Weird or not, some experiments are so brilliant in their simplicity that you wished they would have worked. In 1959, social psychologist Milton Rokeach set up a confrontation between three patients in a US psychiatric clinic. They had one important thing in common: they were all convinced to be a reincarnated Jesus Christ. And having one delusional Christ meet other Christs, Rokeach figured, might cause them all to snap out of it.
Finding the three Christs wasn’t easy. Rokeach visited all five of the psychiatric facilities in the state of Michigan looking for psychotic patients who claimed to have the same identity. Among the 25,000 patients in those institutions, only a few met the criteria. Fortunately, Rokeach was able to find three men who either claimed to be God or Jesus Christ (but all of them perceived the two to be identical). By putting the three together, Rokeach hoped to learn more about the nature of human identity, but also wanted to explore new therapeutic possibilities for patients with severe personality disorders.
Frauds and fools
How did the men respond to each other’s presence? Pretty much like expected: they didn’t believe the others to be Jesus Christ and considered them as either frauds or fools. After only a few encounters, they all had made up their own explanation for the situation they were in. One of the patients, Clyde Benson, claimed the others were “talking machines” rather than real living people. Leon Gabor thought the two false Christs’ just wanted to gain prestige. The surprisingly sane explanation came from Joseph Casell, the third Jesus. He stated the others clearly were not Jesus, since they were self-evidently psychiatric patients.
Not just a case of being mistaken
Two years the men spent in each others’ company. At times they were annoyed by the other Christs, but they decided that to unmask them as frauds, simply wasn’t worth the trouble. They knew better and that was all that counted. On 15 August 1961, the “Three Christs of Ypsilanti” met for the last time. Rokeach had to conclude that the patients’ beliefs were not affected by the meetings.
In hindsight, the experiment wasn’t of much scientific value, and its ethicality can also be questioned. What it did show, however, is that the delusions paranoid schizophrenics suffer from are not simply a case of being mistaken. They rather are a defect in someone’s sense of self which is not, by definition, amenable to being reshaped by reality.
Get book: The Three Christs of Ypsilanti
M. Rokeach (1959). The Three Christs of Ypsilanti. A Psychological Study. Psychological Medicine, 11 (04) DOI: 10.1017/S0033291700041684
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