04/01/2013 11:17 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2013

Mad Science

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

As a human race, we have a long history of passing judgment upon people, reducing one another to the lowest common denominator. It is how certain groups justify their own superiority, and it is how we keep other groups down. If we do not understand something, we do our best to classify it, and then deal with it accordingly.

It wasn't long ago that homosexuality was classified and treated as a mental illness. People expressed an attraction to members of the same sex, and they were seen as different from the norm, so it must be an illness.

The norm is a fluid concept, and our understanding of what is normal changes drastically from one generation to the next. Still, if a person or group differs from the norm of the time, this indicates some type of error that needs identification as well as a remedy. If people operate within the norm, they are under control of the norm. If they operate outside of the norm, we find another way to control them.

Science uses detailed classifications to identify and understand the intricacies of our world. Psychology and behavioral health tries to use the same methods to understand the intricacies of humans. What we are finding, however, is that the methods used to identify, classify and address a plant species are not the same when classifying a human.

Author Jon Ronson's TEDTalk, "Strange Answers to the Psychopath Test", shines a light on the shortcomings of our reductive diagnosis and classification, or misclassification of mental and emotional disorders. He suggests that as people, as journalists, as psychologists, we stitch together the maddest extremes of people, to classify them in whatever way justifies our needs, and our target, or hypothesized, diagnosis.

We feel the need to classify the things we do not understand, the things we do not like, and the things we want to control. -- Kristen Hotham Carroll

Like medicine, time and knowledge shines light on improper diagnoses and treatments, but unlike medicine, there are far more variables and unknowns in the field of mental illness. We feel the need to classify the things we do not understand, the things we do not like, and the things we want to control. The traits that we explain away for certain groups, are the same traits we use to diagnose serious illnesses.

Let's take a look at the example of the psychopath test. Rather than describing a psychopath, however, see if this sounds like any teenagers you may have encountered:

-- Glibness/superficial charm
-- Grandiose sense of self-worth
-- Pathological lying
-- Conning/manipulative
-- Lack of remorse or guilt
-- Shallow affect (genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric)
-- Callousness; lack of empathy
-- Failure to accept responsibility for his or her own actions

For that matter, it sounds like many politicians and high powered executives as well.

My thoughts are strictly that of a student of life, and as a lay person. Behavioral Sciences are not my field of study. What worries me, however, is the rush to classify and the rush to judge. Is it possible that someone may be sad, because their life is not going well, and not necessarily depressed? Is it possible that someone may be superstitious and enjoy routines, and not have OCD? Is it possible that a child may be disinterested in school, and not have ADD?

The danger in diagnosing and misdiagnosing and over diagnosing is that it puts people into boxes where they cannot grow and thrive. If I am a brilliant artist or musician, with a passion for the creative, I am inspired. If those same traits are used to define me as manic or bipolar, then my genius turns into my illness.

Our emotional well-being functions just like our physical health. If we put garbage in, we will get garbage out. If someone has tendencies that may be aligned with psychopathy, and they are diagnosed as such, they can almost never rid themselves of that sentence. They have no incentive to be the best version of themselves, because they have a classification that defines them as very broken and very dangerous. If that same person, however, is given the choice and the tools necessary to grow and to use his or her differences for good, a completely different outcome could possibly be achieved.

We all enter this world with a conscience and free will. There are both genetic and environmental factors that help shape who we are, but that is not the end of our story. I have witnessed people overcoming extreme emotional adversity to live healthy, happy and fulfilled lives. I have also seen others resign on the life course they believe they were assigned to. Every person has the right and ability to write their own story.

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