Everything we’ve been taught was a lie?

In 1969, a healthy 39-year-old man pretended to hear voices and got himself admitted to a closed psychiatric ward in a US hospital. Subsequently he acts normal but struggles to get released due to his diagnosis of schizophrenia.

The man was researcher and academic David Rosenhan. He reported half a dozen other such cases in his ground-breaking study ‘On being sane in insane places’ which changed the face of psychiatry and, to this day, is cited hundreds of times each year, and is part of the curriculum of pretty much every psychology degree. It even inspired the famous movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Jack Nicholson.

Now, the thing is: he made up all the participants of the study and completely misrepresented the circumstances of his own admission!

The following is from a recently published article from History of Psychiatry,and as far as abstracts of scientific journals go, this one’s as engaging as it gets!

  • “The publication of David Rosenhan’s ‘On being sane in insane places’ in Science in 1973 played a crucial role in persuading the American Psychiatric Association to revise its diagnostic manual. The third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III) in its turn launched a revolution in American psychiatry whose reverberations continue to this day. Rosenhan’s paper continues to be cited hundreds of times a year, and its alleged findings are seen as crucial evidence of psychiatry’s failings. Yet based on the findings of an investigative journalist, Susannah Cahalan, and on records she shared with the author, we now know that this research is a spectacularly successful case of scientific fraud.” (full article –full story)

Same goes for another hugely ground-breaking study: the famous Stanford Prison Experiment by Philip Zimbardo, in which participants were supposedly randomly assigned as guards or prisoners in a study with little instructions, and the whole thing had to be stopped due to the ensuing violence only a short time into the experiment, and suggested human nature to be rather dark. 

But as it turned out, the guards had received precise instructions by Zombardo on how to behave and the whole thing has been thoroughly debunked now.

My colleague, friend and former student Nick Brown, “self-appointed data police cadet” with an excellent blog, recently also pointed to “multiple studies debunking the classic interpretation of the bystander effect, following the revelation that plenty of people saw Kitty Genovese being attacked, but the cops couldn’t be bothered to turn up.”

There’s plenty more examples, and it can really undermine the trust in truth and knowledge, which is especially challenging in a world full of deep fakes, misinformation, and increasingly polarising worldviews. So let me say this:

I’m a fan of science. I believe that it’s the best method we have to create knowledge.
And there’s plenty more solid science out there than fraudsters.

But two pointers here:

First: Science is pursued by human beings, and hence not free from human error, unconscious bias, or blatant fraud for personal gain. We got to stay critical. And that can be difficult when it comes to complex datasets. But that doesn’t mean that everything we’ve been taught was a lie. We just need to re-evaluate somethings, and the scientific process may take longer than we’d liek it to (in the above case, it took 50 years).

And secondy: When you’re talking to someone who’s sitting in front of you (e.g. a coaching client), they might just be the outlier to whatever theory or knowledge you’re tempted to apply.

Psychology is not, and cannot be, an exact science. A 95% confidence interval that the results of your study are not due to statistical error, are good enough in social sciences, and it’s an accepted statistical method to eliminate the outlier from your data set (since, fair play, they usually mean someone’s misunderstood the questionnaire scoring). But then again this outlier just might be very different to all the other people studied…

And so I don’t think we can, with any certainty disregard someone else’s experience. It’s always worth being curious, and bracketing what we think we know about the world, just for a little while, so we can really listento people. We sure need more of that in this day and age.

With Love

PS: The earth is not fucking flat!

New content: Learn NLP from a true master of the craft


This isn’t my content, but I really like and highly respect Devon White, who created the NLP Practitioner Certificate for our friends at the School of Positive Transformation, and I believe it’s super super valuable for any coach and communicator out there.

You may remember that A) Devon was one of the teachers I recruited for the Accredited Certificate in Integrative Coaching and his demo and style just blew me away, and B) we’ve invited him to showcase his “Consciousness Wizardry” in the Coaching Lab on 2nd May 2023.

Now I should add that NLP is a little controversial as it can feel somewhat “culty” and lacks a proper research base. Nevertheless, it’s got a super interesting history as its founders Bandler and Grinder (who have since gone separate ways in dispute over commercial issues) set out to imitate the most effective and successful therapists at the time and package their interventions into replicable techniques and exercises, which obviously offer a lot of value. It also offers the potential for anybody do open up a lot of psychological depth for quite vulnerable people, where I think a lot of bad reputation comes from. So when you find someone you trust to teach you about NLP concepts, you may have hit gold; and I believe this course is quite the nugget (pun intended).

If you’d like to learn more about the training, and sign up at the incredible launch price then hop over to the course website here. The “course introduction video” (about half-way down the page) is well worth checking out.


And that’s it for this week. If any of it resonates, make it swing! I love to hear from people 🙂

And hey, if you’d prefer to get the monthly-ish round up of these Nuggets (including some more personal updates), this is the list to sign up to. Cheers!