In the early 1960s, social psychologist Dr. Milton Rokeach received a grant to study three institutionalized patients and how being together affected their sense of self. Each of the men thought he was Jesus Christ.

They all agreed with Rokeach that there could only be one Jesus Christ. Joseph was the first to take up the contradiction. ‘He says he’s the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. I can’t get it. I know who I am. I’m God, Christ, the Holy Ghost, and if I wasn’t, by gosh, I wouldn’t lay claim to anything of the sort … I know this is an insane house and you have to be very careful.’ Very quickly he decided that the other two were insane, the proof being that they were in a mental hospital, weren’t they? Therefore Clyde and Leon were merely to be ‘laughed off’. Clyde concluded that the other two were ‘rerises’, lower beings, and anyway dead. He took, perhaps, the most godlike tone: ‘I am him. See? Now understand that!’ Leon, who became adept at ducking and diving in order to maintain his position without causing the social disruption they all found threatening, explained that the other two were ‘hollowed-out instrumental gods’. When Rokeach pushed Leon to say that Joseph wasn’t God, he replied, “‘He’s an instrumental god, now please don’t try to antagonise him.”

This is an interesting look at how shaky the ethics of psychological studies can be, particularly during this time period. It was kind of shocking to see the justification for this type of experiment:

In the book Rokeach acknowledges that his experiment with his children had to stop where the trial of the three Christs started, with signs of distress: ‘Because it is not feasible to study such phenomena with normal people, it seemed reasonable to focus on delusional systems of belief in the hope that, in subjecting them to strain, there would be little to lose and, hopefully, a great deal to gain.’ This is a very magisterial ‘non-deluded’ view of who in the world has or has not little to lose. Evidently, the mad, having no lives worth speaking of, might benefit from interference, but if they didn’t, if indeed their lives were made worse, it hardly mattered, since such lives were already worthless non-lives. It also incorporated the bang-up-to-the-moment idea that if you want to know about normality you could do worse than watch and manipulate the mad.

Despite having gained some insight into delusion, in a later edition of his book book The Three Christs of Ypsilanti, Rokeach expresses regret at having conducted the study:

There were, he says, four people with delusional beliefs, not three. He failed to take himself into account, and the three Christs, not cured themselves, had cured him of his ‘God-like delusion that I could change them by omnipotently and omnisciently arranging and rearranging their daily lives’. He came to realise that he had no right to play God and interfere, and was increasingly uncomfortable about the ethics of his experiment. ‘I was cured when I was able to leave them in peace, and it was mainly Leon who somehow persuaded me that I should leave them in peace.’

(I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit amusement with the name changes the participants made during the course of the study. Two worth considering for your next child: Dr. Domino Dominorum et Rex Rexarum, Simplis Christianus Pueris Mentalis Doktor and Dr. Righteous Idealed Dung.)