Why the Rosenhan Experiment still matters

One flew east, one flew west, eight shrinks flew into the cuckoo's nest.

  • In 1973, eight experimenters faked insanity to see how easy it was to get into a mental hospital. The hard part was getting out.
  • Their findings sparked a great debate over how psychiatry treated patients and how accurate diagnostic procedures were.
  • In an age marked by a lack of proper mental health care, the finding that it was too easy to get a doctor's attention seems shocking.

In the United States, mental health care can be difficult to come by. One-third of Americans live in a "mental health professional shortage area" and lack access to mental health facilities; this probably explains why less than half of the people who need treatment get it. It can almost seem like you have to be at the end of your rope to get help sometimes.

It didn't use to be this way though; there was that one time that a psychologist found it was easier to fake your way into a mental hospital than it was to get out.

The Rosenhan experiment

In 1973, after hearing a lecture from the anti-psychiatry figure R.D. Laing the psychologist David Rosenhan decided to test how rigorous psychiatric diagnoses were at modern hospitals by first trying to get into them with fake symptoms and then trying to get out by acting normally.

Eight experimenters participated, including Dr. Rosenhan. All but two of them were somehow involved in medicine, so fake names and occupations were created to both avoid the enhanced scrutiny they expected members of their field to be given when claiming insanity and to prevent the test subjects from facing the stigmas of mental illness after the experiment ended.

The pseudopatients all reported the same symptoms, an auditory hallucination saying the words "empty," "hollow," and "thud." These words were chosen to invoke the idea of an existential crisis. They were also chosen because, at the time, there was no literature on an "existential psychosis."

Much to the pseudopatients' surprise, they were all admitted to all 12 hospitals they went to with little difficulty. In all but one case, they were given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. In the outlier, a private hospital gave them a slightly more optimistic diagnosis of "manic-depressive psychosis."

Once admitted to the hospital, the patients were instructed to act normally and do what they could to be released. This led them all to be "paragons of cooperation" and to fully participate in ward life. They attended therapy, socialized with others, and even accepted their medications which they then disposed of. If asked, they were to say their symptoms had disappeared entirely.

Shockingly, the staff had no idea any of them were faking. Their normal behavior was medicalized into symptoms of their schizophrenia. For example, since all of the pseudopatients were taking notes on the hospital, naturally one of them had the note "patient engages in writing behavior" added to their file. Also, simply lining up early to get food was cited as an example of "oral-acquisitive" psychotic behavior.

The life details of the subjects, all fairly typical for the time, were suddenly signs of pathological behavior. One pseudopatient reported that he had a happy marriage though he occasionally fought with his wife and that he did spank his children on rare occasions. While this might seem like a standard 1960s life, his file read:

"His attempts to control emotionality with his wife and children are punctuated by angry outbursts and, in the case of the children, spankings."

Schizophrenia’s Identity Crisis

Amusingly, while the staff at the hospitals had no idea they had fakers in the ward, the real patients often caught on very quickly. The participants reported dozens of cases of their wardmates coming up to them and accusing them of being either a journalist or professor playing sick in order to take notes about the hospital.

Disturbingly, the fakers also reported that the staff was dehumanizing and often brutal. Conversations with staff were limited by their frequent absence. When the staff did have time to talk, they were often curt and dismissive. Orderlies would often be both physically and verbally abusive when other workers were absent. The pseudopatients reported they often felt invisible, as the staff would act like they weren't even there. These details were made worse by the powerlessness felt by the pseudopatients, which was reinforced both by hospital hierarchy and then current law.

Despite all the evidence that the experimenters were faking it, the shortest stay lasted a week, and the longest was 52 days. The typical stint lasted almost three weeks. All of the patients diagnosed with schizophrenia were deemed "in remission" upon being discharged, leading Dr. Rosenhan to write:

"At no time during any hospitalization had any question been raised about any pseudopatient's simulation. Nor are there any indications in the hospital records that the pseudopatient's status was suspect. Rather the evidence is strong that, once labeled schizophrenic, the pseudopatient was stuck with that label. If the pseudopatient was to be discharged, he must naturally be 'in remission'; but he was not sane, nor, in the institution's view, had he ever been sane."

