What was the Rosenham Experiment?

Introduction

The Rosenhan experiment or Thud experiment was an experiment conducted to determine the validity of psychiatric diagnosis. The participants feigned hallucinations to enter psychiatric hospitals but acted normally afterwards. They were diagnosed with psychiatric disorders and were given antipsychotic medication. The study was conducted by psychologist David Rosenhan, a Stanford University professor, and published by the journal Science in 1973 under the title “On Being Sane in Insane Places”. It is considered an important and influential criticism of psychiatric diagnosis, and broached the topic of wrongful involuntary commitment.

Rosenhan’s study was done in two parts. The first part involved the use of healthy associates or “pseudopatients” (three women and five men, including Rosenhan himself) who briefly feigned auditory hallucinations in an attempt to gain admission to 12 psychiatric hospitals in five states in the United States. All were admitted and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. After admission, the pseudopatients acted normally and told staff that they no longer experienced any additional hallucinations. As a condition of their release, all the patients were forced to admit to having a mental illness and had to agree to take antipsychotic medication. The average time that the patients spent in the hospital was 19 days. All but one were diagnosed with schizophrenia “in remission” before their release.

The second part of his study involved a hospital administration challenging Rosenhan to send pseudopatients to its facility, whose staff asserted that they would be able to detect the pseudopatients. Rosenhan agreed, and in the following weeks 41 out of 193 new patients were identified as potential pseudopatients, with 19 of these receiving suspicion from at least one psychiatrist and one other staff member. Rosenhan sent no pseudopatients to the hospital.

While listening to a lecture by R.D. Laing, who was associated with the anti-psychiatry movement, Rosenhan conceived of the experiment as a way to test the reliability of psychiatric diagnoses. The study concluded “it is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals” and also illustrated the dangers of dehumanisation and labelling in psychiatric institutions. It suggested that the use of community mental health facilities which concentrated on specific problems and behaviours rather than psychiatric labels might be a solution, and recommended education to make psychiatric workers more aware of the social psychology of their facilities.

Pseudopatient Experiment

Rosenhan himself and seven mentally healthy associates, called “pseudopatients”, attempted to gain admission to psychiatric hospitals by calling for an appointment and feigning auditory hallucinations. The hospital staff were not informed of the experiment. The pseudopatients included a psychology graduate student in his twenties, three psychologists, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a painter, and a housewife. None had a history of mental illness. Pseudopatients used pseudonyms, and those who worked in the mental health field were given false jobs in a different sector to avoid invoking any special treatment or scrutiny. Apart from giving false names and employment details, further biographical details were truthfully reported.

During their initial psychiatric assessment, the pseudopatients claimed to be hearing voices of the same sex as the patient which were often unclear, but which seemed to pronounce the words “empty”, “hollow”, or “thud”, and nothing else. These words were chosen as they vaguely suggest some sort of existential crisis and for the lack of any published literature referencing them as psychotic symptoms. No other psychiatric symptoms were claimed. If admitted, the pseudopatients were instructed to “act normally”, reporting that they felt fine and no longer heard voices. Hospital records obtained after the experiment indicate that all pseudopatients were characterized as friendly and cooperative by staff.

All were admitted, to 12 psychiatric hospitals across the United States, including rundown and underfunded public hospitals in rural areas, urban university-run hospitals with excellent reputations, and one expensive private hospital. Though presented with identical symptoms, seven were diagnosed with schizophrenia at public hospitals, and one with manic-depressive psychosis, a more optimistic diagnosis with better clinical outcomes, at the private hospital. Their stays ranged from 7 to 52 days, and the average was 19 days. All but one were discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia “in remission”, which Rosenhan considered as evidence that mental illness is perceived as an irreversible condition creating a lifelong stigma rather than a curable illness.

Despite constantly and openly taking extensive notes on the behaviour of the staff and other patients, none of the pseudopatients were identified as impostors by the hospital staff, although many of the other psychiatric patients seemed to be able to correctly identify them as impostors. In the first three hospitalisations, 35 of the total of 118 patients expressed a suspicion that the pseudopatients were sane, with some suggesting that the patients were researchers or journalists investigating the hospital. Hospital notes indicated that staff interpreted much of the pseudopatients’ behaviour in terms of mental illness. For example, one nurse labelled the note-taking of one pseudopatient as “writing behaviour” and considered it pathological. The patients’ normal biographies were recast in hospital records along the lines of what was expected of schizophrenics by the then-dominant theories of its cause.

