When you have a story so unbelievable, everyone thinks you're crazy

Illustration for article titled When you have a story so unbelievable, everyone thinks you're crazy

In many movies there are scenes of a protagonist revealing everything to a skeptical official—and promptly being admitted into a mental hospital. These scenes occasionally play out in real life. They even have a name, the Martha Mitchell Effect.

Brendan Maher was a psychologist who spent much of the 1950s and 1960s working with patients in the prison system, so he had to have had a lot of experience with the Martha Mitchell Effect before it got a name. Two major causes of the effect are being the target of organized crime or being under constant surveillance by law enforcement—and he had to have heard plenty of stories involving those two causes.

Many readers would point out that surveillance by either criminals or police doesn't cause mental illness, and they are right. The effect isn't a mental problem of the patient, but a kind of mental block of the psychiatrist. Its most famous sufferer was Martha Beall Mitchell. She was the wife of the Attorney General for the Nixon administration, and she had a few things to say about what top level officials were doing. When she made public statements, she was dismissed by those officials on the grounds of mental illness—an explanation that nearly all the press believed. It was only when the Watergate Scandal erupted that people realized she'd been right all along.


Maher, who had heard a lot of stories like this, noticed that many psychiatrists dismiss the more fantastic elements of patient complaints as delusions. What are the odds that someone is really being pursued by the CIA or the mafia, or that their spouse is dropping sadistic hints about infidelity, or that they're suffering from some extremely rare disease? The odds may be slight, Maher pointed out, but after dealing with hundreds of patients, one of them might be telling the truth. Maher dubbed the automatic dismissal of real complaints as mental issues Martha Mitchell Effect.

Unsurprisingly, it's tough to study, often because the person making the true complaint also has mental issues that may make them invent false complaints. The effect's namesake herself, though vindicated in terms of her reporting on the illegal activities of the presidential staff, has said some things that strain credulity. She claims to have been forcibly sedated and kept prisoner for days when the scandal broke, a claim for which no one has found any evidence. Should people believe part of the story, or the whole of it?

Top Image of Mitchell (with the lace collar):Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum

Via The Psychologist, Boston.com.


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So there is a chance that someone was abducted by aliens?