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David Rosenhan: Study & Overview

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  • 0:01 Basis for the Experiment
  • 0:48 The Experiment
  • 3:24 Dangers of Labeling
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

Although it can be helpful to use diagnostic labels to identify people with mental disorders for the purposes of treatment, the use of labels can come with negative consequences. A classic experiment by David Rosenhan in 1972 really sheds light on the stigma that can be attached to being labeled with a psychological disorder.

Basis for the Rosenhan Experiment

The whole idea of classifying psychological disorders came about as a way to better understand such disorders and help formulate the best type of treatment for each specific disorder. This classification process was thought to be standardized with the introduction of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1952, a text which contains a list of all the known psychological disorders and their symptoms, to serve as a tool to aid in correct diagnosis. Tests on the reliability of the DSM concluded that 83% of clinicians could independently come to the same diagnosis for a given patient when it was based on the guidelines given by the DSM.

The Experiment

Despite the success of the DSM, there were skeptics of the whole classification system of psychological disorders, and David Rosenhan was one of them. In 1972, he conducted an experiment to see if clinicians could tell the difference between someone genuinely suffering from a psychological disorder and someone who was faking the symptoms. He assigned eight normal people he referred to as pseudopatients to go to psychiatric facilities in different states to be evaluated by clinicians. Among these pseudopatients were three psychologists, a pediatrician, a psychology graduate student, a painter and a housewife.

Once at the admissions office of the hospital, these pseudopatients complained of auditory hallucinations in which an unfamiliar voice would say the words 'empty,' 'hollow' and 'thud.' These words were chosen carefully because they were never reported in cases of auditory hallucinations. Normally, such hallucinations would involve insults and themes of paranoia. In fact, Rosenhan combed the literature and found no case in which any patient reported hearing voices speaking the words 'empty,' 'hollow' and 'thud.'

After being evaluated, seven of the pseudopatients were diagnosed with schizophrenia and one with manic-depressive disorder, which is now known as bipolar disorder. The more surprising part of this experiment is that these people acted completely normal once admitted to the hospital. The psychologists and nurses had no suspicion that they had faked their symptoms, nor were they convinced by their continued sanity after the initial consultation. Additionally, the clinicians would distort the facts of the pseudopatients' family history or their behavior in the hospital to attribute it to their diagnosed disorder.

More specifically, one pseudopatient's relationships with family members were labeled abnormal despite the fact that those relationships contained nothing out of the ordinary. Another pseudopatient spent much of his time writing notes during his stay at the hospital and the staff considered this to be some sort of compulsive behavior. To make matters even more strange, the actual patients in the facility who legitimately did suffer from mental disorders could easily detect that the pseudopatients were not really suffering from any mental condition.

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