Counterclockwise: When Biology Is Not Destiny

Over the years, many of us periodically bump into experiments in healthcare that cause us to think, “This changes everything!” Such studies are convincing not only because of the empirical evidence they offer, but also because they feel important to us personally. These findings strike a nerve. They often rattle our worldview, our fundamental concepts of how things work. They send us back to the drawing board of reality and make us re-think.


This was my experience decades ago when I read a report that is often referred to as “the potted-plant study.” Published in 1976, the experiment was devised by social psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin.[ii] Langer and Rodin wanted to see if nursing-home residents could improve their wellbeing if they were given the responsibility of taking care of a plant. The residents were divided into two groups. One group was encouraged to make more decisions for themselves. Each of these individuals chose a houseplant to care for, and they made their own decisions about where to place it in their room and when and how much to water it. They were allowed to choose where and when to receive visitors, and when to watch the movies that were shown at the home. “Our intent,” says Langer, “was to make these nursing-home residents more mindful, to help them engage with the world and live their lives more fully.”[iii] The individuals in the second, control group were also given houseplants but were told that the nursing home staff would take care of them. They received no instructions to make their own decisions about anything; the staff, as usual, would decide such matters.

At the start, both groups were quite elderly and frail. But within only three weeks differences began to emerge. The self-responsibility group began to show an increase in levels of activity, confidence, and group participation as assessed by staff nurses. The incidence of illness dropped. By 18 months, the death rate in the self-responsibility group, compared to the control group, was reduced by 50 percent.[iv] How did this happen? Langer says, “It’s not well understood. Even we had been surprised: it seemed odd that simply asking people to make choices would result in the powerful consequences that our study showed.”

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