The experiment required the pseudopatients to get out of the hospital on their own by getting the hospital to release them, though a lawyer was retained to be on call for emergencies when it became clear that the pseudopatients would not ever be voluntarily released on short notice. Once admitted and diagnosed, the pseudopatients were not able to obtain their release until they agreed with the psychiatrists that they were mentally ill and began taking antipsychotic medications, which they flushed down the toilet. No staff member reported that the pseudopatients were flushing their medication down the toilets.

Rosenhan and the other pseudopatients reported an overwhelming sense of dehumanisation, severe invasion of privacy, and boredom while hospitalised. Their possessions were searched randomly, and they were sometimes observed while using the toilet. They reported that though the staff seemed to be well-meaning, they generally objectified and dehumanised the patients, often discussing patients at length in their presence as though they were not there, and avoiding direct interaction with patients except as strictly necessary to perform official duties. Some attendants were prone to verbal and physical abuse of patients when other staff were not present. A group of patients waiting outside the cafeteria half an hour before lunchtime were said by a doctor to his students to be experiencing “oral-acquisitive” psychiatric symptoms. Contact with doctors averaged 6.8 minutes per day.

Non-Existent Impostor Experiment

For this experiment, Rosenhan used a well-known research and teaching hospital, whose staff had heard of the results of the initial study but claimed that similar errors could not be made at their institution. Rosenhan arranged with them that during a three-month period, one or more pseudopatients would attempt to gain admission and the staff would rate every incoming patient as to the likelihood they were an impostor. Out of 193 patients, 41 were considered to be impostors and a further 42 were considered suspect. In reality, Rosenhan had sent no pseudopatients; all patients suspected as impostors by the hospital staff were ordinary patients. This led to a conclusion that “any diagnostic process that lends itself too readily to massive errors of this sort cannot be a very reliable one.”

Impact

Rosenhan published his findings in Science, in which he criticised the reliability of psychiatric diagnosis and the disempowering and demeaning nature of patient care experienced by the associates in the study. In addition, he described his work in a variety of news appearances, including to the BBC:

I told friends, I told my family: “I can get out when I can get out. That’s all. I’ll be there for a couple of days and I’ll get out.” Nobody knew I’d be there for two months … The only way out was to point out that they’re [the psychiatrists are] correct. They had said I was insane, “I am insane; but I am getting better.” That was an affirmation of their view of me.

The experiment is argued to have “accelerated the movement to reform mental institutions and to deinstitutionalize as many mental patients as possible”.

Many respondents to the publication defended psychiatry, arguing that as psychiatric diagnosis relies largely on the patient’s report of their experiences, faking their presence no more demonstrates problems with psychiatric diagnosis than lying about other medical symptoms. In this vein, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer quoted Seymour S. Kety in a 1975 criticism of Rosenhan’s study:

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.

Kety also argued that psychiatrists should not necessarily be expected to assume that a patient is pretending to have mental illness, thus the study lacked realism. Rosenhan called this the “experimenter effect” or “expectation bias”, something indicative of the problems he uncovered rather than a problem in his methodology.

In The Great Pretender, a 2019 book on Rosenhan, author Susannah Cahalan questions the veracity and validity of the Rosenhan experiment. Examining documents left behind by Rosenhan after his death, Cahalan finds apparent distortion in the Science article: inconsistent data, misleading descriptions, and inaccurate or fabricated quotations from psychiatric records. Moreover, despite an extensive search, she is only able to identify two of the eight pseudopatients: Rosenhan himself, and a graduate student whose testimony is allegedly inconsistent with Rosenhan’s description in the article. In light of Rosenhan’s seeming willingness to bend the truth in other ways regarding the experiment, Cahalan questions whether some or all of the six other pseudopatients might have been simply invented by Rosenhan.

Related Experiments

In 1887 American investigative journalist Nellie Bly feigned symptoms of mental illness to gain admission to a lunatic asylum and report on the terrible conditions therein. The results were published as Ten Days in a Mad-House.]