Dr. Rosenhan concluded that, "It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals." He was forgiving, however, and noted that at least some of the problem could be attributed to a desire to err on the side of caution and admit a potential faker with only one reported symptom before letting somebody in serious need of treatment go without.

He went on to explain how another hospital challenged him to send an actor which they would then identify. After presenting him with their lengthy list of suspected actors they had admitted, Dr. Rosenhan revealed that he hadn't sent anybody at all. He saw this as further evidence of his conclusion.

How did people take this report?


The report, published in Science, was a minor bombshell that landed on a profession that was already reevaluating its methods in the wake of a society suddenly coming to grips with the conditions of mental asylums, an increasing number of findings that suggested institutionalization wasn't the only way to treat mental illness, and the discovery by a group of British shrinks that American doctors were handing out diagnoses of schizophrenia left and right when other conditions were really at work.

When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the big book of mental illnesses and their symptoms, was updated in 1980 for its third edition, the debate around Rosenhan's experiment likely motivated the authors to make the symptom descriptions used to define various conditions more stringent.

What’s the catch? There has to be a catch with a study like this.

The methods of this experiment were questioned immediately, as they are atypical at best and unscientific at worst.

Physician Fred Hunter pointed out in his letter to Science that if the patients were acting "normally" during their stays, they would have revealed their lie and asked to leave shortly after arriving. He also criticized both the methods and the findings of the stunt. Psychiatrist Robert Spitzer also dismissed the whole thing as pseudoscience in a strongly worded academic article.

There is also the question of whether the conclusion is meaningful at all. Neuroscientist Seymour S. Kety pointed out that a similar stunt in an emergency room would hardly be considered a groundbreaking study, given how important honest reporting is in medicine:

"If I were to drink a quart of blood and, concealing what I had done, come to the emergency room of any hospital vomiting blood, the behavior of the staff would be quite predictable. If they labeled and treated me as having a bleeding peptic ulcer, I doubt that I could argue convincingly that medical science does not know how to diagnose that condition."

The continuing problems of dehumanization and deinstitutionalization

The findings of the study on how the mentally ill were treated, even in cases where they were paragons of cooperation, was widely accepted as a valid and needed critique. Even Dr. Hunter admitted that Rosenhan's experiment did a good thing by exposing these horrors. Regrettably, today we still have need of Rosenhan's reports on this subject.

In the United States, sixteen percent of people in jails have a mental illness. This is three times as many people as are seeking care for these conditions in hospitals and is creating new forms of institutionalization. The stigma around mental illness remains as strong as ever. While many people think the mentally ill are dangerous, statistics show they are much more likely to be the victims of violence themselves rather than hurt anybody else.

It seems that Dr. Rosenhan's lament that "The mentally ill are society's lepers" has yet to be made obsolete by progress.

Are there any other experiments like this? Could this have just been a disturbing blip?

Depressingly, this isn't the only experiment to use these methods to conclude that how we treat mental illness needs work. In 1887, almost a century before Rosenhan's article, Nellie Bly faked insanity to enter the Woman's Lunatic Asylum in New York City. The book she wrote about her experience, Ten Days in a Madhouse, revealed the horrific conditions in the hospital and led to an inquiry that resulted in increased funding and more rigorous standards.

Modern attempts to recreate the study have shown some changes in the field of psychiatry. In 2001, seven people who had schizophrenia presented themselves to intake offices in search of treatment; all of them were denied care due to lack of resources. In 2004, writer Lauren Slater claimed to have repeated Rosenhan's experiment herself but was only given medication to go with her quick diagnosis. If she actually carried out this experiment remains a subject of debate.

Psychiatry has improved dramatically since the days of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and David Rosenhan's stings. Studies have shown the objectivity of psychiatric diagnoses remains comparable to that of the rest of medical science while acknowledging that some subjectivity is inevitable. Better methods of integration have made it difficult to tell who has a diagnosed mental illness and who doesn't in normal circumstances. Deinstitutionalization has improved the lives of many people who would otherwise be locked away.

But while asylums are largely gone, there is still much work to be done. Rosenhan's experiment will continue to remind us that being labeled as crazy can lead to a dehumanization with consequences just as isolating as any mental illness.

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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