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Rosenhan received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Yeshiva University. At Columbia University in 1953 he earned his master's degree, and five years later his Ph.D in psychology. Rosenhan was a leading expert on psychology and the law. He was a pioneer in the application of psychological methods to the practice of trial law process, including jury selection and jury consultation. He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and has been a visiting fellow at Wolfson College at Oxford University. Before joining the Stanford Law School faculty in 1970, he was a member of the faculties of Swarthmore College, Princeton University, and Haverford College. He was also a research psychologist at Educational Testing Service and a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 1973 Rosenhan published "On Being Sane in Insane Places", The article details the Rosenhan experiment. The experiment arranged for eight individuals with no history of psychopathology to attempt admission into twelve psychiatric hospitals. All individuals were admitted with a diagnosis of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Psychiatrists then attempted to treat the individuals using psychiatric medication. All eight were discharged within 7 to 52 days, but only when they had stated that they accepted their diagnosis. In a later part of the study, a research and teaching hospital challenged Rosenhan to run a similar experiment involving its own diagnosis and admission procedures. Psychiatric staff were warned that at least one pseudo-patient might be sent to their institution. 83 out of 193 new patients were believed by at least one staff member to be actors. In fact, Rosenhan sent no actors. The study concluded that existing forms of diagnosis were grossly inaccurate in distinguishing individuals without mental disorders from those with mental disorders. The paper created an explosion of controversy. Critics have questioned the validity and credibility of the study, but concede that the consistency of psychiatric diagnoses needs improvement.
Along with Martin Seligman, Rosenhan believed that there are seven main features of abnormality: suffering; maladaptiveness; vividness and unconventionality; unpredictability and loss of control; irrationality and incomprehensibility; observer discomfort; and violation of moral and ideal standards.
Professor Rosenhan held a joint appointment with the Stanford University Department of Psychology and later became professor emeritus at Stanford University. He died on February 6, 2012, at the age of 82.
The Rosenhan experiment was a famous experiment done in order to determine the validity of psychiatric diagnosis, conducted by psychologist David Rosenhan (November 22, 1929 – February 6, 2012), a Stanford University professor, and published by the journal Science in 1973 under the title "On being sane in insane places". The study is considered an important and influential criticism of psychiatric diagnosis. It was while listening to one of R. D. Laing's lectures that Rosenhan wondered if there was a way in which the reliability of psychiatric diagnoses could be tested experimentally.
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 different psychiatric hospitals in five different States in various locations in the United States. All were admitted and diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. After admission, the pseudopatients acted normally and told staff that they felt fine and had no longer experienced any additional hallucinations. All were forced to admit to having a mental illness and agree to take antipsychotic drugs as a condition of their release. 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 an offended hospital administration challenging Rosenhan to send pseudopatients to its facility, whom its staff would then detect. Rosenhan agreed and in the following weeks out of 193 new patients the staff identified 41 as potential pseudopatients, with 19 of these receiving suspicion from at least 1 psychiatrist and 1 other staff member. In fact, Rosenhan had sent no one to the hospital.
The study concluded "it is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals" and also illustrated the dangers of dehumanization and labeling in psychiatric institutions. It suggested that the use of community mental health facilities which concentrated on specific problems and behaviors rather than psychiatric labels might be a solution and recommended education to make psychiatric workers more aware of the social psychology of their facilities.