In 1968 Maurice K. Temerlin split 25 psychiatrists into two groups and had them listen to an actor portraying a character of normal mental health. One group was told that the actor “was a very interesting man because he looked neurotic, but actually was quite psychotic” while the other was told nothing. Sixty percent of the former group diagnosed psychoses, most often schizophrenia, while none of the control group did so.

In 1988, Loring and Powell gave 290 psychiatrists a transcript of a patient interview and told half of them that the patient was black and the other half white; they concluded of the results that “clinicians appear to ascribe violence, suspiciousness, and dangerousness to black clients even though the case studies are the same as the case studies for the white clients.”

In 2004, psychologist Lauren Slater claimed to have conducted an experiment very similar to Rosenhan’s for her book Opening Skinner’s Box. Slater wrote that she had presented herself at 9 psychiatric emergency rooms with auditory hallucinations, resulting in being diagnosed “almost every time” with psychotic depression. However, when challenged to provide evidence of actually conducting her experiment, she could not. The serious methodologic and other concerns regarding Slater’s work appeared as a series of responses to a journal report, in the same journal.

In 2008, the BBC’s Horizon science programme performed a similar experiment over two episodes entitled “How Mad Are You?”. The experiment involved ten subjects, five with previously diagnosed mental health conditions, and five with no such diagnosis. They were observed by three experts in mental health diagnoses and their challenge was to identify the five with mental health problems solely from their behaviour, without speaking to the subjects or learning anything of their histories. The experts correctly diagnosed two of the ten patients, misdiagnosed one patient, and incorrectly identified two healthy patients as having mental health problems. Unlike the other experiments listed here, however, the aim of this journalistic exercise was not to criticise the diagnostic process, but to minimise the stigmatisation of the mentally ill. It aimed to illustrate that people with a previous diagnosis of a mental illness could live normal lives with their health problems not obvious to observers from their behaviour.

Book: Drop the Disorder! Challenging the Culture of Psychiatric Diagnosis

Book Title:

Drop the Disorder! Challenging the Culture of Psychiatric Diagnosis.

Author(s): Jo Watson.

Year: 2019.

Edition: First (1st).

Publisher: PCCS Books.

Type(s): Paperback and Kindle.

Synopsis:

In October 2016 Jo Watson hosted the very first A Disorder for Everyone!’ event in Birmingham, with psychologist Dr Lucy Johnstone, to explore (and explode) the culture of psychiatric diagnosis in mental health. To provide a space to continue the debate after the event, Jo also set up the now hugely popular and active Facebook group Drop the Disorder!’.; Since then, they have delivered events in towns and cities across the UK, bringing together activists, survivors and professionals to debate psychiatric diagnosis. How and why does psychiatric diagnosis hold such power? What harm it can do? What are the alternatives to diagnosis, and how it can be positively challenged?; This book takes the themes, energy and passions of the AD4E events – bringing together many of the event speakers with others who have stories to tell and messages to share in the struggle to challenge diagnosis.; This is an essential book for everyone of us who looks beyond the labels.

Book: A Straight Talking Introduction to Psychiatric Diagnosis

Book Title:

A Straight Talking Introduction to Psychiatric Diagnosis (Straight Talking Introductions).

Author(s): Lucy Johnstone.

Year: 2014.

Edition: First (1st).

Publisher: PCCS Books.

Type(s): Paperback and Kindle.

Synopsis:

Do you still need your psychiatric diagnosis? This book will help you to decide. A revolution is underway in mental health. If the authors of the diagnostic manuals are admitting that psychiatric diagnoses are not supported by evidence, then no one should be forced to accept them. If many mental health workers are openly questioning diagnosis and saying we need a different and better system, then service users and carers should be allowed to do so too. This book is about choice. It is about giving people the information to make up their own minds, and exploring alternatives for those who wish to do so.

Can We Improve Diagnosis of Depression with XGBOOST Machine Learning Model & a Large Biomarkers Dutch Dataset?

Research Paper Title

Improving Diagnosis of Depression With XGBOOST Machine Learning Model and a Large Biomarkers Dutch Dataset ( n = 11,081).

Abstract

Machine Learning has been on the rise and healthcare is no exception to that. In healthcare, mental health is gaining more and more space. The diagnosis of mental disorders is based upon standardised patient interviews with defined set of questions and scales which is a time consuming and costly process.

