Stanford Law School Mourns the Loss of David L. Rosenhan, Professor of Law & Psychology, Emeritus

David L. Rosenhan, Professor of Law and Psychology, Emeritus

STANFORD, Calif., February 16, 2012—David L. Rosenhan, professor emeritus at Stanford University and leading expert on psychology and the law, died Monday, February 6, 2012, at Stanford University Hospital in Stanford, California. He was 82 years old.

Professor of law and of psychology at Stanford since 1971, David Rosenhan was a pioneer in the application of psychological methods to the practice of trial law process, including jury selection and jury consultation. He was the author of more than 80 books and research papers, including one of the most widely read studies in the field of psychology, “On Being Sane in Insane Places” (1973). He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a former president of the American Psychological Association, a former director of the American Psychology-Law Society, a former president of the American Board of Forensic Psychology, a former vice-president of the Institute for Psychosocial Interaction, a former director at the Mental Research Institute, and a member of the Clinical Projects Research Review Committee at the National Institute of Mental Health.

Born in Jersey City, New Jersey, David L. Rosenhan was a yeshiva student in his youth and received a BA in mathematics (1951) from Yeshiva College, and an MA in economics (1953) and PhD in psychology (1958) from Columbia University.


As part of his research study for “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” Professor Rosenhan and seven others had themselves admitted as patients to a total of 12 mental hospitals during a three-year period. They described hallucinations and “empty” feelings and were diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenics. As soon as they were admitted they began acting normally and waited for the hospital staff to notice. The hospital staff never did notice, although many of the real patients caught on to the fakes.

Rosenhan wrote, “It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals. … The consequences to patients hospitalized in such an environment—the powerlessness, depersonalization, segregation, mortification, and self-labeling—seem undoubtedly counter-therapeutic.”

Former psychology department colleague Professor Lee Ross, recalls, “David was a spell-binding lecturer, and this famous study was as much an exercise in pedagogy as research. While it offered an important lesson about the failure of hospital staff (in contrast to the patients) to distinguish sane from insane behavior a second lesson was no less important. That is, normal behavior—simply writing notes and going about one’s normal activity—when it occurred in the relevant institutional setting—was perceived by the staff to be a manifestation of mental illness. The lessons he cared most about offering, in his research and in the classroom, were most importantly ones about human dignity and the need to confront abuse of power and human frailties.”

At a time when legal scholars were just beginning to look to economics for insights into legal analysis, Professor Rosenhan was among the first to draw from the social sciences, especially experimental psychology, to examine assumptions made by legal scholars in the trial process. Building on research on juror behavior undertaken by the University of Chicago Law School Jury Project in the 1950s, Professor Rosenhan began to focus on other aspects of juror behavior. Among his interests was the jurors’ ability to abide by the judge’s instructions to disregard evidence the judge had ruled inadmissible.

Stanford Law School Professor Emeritus Miguel A. Méndez, whose own work was influenced by Rosenhan, said that his former colleague played a key role in attracting students to the law school interested in the intersection of law and psychology and was known for his generosity, always making time to mentor young faculty and students.

Before joining the Stanford faculty, David Rosenhan was a member of the faculties of Swarthmore College, Princeton University, Haverford College, and University of Pennsylvania. He also served as a research psychologist at Educational Testing Service. He was a psychologist for the Counseling Center at Stevens Institute of Technology from 1954 to 1956; a lecturer at Hunter College and director of research in the Department of Psychiatry at City Hospital at Elmhurst from 1958 to 1960; assistant professor for the Departments of Psychology and Sociology at Haverford College from 1960 to 1962; lecturer for the Department of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania from 1961 to 1964; lecturer for the Department of Psychology at Princeton University from 1964 to 1968; professor in the Department of Psychology and Education at Swarthmore College from 1968 to 1970; visiting professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University from 1970-1971; visiting fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Wolfson College and Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University from 1977 to 1978; visiting professor at University of Western Australia, Tel Aviv University, and Oxford University from 1984-1985; and a visiting professor in the Department of Psychology at Georgetown University in 1988.

David L. Rosenhan is survived by his son Jack Rosenhan of Palo Alto and his beloved granddaughters Cecily and Yael, as well as his brother Hershel of Jerusalem.