze and by the end of the experiment, the group of intelligent rats had better results. I have no intention of determining cause and effect, but I will state that according to the reports, those rats were cuddled and played with more than those in the other group. Since we often draw conclusions on human behavior based on rats’ behavior, we have to ask ourselves about the justification of those conclusions, when just the experimenter’s expectation can form certain “scientific” findings.
I will continue with the data that same is repeated in the case of worms, as the most primitive life forms with a brain. Exactly because of their developmental level, the possibility of emotional bonding with the experimenter is questionable. But even they were better in learning tasks, when they were part of a “better” group. Doesn’t it undermine the concepts of our routine perception of science? It is easy to discard these experiments and to get back to the pleasant security of our routines. But, will we really continue testing animals and people in a scientific, “objective” way, despite the opposite evidence? Is it really so hard to accept we’re responsible for our world much more than we think (through intention, thinking…)?
E.g. continuing the worms experiment it has been found that untrained worms learned the tasks much faster when being fed by previously trained worms (I do not know how the worm community feels about the ethical standards of these experiments). Hypothesis is either that worms served as food carried the learning information in their RNA, or that, once again, the expectation of the experimenter influenced that group’s learning.
Possibility that at least some mental illnesses or disturbances are merely a constructs and that psychiatric institutions help creating those realities, they should then treat, is really disturbing for me. I have written about it here a bit. We still have vague and general definition of mental health, while the diagnoses of abnormal behavior are very detailed. In some other fields, definition of pathology is the deviation from known, normal functions of healthy organism. Pretty irrational, in psychiatry (or psychology) it is the other way around. Pathology is a known factor, and being normal is hard to define, if at all possible.
That leaves the door open for self-fulfilling diagnoses and assessments. But, just because something has a name (e.g. diagnosis or somebody’s opinion), it doesn’t mean that something has to exist in a specific person. Just as somebody dies of the “voodoo curse” in primitive societies, we are slaves to diagnoses, assessments and descriptions, that might be just one made up reality. But why wouldn’t we make up a different one?