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Notes and Reflections on Books and Media

by Hannah Leitheiser


The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

Sam Harris




Few studies illustrate this more powerfully than one conducted by the psychologist David L. Rosenhan,73 in which he and seven confederates had themselves committed to psychiatric hospitals in five different states in an effort to determine whether mental health
professionals could detect the presence of the sane among the mentally ill. In order to get committed, each researcher complained of hearing a voice repeating the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.” Beyond that, each behaved perfectly normally. Upon winning admission to the psychiatric ward, the pseudopatients stopped complaining of their symptoms and immediately sought to convince the doctors, nurses, and staff that they felt fine and were fit to be released. This proved surprisingly difficult. While these genuinely sane patients wanted to leave the hospital, repeatedly declared that they experienced no symptoms, and became “paragons of cooperation,” their average length of hospitalization was nineteen days (ranging from seven to fifty-two days), during which they were bombarded with an astounding range of powerful drugs (which they discreetly deposited in the toilet). None were pronounced healthy. Each was ultimately discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia “in remission” (with the exception of one who received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder). Interestingly, while the doctors, nurses, and staff were apparently blind to the presence of normal people on the ward, actual mental patients frequently remarked on the obvious sanity of the researchers, saying things like “You’re not crazy. You’re a journalist.” In a brilliant response

Rosenhan concluded his paper with this damning summary: “It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals.” - Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (2011)