The objective of the researchers was to apply the machine learning model and to evaluate to see if there is predictive power of biomarkers data to enhance the diagnosis of depression cases.

In this research paper, they aimed to explore the detection of depression cases among the sample of 11,081 Dutch citizen dataset. Most of the earlier studies have balanced datasets wherein the proportion of healthy cases and unhealthy cases are equal but in their study, the dataset contains only 570 cases of self-reported depression out of 11,081 cases hence it is a class imbalance classification problem. The machine learning model built on imbalance dataset gives predictions biased toward majority class hence the model will always predict the case as no depression case even if it is a case of depression.

The researchers used different resampling strategies to address the class imbalance problem. They created multiple samples by under sampling, over sampling, over-under sampling and ROSE sampling techniques to balance the dataset and then, they applied machine learning algorithm “Extreme Gradient Boosting” (XGBoost) on each sample to classify the mental illness cases from healthy cases.

The balanced accuracy, precision, recall and F1 score obtained from over-sampling and over-under sampling were more than 0.90.

Reference

Sharma, A. & Verbeke, W.J.M.I. (2021) Improving Diagnosis of Depression With XGBOOST Machine Learning Model and a Large Biomarkers Dutch Dataset ( n = 11,081). Frontiers in Big Data. doi: 10.3389/fdata.2020.00015. eCollection 2020.

Book: A Straight Talking Introduction to the Power Threat Meaning Framework: An Alternative to Psychiatric Diagnosis

Book Title:

A Straight Talking Introduction to the Power Threat Meaning Framework: An Alternative to Psychiatric Diagnosis (The Straight Talking Introduction Series).

Author(s): Mary Boyle and Lucy Johnstone.

Year: 2020.

Edition: First (1st).

Publisher: PCCS Books.

Type(s): Paperback and Kindle.

Synopsis:

The current mainstream way of describing psychological and emotional distress assumes it is the result of medical illnesses that need diagnosing and treating. This book summarises a powerful alternative to psychiatric diagnosis that asks not ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What’s happened to you?’ The Power Threat Meaning Framework (PTMF) was co-produced by a core group of psychologists and service users and launched in 2018, prompting considerable interest in the UK and worldwide. It argues that emotional distress, unusual experiences and many forms of troubled or troubling behaviour are understandable when viewed in the context of a person’s life and circumstances, the cultural and social norms we are expected to live up to and the degree to which we are exposed to trauma, abuse, injustice and inequality. The PTMF offers all of us the tools to create new, hopeful narratives about the reasons for our distress that are not based on psychiatric diagnosis and to find ways forward as individuals, families, social groups and whole societies.

Book: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema- The Imaginary Signifier

Book Title:

Psychoanalysis and the Cinema- The Imaginary Signifier.

Author(s): Christian Metz.

Year: 1984.

Edition: First (1st).

Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan.

Type(s): Hardcover and Paperback.

Synopsis:

In the first half of the book Metz explores a number of aspects of the psychological anchoring of cinema as a social institution.

In the second half, he shifts his approach…to look at the operations of meaning in the film text, at the figures of image and sound concatenation. Thus he is led to consideration of metaphor and metonymy in film, this involving a detailed account of these two figures as they appear in psychoanalysis and linguistics.

Book: Psychiatric Diagnosis and Classification

Book Title:

Psychiatric Diagnosis and Classification.

Author(s): Mario Maj, Wolfgang Gaebel, Juan Jose Lopez-Ibor, and Norman Sartorius (Editors).

Year: 2002.

Edition: First (1st).

Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell.

Type(s): Hardcover and Kindle.

Synopsis:

This book provides an overview of the strengths and limitations of the currently available systems for the diagnosis and classification of mental disorders, in particular the DSM-IV and the ICD-10, and of the prospects for future developments. Among the covered issues are: The impact of biological research The diagnosis of mental disorders in primary care The usefulness and limitations of the concept of comorbidity in psychiatry The role of understanding and empathy in the diagnostic process The ethical, legal and social aspects of psychiatric classification Psychiatric Diagnosis & Classification provides a comprehensive picture of the current state of available diagnostic and classificatory systems in psychiatry and the improvements that are needed.

Is Neuroanalysis a Useful Method for Brain-Related Neuroscientific Diagnosis of Mental Disorders?

