David Rosenhan and his volunteers feigned symptoms to be admitted to psychiatric hospitals. Credit: Denver Post via Getty. From to , an extraordinary experiment played out in 12 psychiatric institutions across 5 US states. Eight healthy people — including David Rosenhan, a social psychologist at Stanford University in California, who ran the experiment — convinced psychiatrists that they needed to be committed to mental hospitals. By the s, most psychology textbooks were quoting it. It also influenced society more widely, and not always positively: in the law courts, for instance, it undermined the value of expert testimonies from psychiatrists.

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It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals. The hospital itself imposes a special environment in which the meanings of behavior can easily be misunderstood. The consequences to patients hospitalized in such an environment-the powerlessness, depersonalization, segregation, mortification, and self-labeling-seem undoubtedly countertherapeutic. I do not, even now, understand this problem well enough to perceive solutions.

But two matters seem to have some promise. The first concerns the proliferation of community mental health facilities, of crisis intervention centers, of the human potential movement, and of behavior therapies that, for all of their own problems, tend to avoid psychiatric labels, to focus on specific problems and behaviors, and to retain the individual in a relatively non-pejorative environment.

Clearly, to the extent that we refrain from sending the distressed to insane places, our impressions of them are less likely to be distorted. The risk of distorted perceptions, it seems to me, is always present, since we are much more sensitive to an individual's behaviors and verbalizations than we are to the subtle contextual stimuli that often promote them.

At issue here is a matter of magnitude. And, as I have shown, the magnitude of distortion is exceedingly high in the extreme context that is a psychiatric hospital.

The second matter that might prove promising speaks to the need to increase the sensitivity of mental health workers and researchers to the Catch 22 position of psychiatric patients. Simply reading materials in this area will be of help to some such workers and researchers. For others, directly experiencing the impact of psychiatric hospitalization will be of enormous use.

Clearly, further research into the social psychology of such total institutions will both facilitate treatment and deepen understanding. I and the other pseudopatients in the psychiatric setting had distinctly negative reactions. We do not pretend to describe the subjective experiences of true patients. Theirs may be different from ours, particularly with the passage of time and the necessary process of adaptation to one's environment.

But we can and do speak to the relatively more objective indices of treatment within the hospital. It could be a mistake, and a very unfortunate one, to consider that what happened to us derived from malice or stupidity on the part of the staff. Quite the contrary, our overwhelming impression of them was of people who really cared, who were committed and who were uncommonly intelligent.

Where they failed, as they sometimes did painfully, it would be more accurate to attribute those failures to the environment in which they, too, found themselves than to personal callousness. Their perceptions and behavior were controlled by the situation, rather than being motivated by a malicious disposition.

In a more benign environment, one that was less attached to global diagnosis, their behaviors and judgments might have been more benign and effective. This site needs JavaScript to work properly. Please enable it to take advantage of the complete set of features! Clipboard, Search History, and several other advanced features are temporarily unavailable. Search: Search. Advanced Clipboard. Create file Cancel.

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Save Cancel. Create a file for external citation management software Create file Cancel. Full-text links Cite Favorites. Abstract It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals.

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MeSH terms Adult Actions. Attitude of Health Personnel Actions. Depersonalization Actions. Diagnostic Errors Actions.

Female Actions. Hospitals, Psychiatric Actions. Humans Actions. Male Actions. Full-text links [x] HighWire. Copy Download.


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The Rosenhan experiment or Thud experiment was conducted to determine the validity of psychiatric diagnosis. The experimenters feigned hallucinations to enter psychiatric hospitals, and acted normally afterwards. They were diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and were given antipsychotic drugs. The study was conducted by psychologist David Rosenhan , a Stanford University professor, and published by the journal Science in under the title "On being sane in insane places". Rosenhan's study was done in eight parts.


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