BBC4 Show on Rosenhan Experiment

David RosenhanIn the early 1970s psychologist David Rosenhan and seven of his colleagues presented themselves to psychiatric hospitals, saying that they were hearing voices. They were all admitted as schizophrenics and observed. After admission, they exhibited no further psychotic symptoms. Between one and nine weeks later, they were released as being “in remission.” The experiment was reported in the journal Science in 1973 under the title “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” and instantly became one of the most talked about articles in psychology and psychiatry.

Now the BBC4 radio show “Mind Changers” has produced a fascinating episode about this classic study in which are interviewed several of Rosenhan’s former colleagues and students about the study and its impact. One of the most interesting things I learned from it is that, after the study had been published, psychiatric hospitals challenged Rosenhan to send more “pseudo-patients” to them, declaring that they would uncover them. Over the next several weeks, the hospitals identified 41 new pseudo-patients. Problem was, Rosenhan hadn’t sent any more to them at all.

Next week, “Mind Changers” will do an episode on the Hawthorne Effect which AHP has discussed before and again.

Thanks to Mind Hacks for alerting me to this program.


About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

7 thoughts on “BBC4 Show on Rosenhan Experiment

  1. Kieran McNally sent me the following comment:

    In recent years the study has been subject to much defensive criticism. But it should be noted that at the time the findings were accepted by many in psychiatry. Immediately after the appearance of the article, the American Journal of Psychiatry, published an article by Ransom J. Arthur that noted that, “such massive errors certainly cast doubt on the validity of psychiatric diagnosis” (Arthur, 1973, p. 843). This and other social psychiatric studies, thought Arthur, had played a major part in, “the development of a crisis of identity in within the psychiatric profession” (Arthur, 1973, p. 841).

    Moreover, by 1978, psychiatrist J. K. Wing in reference to the study would readily speak of elementary errors and psychiatrist using the shakiest evidence (Wing, 1978).

    The “second act” is actually reported in the original article. But the detail is sparse.

    Arthur, R. J. (1973). Social psychiatry: An overview. American Journal of Psychiatry,
    130(8), 841-849.

    Wing, J. K. (1978). Schizophrenia: Towards a new synthesis. London: Academic

  2. Oh my…well that is a kicker isn’t, 41 psuedo-patients when in reality it is zero…

    But a very interesting posting!!

    I wonder if I might be able to shoot a question your way that is, admittedly, not necessarily about the history of psychology, but I would very much love to hear your take on the subject considering your expertise.

    I was wondering what your take on the new recovery model is that is hitting the mental healthcare field by storm?

    I would love to quote you on my blog devoted to cataloging opinions from all sides as to what the recovery model means for mental healthcare, the Mental Health Recovery Blog, if you would be comfortable with that. I would of course reference back to you! But if you would rather I not then I would love to hear your opinion here!

    I look forward to speaking more with you on the subject should your schedule and interest permit!

    Warm regards,
    MHCD Research and Evaluation

  3. Lex, I had never heard of the “recovery model” until you asked me about it here. So I don’t know much about it. That said, judging by the description that is linked from your blog, it sounds, well, rather vague: “recovery is a non-linear process where one progresses from lower to higher levels of fulfillment in a number of metrics.” (Gratuitously tossing in the “non-linear” to make it seem more mathematical or scientific or something sets off particular warning bells with me.) Is this a case of moving the goalposts in order to make it sounds like the mental health profession is doing a better job than it really is? Instead of actually ending the mental illness, they are going to help you feel more “fulfilled” despite it? Still a noble, even if somewhat diminished, goal but, if we were talking about medicine, wouldn’t that approach be called “palliative care”? Just some initial thoughts.

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