Sunday, July 21, 2013

Remembering David Rosenham experiment: Being Sane in Insane Places

If done again  the same result would be achieved.

On Being Sane In Insane Places

David L. Rosenhan*

How do we know precisely what constitutes “normality” or mental illness?  Conventional wisdom suggests that specially trained professionals have the ability to make reasonably accurate diagnoses.  In this research, however, David Rosenhan provides evidence to challenge this assumption.  What is -- or is not -- “normal” may have much to do with the labels that are applied to people in particular settings.

             If sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them?

            The question is neither capricious nor itself insane.  However much we may be personally convinced that we can tell the normal from the abnormal, the evidence is simply not compelling.  It is commonplace, for example, to read about murder trials wherein eminent psychiatrists for the defense are contradicted by equally eminent psychiatrists for the prosecution on the matter of the defendant’s sanity.  More generally, there are a great deal of conflicting data on the reliability, utility, and meaning of such terms as “sanity,” “insanity,” “mental illness,” and “schizophrenia.”  Finally, as early as 1934, {Ruth} Benedict suggested that normality and abnormality are not universal.[1]  What is viewed as normal in one culture may be seen as quite aberrant in another.  Thus, notions of normality and abnormality may not be quite as accurate as people believe they are.

            To raise questions regarding normality and abnormality is in no way to question the fact that some behaviors are deviant or odd.  Murder is deviant.  So, too, are hallucinations.  Nor does raising such questions deny the existence of the personal anguish that is often associated with “mental illness.”  Anxiety and depression exist.  Psychological suffering exists.  But normality and abnormality, sanity and insanity, and the diagnoses that flow from them may be less substantive than many believe them to be.

            At its heart, the question of whether the sane can be distinguished from the insane (and whether degrees of insanity can be distinguished from each other) is a simple matter:  Do the salient characteristics that lead to diagnoses reside in the patients themselves or in the environments and contexts in which observers find them?  From Bleuler, through Kretchmer, through the formulators of the recently revised Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, the belief has been strong that patients present symptoms, that those symptoms can be categorized, and, implicitly, that the sane are distinguishable from the insane.  More recently, however, this belief has been questioned.  Based in part on theoretical and anthropological considerations, but also on philosophical, legal, and therapeutic ones, the view has grown that psychological categorization of mental illness is useless at best and downright harmful, misleading, and pejorative at worst.  Psychiatric diagnoses, in this view, are in the minds of observers and are not valid summaries of characteristics displayed by the observed.

            Gains can be made in deciding which of these is more nearly accurate by getting normal people (that is, people who do not have, and have never suffered, symptoms of serious psychiatric disorders) admitted to psychiatric hospitals and then determining whether they were discovered to be sane and, if so, how.  If the sanity of such pseudopatients were always detected, there would be prima facie evidence that a sane individual can be distinguished from the insane context in which he is found.  Normality (and presumably abnormality) is distinct enough that it can be recognized wherever it occurs, for it is carried within the person.  If, on the other hand, the sanity of the pseudopatients were never discovered, serious difficulties would arise for those who support traditional modes of psychiatric diagnosis.  Given that the hospital staff was not incompetent, that the pseudopatient had been behaving as sanely as he had been out of the hospital, and that it had never been previously suggested that he belonged in a psychiatric hospital, such an unlikely outcome would support the view that psychiatric diagnosis betrays little about the patient but much about the environment in which an observer finds him.

            This article describes such an experiment.  Eight sane people gained secret admission to 12 different hospitals.  Their diagnostic experiences constitute the data of the first part of this article; the remainder is devoted to a description of their experiences in psychiatric institutions.  Too few psychiatrists and psychologists, even those who have worked in such hospitals, know what the experience is like.  They rarely talk about it with former patients, perhaps because they distrust information coming from the previously insane.  Those who have worked in psychiatric hospitals are likely to have adapted so thoroughly to the settings that they are insensitive to the impact of that experience.  And while there have been occasional reports of researchers who submitted themselves to psychiatric hospitalization, these researchers have commonly remained in the hospitals for short periods of time, often with the knowledge of the hospital staff.  It is difficult to know the extent to which they were treated like patients or like research colleagues.  Nevertheless, their reports about the inside of the psychiatric hospital have been valuable.  This article extends those efforts.

 (keep reading)