On Being Sane in Insane Places

On Being Sane in Insane Places

Retracing David Ronsenhan's Journey

By Lauren Slater

March/April 2004

It was 1972. Spiro Agnew had just resigned. Thomas Szasz had written The Myth of Mental Illness. R. D. Laing had challenged psychiatrists to rethink schizophrenia as a form of possible poetry. Only recently, flags had waved on the snouts of guns, signaling cease-fire in Vietnam. David Rosenhan, a newly minted psychologist with a joint degree in law, did not go to Vietnam, but according to one colleague, he had observed how many men used mental illness as a way of avoiding the draft. It was fairly easy to fake some symptoms--how easy, exactly, was it? Rosenhan, who loved adventure, decided to try something out.

Almost on impulse he called eight friends and said something like, "Are you busy next month? Would you have time to fake your way into a mental hospital and see what happens, see if they can tell you're really sane?" Surprisingly, so the story goes, all eight were not busy next month, and all eight--three psychologists, one graduate student, a pediatrician, a psychiatrist, a painter, and a housewife--agreed to take the time to try this treacherous trick, along with Rosenhan himself, who could hardly wait to get started. Says pseudopatient psychologist Martin Seligman, "David just called me up and said, 'Are you busy next October?' and I said, 'Of course I'm busy next October,' but by the end of the conversation, he had me laughing and saying yes. I gave him all of October, which is how long the experiment took."

In fact, it took longer than that. First,…

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