Constructing Difference: Social Deviance
Being Sane in Insane Places
sociologist David Rosenhan designed a clever study to examine the difficulty that people
have shedding the "mentally ill" label. He was particularly interested in how
staffs in mental institutions process information about patients. He decided that the best
way to get this information was from the inside through participant observation.
seven associates had themselves committed to different mental hospitals by complaining
that they were hearing voices (a symptom commonly believed to be characteristic of
schizophrenia). The staff did not know the "pseudopatients" were actually part
of a field experiment. They assumed they were patients like any others and had no reason
to believe the reported symptoms were fake.
alleged symptoms and falsification of names and occupations, the important events of the
pseudopatients' life histories were presented as they had actually occurred. Furthermore,
prior to the study, Rosenhan instructed them to act completely normal upon admission into
the hospital. That is, they were not to act "crazy" in any way. In fact,
Rosenhan told them that acting normal was the only way they could get out.
fact that they did nothing out of the ordinary, the pseudopatients remained hospitalized
for an average of 19 days, from a low of 9 days to a high of 52. Their sanity was never
detected except, ironically enough, by the actual patients in the hospitals.
Rosenhan's associates retained the deviant label even after being discharged. Their
schizophrenia was said to be "in remission," implying that it was dormant and
could possibly resurface.
At no time
during their stay in the hospital was the legitimacy of their schizophrenic label ever
questioned. It was simply assumed that they were schizophrenic; after all, why else would
they have heard voices?
the pseudopatients did and said while in mental institutions was understood from this
premise. Normal behaviors were overlooked entirely or were profoundly misinterpreted.
Minor disagreements became deep-seated indicators of emotional instability. Boredom was
interpreted as nervousness or anxiety. Even the act of writing on a notepad was seen by
the staff as a sign of some deeper psychological disturbance.
even though there was nothing "pathological" about the pseudopatients' past
histories, these records were reinterpreted to be consistent with the schizophrenic label.
pseudopatient, for instance, had had a close relationship with his mother but a remote one
with his father during early childhood. As he matured he became closer to his father while
his relationship with his mother became more distant. He had a warm and loving
relationship with his wife and children, although there were occasional fights and
friction. In short, there was nothing particularly unusual about this person's history.
how this history was translated into something troubled and psychopathological by the
This white 39-year-old
male . . . manifests a long history of considerable ambivalence in close relationships,
which began in early childhood. A warm relationship with his mother cools during his
adolescence. A distant relationship to his father is described as becoming very intense.
Affective stability is absent. His attempts to control emotions with his wife and children
are punctuated by angry outbursts and, in the case of the children, spankings. And while
he says that he has several good friends, one senses considerable ambivalence embedded in
those relationships also.1
behavior was interpreted in light of the label, the facts of this man's past were
distorted to achieve consistency with what was generally believed to be true about the
family dynamics of schizophrenics.
didn't conclude that the staffs at these hospitals were incompetent or dishonest. In fact,
he argued that there was no conscious effort to misconstrue the evidence to fit the label.
They were doing their jobs effectively.
Rosenhan reasoned, the labels were so powerful that they profoundly affected the way
information was processed and perceived. Had the same behaviors been observed in a
different context, they no doubt would have been interpreted in an entirely different
1Rosenhan, D. 1973. "On being sane in
insane places." Science, 179, 250-258. p. 253.
David Newman and Rebecca Smith.
(Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.