"People with schizoprenia" vs. "schizophrenics": Design an experiment activity

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If you are looking for a new study to freshen up your coverage of experimental design in your Intro Psych course, consider this activity. After discussing experiments and their component parts, give students this hypothesis:

Referring to “schizophrenics” as compared to “people with schizophrenia” will cause people to have less empathy for those who have a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

In other words, does the language we use matter? Assure students that they will not actually be conducting this experiment. Instead, you are asking them to go through the design process that all researchers go through.

Ask students to consider these questions, first individually to give students an opportunity to gather their thoughts and then in a small group discussion:

What population are you interested in studying and why? Are you most interested in knowing what impact this choice of terminology has on the general population? High school students? Police officers? Healthcare providers?

Next, where might you find 100 or so volunteers from your chosen population to participate?

Design the experiment. What will be the independent variable? What will the participants in each level of the independent variable be asked to do? What will be the dependent variable? Be sure to provide an operational definition of the dependent variable.

Invite groups to share their populations of interest with a brief explanation of why they chose that population and where they might find volunteers. Write the populations where students can see the list. Point out that doing this research with any and all of these populations would have value.

The independent variable and dependent variable should be the same for all groups since they are stated in the hypothesis. Operational definitions of the dependent variable may vary, however. Give groups an opportunity to share their overall experimental design. Again, point out that if researchers find support for the hypothesis regardless of the specifics of how the experiment is conducted and regardless of the dependent variable’s operational definition, that is all the more support for the robustness of the findings.

Even if some research designs or operational definitions or particular populations do not support the hypothesis, that is also very valuable information. Researchers then get to ask why these experiments found different results. For example, if research with police officers returns different findings than research with healthcare workers, psychological scientists get to explore why. For example, is there a difference in their training that might affect the results?

Lastly, share with students how Darcy Haag Granello and Sean R. Gorby researched this hypothesis (Granello & Gorby, 2021). They were particularly interested in how the terms “schizophrenic” and “person with schizophrenia” would affect feelings of empathy (among other dependent variables) for both practicing mental health counselors and graduate students who were training to be mental health counselors. For the practitioners, they found volunteers by approaching attendees at a state counseling conference (n=82) and at an international counseling conference (n=79). In both cases, they limited their requests to a conference area designated for networking and conversing.  For the graduate students, faculty at three different large universities asked their students to participate (n=109). Since they were particularly interested in mental health counseling, anyone who said that they were in school counseling or who did not answer the question about counseling specialization had their data removed from the analysis (n=19). In the end, they had a total of 251 participants.

Granello and Gorby gave volunteers the participants Community Attitudes Toward the Mentally Ill scale. This measure has four subscales: authoritarianism, benevolence, social restrictiveness, and community mental health ideology. While the original version of the scale asked about mental illness more generally, the researchers amended it so that “mental illness” was replaced with “schizophrenics” or “people with schizophrenia.” The researchers stacked the questionnaires so that the terminology used alternated. For example, if the first person they approached received the questionnaire asking about “schizophrenics,” the next person would have received the questionnaire asking about “people with schizophrenia.”

Here are sample items for the “schizophrenics” condition, one from each subscale:

  • Schizophrenics need the same kind of control and discipline as a young child (authoritarian subscale)
  • Schizophrenics have for too long been the subject of ridicule (benevolence subscale)
  • Schizophrenics should be isolated from the rest of the community (social restrictiveness subscale)
  • Having schizophrenics living within residential neighborhoods might be good therapy, but the risks to residents are too great (community mental health ideology)

Here are those same sample items for the “people with schizophrenia” condition:

  • People with schizophrenia need the same kind of control and discipline as a young child (authoritarian subscale)
  • People with schizophrenia have for too long been the subject of ridicule (benevolence subscale)
  • People with schizophrenia should be isolated from the rest of the community (social restrictiveness subscale)
  • Having people with schizophrenia living within residential neighborhoods might be good therapy, but the risks to residents are too great (community mental health ideology)

What did the researchers find?

When the word “schizophrenics” was used:

  • both practitioners and students scored higher on the authoritarian subscale.
  • the practitioners (but not the students) scored lower on the benevolence subscale.
  • all participants scored higher on the social restrictiveness subscale.
  • there were no differences on the community mental health ideology subscale for either practitioners or students.

Give students an opportunity to reflect on the implications of these results. Invite students to share their reactions to the experiment in small groups. Allow groups who would like to share some of their reactions with the class an opportunity to do so.

Lastly, as time allows, you may want to share the two limitations to their experiment identified by the researchers. First, the practitioners who volunteered were predominantly white (74.1% identified as such) and had the financial means to attend a state or international conference. Would practitioners of a different demographic show similar results? The graduate students also had the financial means to attend a large in-person university. Graduate students enrolled in online counseling programs, for example, may have different results. A second limitation the researchers identified is that when they divided their volunteers into practitioners and students, the number of participants they had was below the recommended number to give them the statistical power to detect real differences. With more participants, they may have found even more statistical differences.

Even with these limitations, however, the point holds. The language we use affects the perceptions we have.



Granello, D. H., & Gorby, S. R. (2021). It’s time for counselors to modify our language: It matters when we call our clients schizophrenics versus people with schizophrenia. Journal of Counseling & Development, 99(4), 452–461. https://doi.org/10.1002/jcad.12397






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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.