Research Paper Title

Neuroanalysis: a method for brain-related neuroscientific diagnosis of mental disorders.

Background

As an Ancient Chinese proverb says “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names” thus we must start calling mental disorders by the names of their underlying brain disturbances. Without knowledge of the causes of mental disorders, their cures will remain elusive.

Methods

Neuroanalysis is a literature-based re-conceptualisation of mental disorders as disturbances of brain organisation. Psychosis and schizophrenia can be re-conceptualised as disturbances to connectivity and hierarchical dynamics in the brain; mood disorders can be re-conceptualised as disturbances to optimization dynamics and free energy in the brain, and finally personality disorders can be re-conceptualised as disordered default-mode networks in the brain.

Results and Conclusions

Knowledge and awareness of the disease algorithms of mental disorders will become critical because powerful technologies for controlling brain activity are developing and becoming available. The time will soon come when psychiatrists will be asked to define the exact ‘algorithms’ of disturbances in their psychiatric patients. Neuroanalysis can be a starting point for the response to that challenge.

Reference

Peled, A. (2020) Neuroanalysis: a method for brain-related neuroscientific diagnosis of mental disorders. Medical Hypotheses. 78(5), pp.636-640. doi: 10.1016/j.mehy.2012.01.043. Epub 2012 Feb 18.

Book: Mental: Everything You Never Knew You Needed to Know about Mental Health

Book Title:

Mental: Everything You Never Knew You Needed to Know about Mental Health.

Author(s): Dr Steve Ellen and Catherine Deveny.

Year: 2018.

Edition: First (1st).

Publisher: Anima.

Type(s): Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook, and Kindle.

Synopsis:

How do we define mental illness? What does a diagnosis mean? What should you ask your doctor before you begin treatment? Are there alternatives to medication? What does the research show actually works?

Practitioner and professor of psychiatry Dr Steve Ellen and popular comedian Catherine Deveny combine forces to demystify the world of mental health. Sharing their personal experiences of mental illness and an insider perspective on psychiatry, they unpack the current knowledge about conditions and treatments coveing everything from depression and anxiety to schizophrenia, personality disorders and substance abuse.

Whether you have a mental illness or support someone who does, Mental offers clear practical help, empowering you with an arsenal of tips and techniques to help build your resilience.

Book: The ADHD Explosion

Book Title:

The ADHD Explosion: Myths, Medication, Money, and Today’s Push for Performance.

Author(s): Stephen P. Hinshaw and Richard M. Scheffler.

Year: 2014.

Edition: First (1st).

Publisher: Oxford University Press.

Type(s): Hardcover and Kindle.

Synopsis:

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most controversial and misunderstood medical conditions today.

With skyrocketing rates of diagnosis and medication treatment, it has generated a firestorm of controversy.

Alarming questions have been raised about ADHD in recent years:

  • Why are over 10% of children and adolescents in the US now diagnosed with ADHD, with projected rates quickly rising?
  • Why do over two-thirds of those diagnosed with ADHD receive medication?
  • In some southern states, why are boys diagnosed at rates of almost one in three?
  • What is causing the fast-rising diagnosis and medication of adults? Why are over a quarter of all college students using stimulants for academic performance?
  • What drives the current ADHD “tsunami” – is it parents, clinicians, schools, culture, the healthcare system, or Big Pharma? When will it end?
  • Can we trust the stories we read and hear about ADHD, even in major media outlets?

The ADHD Explosion and Today’s Push for Performance uniquely blends clinical wisdom, current science, new information on medical and school policy, and global trends to debunk myths and set the record straight.

Hinshaw and Scheffler describe the origins of ADHD and its huge costs to society; the science regarding causes as well as medication and behavioural treatment; and the major variation in diagnosis and treatment across the US, highlighting the key roles of educational policy and high-stakes testing. Dealing directly with stimulants as “smart pills,” they describe the epidemic of medicalisation, arguing that accurate diagnosis and well-monitored care could ease the staggering economic burden linked to ADHD.

In novel ways, they unravel the many poignant issues facing children, teachers, clinicians, and family members who contend with ADHD each day. The recommendations in this book can improve the quality of life for those touched by ADHD and potentially improve the productivity and safety of all society.