The Rosenhan experiment was a famous experiment into the validity of psychiatric diagnosis conducted by psychologist David Rosenhan in 1973. It was published in the journal Science under the title “On being sane in insane places.”The study is considered an important and influential criticism of psychiatric diagnosis.
Rosenhan’s study was done in two parts. The first part involved the use of healthy associates or “pseudopatients” (three women and five men) who briefly simulated auditory hallucinations in an attempt to gain admission to 12 different psychiatric hospitals in five different states in various locations in the United States. All were admitted and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. After admission, the pseudopatients acted normally and told staff that they felt fine and had not experienced any more hallucinations. Hospital staff failed to detect a single pseudopatient, and instead believed that all of the pseudopatients exhibited symptoms of ongoing mental illness. Several were confined for months. All were forced to admit to having a mental illness and agree to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release. The second part involved an offended hospital challenging Rosenhan to send more pseudo-patients, whom its staff would then detect. No real patients were sent. Yet, out of 195 new patients in the following weeks, the staff identified 42 ordinary patients as impostors and suspected 48 more.
The study concluded, “It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals” and also illustrated the dangers of dehumanization and labeling in psychiatric institutions. It suggested that the use of community mental health facilities which concentrated on specific problems and behaviors rather than psychiatric labels might be a solution and recommended education to make psychiatric workers more aware of the social psychology of their facilities.
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