David Rosenhan: Biography & Experiment

Instructor: Emily Cummins
This lesson discusses the psychologist David Rosenhan and his famous experiment about diagnosing mental illness in psychiatric institutions. We'll talk about the major parts of his experiment and what the results meant for understanding insanity.

Who Was David Rosenhan?

Could you pretend to have schizophrenia and get yourself admitted into a psychiatric hospital? Okay, that might seem like a strange question. But for the psychologist David Rosenhan, this question motivated a major part of his career. We'll come back to this. First, let's talk a bit more about Rosenhan's life.

Rosenhan was boring in New Jersey in 1929. He attended college at Yeshiva College, a private university in New York City. There, he earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics. He went on to Columbia University to earn a Masters degree in Economics and a Ph.D. in Psychology.

Rosenhan taught at a number of prestigious institutions, including Princeton and Stanford. His interests in psychology centered around understanding insanity and how we diagnosis insanity.

Rosenhan was animated by questioning whether or not psychiatric diagnoses really had any validity. Rosenhan was further interested in the stigma associated with a psychiatric diagnosis and wondered if it's as easy as psychiatrists made it seem to differentiate between sanity and insanity.

So, he set off to test that out. Let's look at this famous experiment.

The Rosenhan Experiment

Rosenhan thought that if the classification system used for diagnosing mental illness was adequate, then doctors would be able to tell the difference between a sane and insane person. Rosenhan believed that if a team of experimenters he assembled could gain entry into the psychiatric wards, this would be evidence that diagnosing mental illness has more to do with the context than the actual person.

Rosenhan's experiment really stemmed from a critique he had with the way that we were classifying people as sane or insane. He believed that there are negative consequences, such as stigmatization or stereotypes about the mentally ill, that come from labeling people.

There are two parts to Rosenhan's study. Let's talk about those now. First, Rosenhan assembled a team of completely healthy men and women, or pseudo-patients. He had the participants fake auditory hallucinations, or the experience of hearing voices talk to you, common in schizophrenia, in hopes they could convince hospital staff to deem them mentally ill.

Rosenhan then identified several psychiatric hospitals across the United States. All of Rosenhan's healthy participants were admitted and diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, although not one of them had any history of mental illness. Rosenhan choose a range of hospitals, including very good hospitals and very underfunded hospitals.

After their admission, the patients informed staff that they were feeling better, no longer experiencing hallucinations. However, before the hospital staff would release any of the patients, the patients were forced to admit they had a metal illness.

Rosenhan's participants wrote of feeling dehumanized by hospital staff and felt their privacy was violated at times. They also reported feeling bored and having little contact with doctors.

We can summarize Rosenhan's study with two major points. First, that doctors in a hospital setting cannot always distinguish between sane and insane. Once you're in a hospital, you're lumped in with everyone else and it becomes very difficult to escape the label, according to Rosenhan. There's something about the environment of the hospital causes doctors to have trouble distinguishing between sanity and insanity.

Second, labeling mental illness is very powerful and the labels tend to stick with you. All of the patients except one left with a diagnosis of schizophrenia in remission. Rosenhan's argument about this point is that mental illness is treated as something that one cannot fully recover from.

There are some questions surrounding Rosenhan's study, though.

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