Experiment That Shook the Science of Psychiatry

Psychologist David Rosenhan's study named "On Being Sane in Insane Places" published by the journal Science in 1973 and shocked the psychiatry world.

In 1973, a psychologist David Rosenhan in the United States wanted to test how reliable psychiatric diagnoses are. Eight people including three psychologists, a psychiatrist, a student, a pedagogue, a housewife, a painter and Rosenhan himself went to 12 different psychiatric hospitals in five different states in in the United States and told them that they experienced auditory hallucinations. They all of course were in good health.

All were diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. After they were taken to the hospital, they acted normally and told them that they no longer experienced hallucinations, but the doctors thought it was a sign of schizophrenia. The pseudopatients spent 19 days in the hospital on average.

After Rosenhan published the result of the experiment, an offended hospital administration claimed that such mistakes would not be made in their institutions. The hospital administration asked Rosenhan to send pseudopatients to their clinic and to repeat the experiment. Rosenhan agreed and he said he will send pseudopatients within the next few weeks. Over the next weeks hospital staff identified 41 out of 193 new patients as potential pseudopatients. But in reality, Rosenhan sent no patients to the hospital.

Professor Rosenhan

Professor Rosenhan from 1975 SLS Yearbook – Stanford University

Rosenhan says in his study: “Not merely depressing, but frightening. How many people, one wonders, are sane but not recognized as such in our psychiatric institutions? How many have been needlessly stripped of their privileges of citizenship, from the right to vote and drive to that of handling their own accounts? How many have feigned insanity in order to avoid the criminal consequences of their behavior, and, conversely, how many would rather stand trial than live interminably in a psychiatric hospital — but are wrongly thought to be mentally ill?”

And he adds: “It’s the hospitals themselves that might be insane, rather than the patients confined there.”

The Rosenhan Study: On Being Sane in Insane Places