Reparative therapy and confirmation bias: Langer & Abelson’s 1974 study of clinical bias

Recently, I have been examining the possible role of confirmation bias in the attributions of reparative therapists.  In this post, I look at a classic study of how theoretical persuasion associates with clinical judgment.

Ellen Langer’s and Robert Abelson’s 1974 study* on clinical judgment is an important caution to clinicians about the role of preconceived ideas on diagnosis and attributions about patients. The abstract for the study is presented here:

The effect of labels on clinicians’ judgments was assessed in a 2 X 2 factorial design. Clinicians representing two different schools of thought, behavioral and analytic, viewed a single videotaped interview between a man who had recently applied for a new job and one of the authors. Half of each group was told that the interviewee was a “job applicant,” while the remaining half was told that he was a “patient.” At the end of the videotape, all clinicians were asked to complete a questionnaire evaluating the interviewee. The interviewee was described as fairly well adjusted by the behavioral therapists regardless of the label supplied. This was not the case, however, for the more traditional therapists. When the interviewee was labeled “patient,” he was described as significantly more disturbed than he was when he was labeled “job applicant.”

In addition to ratings of pathology, the authors recorded some of the descriptions of the interview by therapists who were told the interviewee was a job applicant and those who were told he was a patient. The differences are striking. Behavior therapists did not differ much but the psychoanalytic therapists described the job applicants as well adjusted but the same interviewee, when labeled as a patient, was labeled as disturbed. Note these differences from Langer and Abelson’s discussion of their study.

In the study just described, all of the subjects saw the same videotaped interview. Yet when asked to describe the interviewee, the behavior therapists said he was “realistic”; “unassertive”; “fairly sincere, enthusiastic, attractive appearance”; “pleasant, easy manner of speaking”; “relatively bright, but unable to assert himself”; “appeared responsible in interview.” The analytic therapists who saw a job applicant called him “attractive and conventional looking”; “candid and innovative”; “ordinary, straightforward”; “upstanding, middle-class-citizen type, but more like a hard hat”; “probably of lower or blue-collar class origins”; “middle-class protestant ethic orientation; fairly open-— somewhat ingenious.” The analytic therapists that saw a patient described him as a “tight, defensive person . . . conflict over homosexuality”; “dependent, passive-aggressive”; “frightened of his own aggressive impulses”; “fairly bright, but tries to seem brighter than he is … impulsivity shows through his rigidity”; “passive, dependent type”; “considerable hostility, repressed or channeled.”

Note the dramatic differences in descriptions. The same person who was described as well adjusted by analysts who thought they were watching a person applying for a job was described in pathological terms when they thought they were watching a patient being interviewed. Note that an attribution of homosexuality was made by at least one of the analytic therapists.

When reparative therapists say they are not biased when examining the histories of their same-sex attracted patients, I am highly skeptical.

Langer and Abelson describe the potential problem with making attributions based on patient labeling:

In practical terms, the labeling bias may have unfortunate consequences whatever the specific details of its operation. Once an individual enters a therapist’s office for consultation, he has labeled himself “patient.” From the very start of the session, the orientation of the conversation may be quite negative. The patient discusses all the negative things he said, did, thought, and felt. The therapist then discusses or thinks about what is wrong with the patient’s behavior, cognitions and feelings. The therapist’s negative expectations in turn may affect the patient’s view of his own difficulties, thereby possibly locking the interaction into a self-fulfilling gloomy prophecy.

It is not hard to see how a client presenting with “unwanted same-sex attraction” could end up in the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy described by Langer and Abelson. Since reparative therapists believe homosexuality is invariably caused by “gender wounds” early in life, no small amount of effort will be spent to find evidence of them, whether or not they exist.

*Langer, E.J.; & Abelson, R.P. (1974).A patient by any other name . . . : Clinician group difference in labeling bias.Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.42(1), 4-9.