The Insane Experiment

The following is an article from Uncle John's Giant 10th Anniversary Bathroom Reader.

BRI member Ben Brand sent us this information about a couple of experiments conducted by a Stanford professor a few years ago. The results are a little scary -but frankly, they're not that surprising, are they?


Researchers: Dr. David Rosenhan, a professor psychology and law at Stanford University. He was assisted by eight people, carefully chosen because they were "apparently sane in every measurable aspect, with no record of past mental problems": three psychologists, a psychiatrist, a pediatrician, an artist, a housewife, and a psychology graduate student.

Who They Studied: The people who run America's mental institutions.

* Using pseudonyms, the researchers presented themselves at 12 different mental institutions around the U.S. as patients "worried about their mental health." They were admitted and diagnosed as insane. According to Ron Perlman in the San Francisco Chronicle, "All told the same tale of trouble: they had been hearing voices which seemed to be saying 'empty' or 'hollow' or 'thud.' This was the only symptom they presented, and the pseudopatients were scrupulously truthful about all other aspects of their lives during interviews and therapy sessions."

* Perlman adds, "As soon as they were admitted to the hospitals, they stopped simulating any symptoms at all, and whenever they were asked they all said they felt fine and that their brief hallucinations were gone. They were cooperative a patients and behaved completely normally. The only symptom they might then have shown was a little nervousness about the possibility of being found out."

* They remained in the institutions for as long as 52 days, getting regular treatment.

* The eight "mental patients" scrupulously kept a written record of both their treatment and the things that happened around them in the mental wards. At first they did it furtively, hiding their notes so that the staff wouldn't find them. But gradually they realized that the staff didn't care, and never even bothered to ask what they were writing. "One nurse," writes Perlman, "noticing that a pseudopatient was taking regular notes, saw it as a symptom of a crazy compulsion. 'Patient engages in writing behavior,' she wrote portentously on his chart day after day."

What They Learned: "We cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals," Rosenhan reported. Moreover, he added, "it's the hospitals themselves that might be 'insane,' rather than the patients confined there."

Some of the evidence:

* Of the eight experimenters, seven were diagnosed as schizophrenics; one was diagnosed as "a victim of manic-depressive psychosis."

*  And when they were released, they were described as "improved," or "in remission," but no doctors listed any of them as "cured."

* The staff at the institutions never suspected the eight experimenters weren't crazy ...but the real patients did.

* Perlman writes, "Many of the real patients challenged them. 'You're not crazy,' they insisted. 'You're a journalist or a professor. You're checking up on the hospital.'" Rosenhan's wry comment on the subject: "The fact that the patients often recognized normality when staff did not raises important questions."


At one of the hospital included in the experiment, administrators doubted Rosehan's results. It was, they insisted, impossible for professionals to make such egregious mistakes. So Rosenhan suggested a new experiment that would prove either the hospital or his own findings right.

Researchers: Rosenhan, and an undetermined number of "pseudopatients."

Who They Studied: The hospital staff. Rosenhan told the hospital that his new assistants would pull the same stunt they'd tried before, and challenged hospital officials to detect them.

What They Learned: Rosenhan's original findings could well have been correct.

Some of the evidence:

* "The hospital staffs took extra pains diagnosing the next 193 patients admitted for psychiatric treatment," Perlman writes, "and sure enough, 41 new patients were determined by at least one staff member to be a "pseudopatient" -a sane person posing as insane. Twenty-three patients were judged to be sane by at least one psychiatrist."

* Actually, not a single one of the 193 were sent there by Rosenhan.

* That didn't mean they were really insane, of course -Rosenhan offered no conclusions about them. He merely pointed out that as soon as doctors and their staff expected to find sane people among the patients, they did.

* His conclusion: "Any diagnostic process that lends itself so readily to massive errors of this sort cannot be a very reliable one."


Reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Giant 10th Anniversary Bathroom Reader, which comes packed with 504 pages of great stories.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.

If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - check 'em out!


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