The Rosenhan experiment was a famous experiment into the validity of psychiatric diagnosis conducted by psychologist David Rosenhan in 1973. It was published in the journal Science under the title “On being sane in insane places.” The study is considered an important and influential criticism of psychiatric diagnosis.
Rosenhan’s study was done in two parts. The first part involved the use of healthy associates or “pseudopatients” (three women and five men) who briefly simulated auditory hallucinations in an attempt to gain admission to 12 different psychiatric hospitals in five different states in various locations in the United States. All were admitted and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. After admission, the pseudopatients acted normally and told staff that they felt fine and had not experienced any more hallucinations. Hospital staff failed to detect a single pseudopatient, and instead believed that all of the pseudopatients exhibited symptoms of ongoing mental illness. Several were confined for months. All were forced to admit to having a mental illness and agree to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release. The second part involved an offended hospital challenging Rosenhan to send pseudo-patients to its facility, whom its staff would then detect. Rosenhan agreed, but sent no pseudopatients. Yet, out of 195 new patients in the following weeks, the staff identified 42 ordinary patients as impostors and suspected 48 more.
The study concluded, “It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals” and also illustrated the dangers of dehumanization and labeling in psychiatric institutions. It suggested that the use of community mental health facilities which concentrated on specific problems and behaviors rather than psychiatric labels might be a solution and recommended education to make psychiatric workers more aware of the social psychology of their facilities.
The pseudopatient experiment
Rosenhan himself and eight mentally healthy associates, called “pseudopatients”, attempted to gain admission to psychiatric hospitals by calling for an appointment and feigning auditory hallucinations. The hospital staffs were not informed of the experiment. The pseudopatients included a psychology graduate student in his twenties, three psychologists, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a painter and a housewife. None had a history of mental illness. Pseudopatients used pseudonyms, and those who worked in the mental health field were given false jobs in a different sector to avoid invoking any special treatment or scrutiny. Apart from giving false names and employment details, further biographical details were truthfully reported.
During their initial psychiatric assessment, they claimed to be hearing voices of the same sex as the patient which were often unclear, but which seemed to pronounce the words “empty”, “hollow”, “thud” and nothing else. These words were chosen as they vaguely suggest some sort of existential crisis and for the lack of any published literature referencing them as psychotic symptoms. No other psychiatric symptoms were claimed. If admitted, the pseudopatients were instructed to “act normally,” reporting that they felt fine and no longer heard voices. Hospital records obtained after the experiment indicate that all pseudopatients were characterized as friendly and cooperative by staff.
All were admitted to different psychiatric hospitals across the United States, including rundown and underfunded public hospitals in rural areas, urban university-run hospitals with excellent reputations, and one expensive private hospital. Though presented with identical symptoms, some were diagnosed with schizophrenia at public hospitals, and one with manic-depressive psychosis, a more optimistic diagnosis with better clinical outcomes, at the private hospital. Their stays ranged from 7 to 52 days, and the average was 19 days. All were discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia “in remission,” which Rosenhan takes as evidence that mental illness is perceived as an irreversible condition creating a lifelong stigma rather than a curable illness.
Despite constantly and openly taking extensive notes on the behavior of the staff and other patients, none of the pseudopatients were identified as impostors by the hospital staff, although many of the other psychiatric patients seemed to be able to correctly identify them as impostors. In the first three hospitalizations, 35 of the total of 118 patients expressed a suspicion that the pseudopatients were sane, with some suggesting that the patients were researchers or journalists investigating the hospital.
Hospital notes indicated that staff interpreted much of the pseudopatients’ behavior in terms of mental illness. For example, one nurse labeled the note-taking of one pseudopatient as “writing behavior” and considered it pathological. The patients’ normal biographies were recast in hospital records along the lines of what was expected of schizophrenics by the then-dominant theories of its etiology.
The pseudopatients were required to get out of the hospital on their own by getting the hospital to release them, though a lawyer was retained to be on call for emergencies when it became clear that the pseudopatients would not ever be voluntarily released on short notice. Once admitted and diagnosed, the pseudopatients were not able to obtain their release until they agreed with the psychiatrists that they were mentally ill and began taking antipsychotic medications, which they flushed down the toilet. No staff member noticed that the pseudopatients were flushing their medication down the toilets and did not report patients doing this.
Rosenhan and the other pseudopatients reported an overwhelming sense of dehumanization, severe invasion of privacy, and boredom while hospitalized. Their possessions were searched randomly, and they were sometimes observed while using the toilet. They reported that though the staff seemed to be well-meaning, they generally objectified and dehumanized the patients, often discussing patients at length in their presence as though they were not there, and avoiding direct interaction with patients except as strictly necessary to perform official duties. Some attendants were prone to verbal and physical abuse of patients when other staff were not present. A group of bored patients waiting outside the cafeteria for lunch early were said by a doctor to his students to be experiencing “oral-acquisitive” psychiatric symptoms. Contact with doctors averaged 6.8 minutes per day.
The non-existent impostor experiment
For this experiment, Rosenhan used a well-known research and teaching hospital, whose staff had heard of the results of the initial study but claimed that similar errors could not be made at their institution. Rosenhan arranged with them that during a three month period, one or more pseudopatients would attempt to gain admission and the staff would rate every incoming patient as to the likelihood they were an impostor. Out of 193 patients, 41 were considered to be impostors and a further 42 were considered suspect. In reality, Rosenhan had sent no pseudopatients and all patients suspected as impostors by the hospital staff were ordinary patients. This led to a conclusion that “any diagnostic process that lends itself too readily to massive errors of this sort cannot be a very reliable one”. Studies by others found similarly problematic diagnostic results.