Back in 1973, when the field of psychology still carried itself with an enormous amount of swagger and even Freudians could hold their heads high, the journal Science published what would be among the most damning scholarly indictments of psychology as a whole in its January issue. And what was the most beautiful part about the article was that it was an account of psychology hanging itself with its own rope.
David Rosenhan, the author and chief researcher and a psychologist himself, enlisted eight perfectly sane people to commit themselves to 12 different mental hospitals on the basis that they had been hearing voices. Once admitted, they were instructed, they would cease to report hearing the voices and subsequently just behave as their normal selves. They were to respond that they were feeling fine, if asked, to take notes on the staff and just generally and truthfully appear totally sane. Rosenhan had a hypothesis that mental illness is largely contextual or situational and that people who are admitted to insane asylums would be presumed to be insane by the people who worked there. In other words, Rosenhan suspected that mental health workers would be too blinded by the context of the mental hospital to recognize a perfectly sane person they interacted with on a daily basis. He was right. In every case the pesudopatients (as Rosenhan dubbed them) were admitted, treated and discharged without detection. One poor soul was kept for 52 days, despite acting - and being - utterly normal by any standards thoughout the hospitalization. Each pseudopatient was diagnosed with schizophrenia upon admission (except in one case), and each of these were discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia in remission. Herein lies what rubbed Rosenhan: Anyone who enters the psychological health system emerges stigmatized - they are mentally ill. Because of the failure of psychologists to even recognize the sane when they literally stand before them, these people can never be fully "cured" and thus will carry that stigma around with them for their entire lives. It is dangerous, Rosenhan effectively pointed out, for a field to wield the power to label others as sane or insane, well or unwell, and to forcibly mentally subdue their charges through medication or neurological procedures like lobotomy. In addition to skewering the field on psychology as a whole, Rosenhan's study produced a trove of data that paints a pretty grim picture of what life was like on the inside for mental patients in the middle of the last century. Plus, the author went out of his way to make his article immensely enjoyable to read. Here is a link to a PDF of the full article.