The experiment was famous in the annals of psychiatric history. As I put it in a post in 2016:
A professor at Stanford University devised a simple experiment. He sent eight volunteers, including both women and men, to psychiatric hospitals. Each person complained of hearing a voice saying three words – and no other symptoms.
All – all – were admitted and diagnosed, most of them as schizophrenic. Afterward, the “pseudopatients” reported to their doctors and nurses that they no longer heard the voices and were sane. They remained in the psychiatric wards for an average of 19 days. They were required to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release.
Rosenhan’s report, “On being sane in insane places,” created quite a stir. Indignant hospital administrators claimed that their staff were actually quite adept at identifying fakes and challenged Rosenhan to repeat the experiment.
This time hospital personnel were on their guard. They identified over 40 people as being “pseudopatients” who were faking mental illness. Rosenhan, however, had sent no volunteer pseudopatients this time. It was a dismal showing for the psychiatric community.
Except now the wind seems to be shifting. Many psychological experiments from those long-gone days have been called into serious question, some because of reports from participants and others because of unreproducibility. The Rosenhan study, which is widely featured in psychology textbooks, is no exception.
I picked up Susannah Cahalan’s book The Great Pretender: The Undercover Mission That Changed Our Understanding of Madness, expecting to find more details of the experiment – maybe the reports written by the test subjects. Instead, I found a piece of journalistic research that attempted to track down the pseudopatients, and used Rosenhan’s notes for his unpublished, half-finished book extensively.
The author’s conclusion? That the experiment, though published in the prestigious journal Science, was at best dubious and at worse fraudulent. Rosenhan, the author says did not get volunteers from among his grad students, teach them to “cheek” pills so they wouldn’t actually be taking psychotropic meds, and turn them loose on several unsuspecting mental institutions.
Instead, the author says, Rosenhan himself was one of the pseudopatients and so were two friends of his. A sample size of eight or nine is small, but one of three is anecdotal in the extreme. Rosenhan’s write-up of the experiment used an even smaller sample – two, himself and one other. The third was relegated to a footnote as an outlier, one who found his assigned mental hospital to be a kind, helpful, and nurturing place. The sample of two related that the biggest problem on the wards was boredom, barely relieved by the occasional group session, and brief, infrequent drop-ins by a psychiatrist. Nurses remained in “cages” where they could view the floor of the dayroom and hand out meds at the assigned time.
There is doubt, too about how the three pseudopatients got out of their situations. They were all voluntarily committed, so could walk out any time they wanted, but Rosenhan’s notes say that the were released AMA (against medical advice), but with a diagnosis of “schizophrenia, in remission.” (Only one of the alleged pseudopatients had a different diagnosis of bipolar disorder.) Apparently, Rosenhan claimed to have had a lawyer draw up writs of habeus corpus, should the pseudopatients need to be “sprung,” but according to the lawyer involved, this did not happen, but was only briefly discussed.
So, after all this time, what difference does it make whether there were nine pseudopatients or only two or three; whether Science was hoodwinked into publishing a paper the author knew to be deeply flawed (to put it kindly)? We all know that such a situation could not happen today. It takes much more than a self-report of brief auditory hallucinations to get into a psych ward these days. There are extensive interviews, the MMPI test, various screeners to go through. Many of these procedures may have been put in place because of the influence of Rosenhan’s experiment.
But Calahan says that the most far-reaching effect of the experiment was that, not only did it put the entire field of psychiatry in doubt, it was cited again and again in other papers. Those papers – and thus the experiment – were influential in the massive closing of psychiatric hospitals, leading to the current situation of actual people with serious mental illness (SMI) with no place to go, a lack of psychiatric beds in hospitals, sufferers forced to live with untrained relatives, no supervision of medication, and various other breakdowns in the system.
It would be unfair to say that Rosenhan caused all that, but according to Cahalan’s reporting, his paper contributed significantly to exacerbating the problem.