Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Undercover in a Subculture

Innovative social scientists once exposed truths that still reverberate.

Inside a subculture

The other day, I was talking with my class about the bold experiments undertaken by psychologists during the 1970s. It brought to mind Dr. David Rosenhan, whose work had partially inspired my approach to “embedded” or immersed journalism.

I don't claim to be a journalist, but I’ve had the opportunity to pursue some eye-opening adventures for writing purposes. Among them were Piercing the Darkness, where I went undercover into the 1990s vampire subculture, and Cemetery Stories, where I sometimes passed as something I was not in order to mingle well and get stories.

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I looked to other journalistic experiments of this nature, in part to learn more about undercover dynamics. Rosenhan's was one. Although Rosenhan and his colleagues came in for considerable criticism in terms of their interpretations, I was more interested in their process. So, recently, I looked up this experiment again and found an interesting twist I hadn’t known about. Apparently, there were two phases.

During the early 1970s, Rosenhan proposed to test how well psychiatrists could tell the difference between a person who was functioning normally and one diagnosable as psychotic or mentally aberrant. In those days psychiatrists were given the power to hold people in an institution, whether they wanted it or not, and to decide a person’s suitability to be a parent, ability to make life decisions, and propensity for criminal reform.

That's a lot of power and Rosenhan wanted to test it. His experiment was published in Science in 1973, as “On Being Sane in Insane Places.”

Rosenhan and seven of his friends (three of them psychologists, one a pediatrician, one a grad student in psychology, and one a psychiatrist, with the other two being nonprofessionals) faked their way with pseudonyms and fabricated professions into different psychiatric hospitals by claiming to hear voices. With a single symptom, they all got admitted into different hospitals of varying quality.

Seven were diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and one with a bipolar disorder. They were held for days (from seven to fifty-two, with an average of 19 days), even though once they were inside they acted normally. Many patients actually identified them as imposters, although staff members did not. A few patients even suspected them of being researchers.

Each quickly claimed that his or her sole reported symptom had disappeared, but whatever Rosenhan and his confederates reported of their actual experiences, their narratives were interpreted as part of their pathology. As a condition of their release, they had to admit to being mentally ill and to agree to take antipsychotic meds. With one exception, all were diagnosed with schizophrenia in remission. It surprised them how easily any given behavior could be twisted to fit a context.

From this experiment, they claimed that they’d learned how context-specific perceptions can be. Admittedly, it was a small group with no real controls, and they were already biased. Still, they did observe some intriguing things. And then came phase two.

The administration of one well-known hospital challenged Rosenhan to send more pseudo-patients, claiming that their staff were not prone to such errors. Rosenhan agreed. They designated a three-month period. Of the 193 people who were evaluated, the staff identified 41 definite fakes and suspected 42 others. However, their triumph was short-lived: Rosenhan hadn’t sent anyone.

I appreciate the innovative research, and also the lesson in cognitive psychology, but I was more interested in the pseudo-patients’ experiences on the inside. Once you've "passed" into a world in which you're not really a member, with an agenda that differs from those who are, things get interesting. It's not so easy to keep your footing.

Rosenhan and the others had watched patients being treated as objects, beaten or ignored, randomly searched, and routinely humiliated. Some had been abused. After being “one of them,” the pseudo-patients developed considerable sympathy. They were surprised by the way patients became almost sub-human in the eyes of the staff. They learned a lot about the influence of a defined situation. When they took notes, for example, their "writing behavior" was now a symptom of their mental illness.

Although psychiatrists were largely critical of the way the study was conducted, it does support the notion that subcultures evolve to form their own truths and perceptions. The more insulated they are, and free of scrutiny or accountability, the more power they have to construct the truth.

These concepts have provided a foundation for the psychology of undercover work. I certainly discovered, whether I was mingling at vampire parties or attending a funeral convention, that understanding the perceptions, special language, and sense of identity inside a subculture was crucial not just for group integration but also for forming appropriate judgments.  

There are more experiments like Rosenhan's, but not as many as I'd like to see.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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