The Martha Mitchell Effect: Reality Surpasses Imagination

If we talk about someone who thinks that they are trying to kill him, that the police have tapped his phone or that he knows a truth that other people want to silence, it is easy for us to think that it is about someone with some type of delusional disorder.

But sometimes some of these people are telling something real that ends up being mistakenly considered a product of the mind and imagination. We are talking about cases in which there has been The Martha Mitchell Effectwhose name is based on a true story.

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Delirium in psychopathology

To fully understand the Martha Mitchell effect, it is first necessary to reflect on what a delusion is.

Delirium is one of the most studied symptoms as regards the part of psychopathology of the content of thought. Such is understood as one or those false and unlikely ideas or beliefs that the subject holds with total conviction despite the fact that the evidence may be against them.

Are extravagant ideas and beliefssustained by the subject with great vehemence, lived as true and unchangeable that cause great discomfort and anguish in the individual.

The contents of the delirium are important, since they are closely linked at a symbolic level to the patient’s fears and their life experiences, as well as to cultural aspects that have influenced them to have a certain mentality. Some examples include the idea of being chased or controlledthat the phenomena that occur are directed towards the subject, that our partner is unfaithful to us, that someone is totally in love with us, that we have deformities or that we are dead and decomposing or that those around us are impostors pretending to be someone. our fellow men.

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How does delirium originate?

Why delusions arise is something that still does not have a clear answer. However, some of the main hypotheses establish that It is a cognitive and more or less structured elaboration that aims to respond to an anomalous perception. The cognitive process carried out by those who suffer from them may be biased, but it may also be normal.

This means that in some cases establishing a limit between what is real and what is delusional can be more complex than it appears. And despite the fact that its characteristics are generally visible and strange from the outside, the truth is that If the facts are observed from the subject’s perception, they can have coherence and logic. (after all, it is not impossible that someone is watching us to steal from us or that they are unfaithful to us, for example). This is why on some occasions it is possible to identify a real event as delirium. This is what happens in what is known as the Martha Mitchell effect.

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The Martha Mitchell Effect

The Martha Mitchell effect is understood to be that situation in which psychology and/or psychiatry professionals come to the conclusion that a specific event reported by the patient is the product of a delirium or an altered state of consciousness, said event being TRUE.

The events in question usually refer to events with a low probability of occurrence, implausible and with a high level of implausibility, little shared by the social environment and with emphasis on the perception of the phenomenon as something self-referential and directed towards the person themselves. Clear examples of this are the ideas of being persecuted by criminal gangs, being monitored by the government or possessing very important information that someone wants to silence.

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Martha Mitchell and the Watergate affair

The name of this effect is based on a real case. Martha Mitchell was the wife of state Attorney General John Mitchell, in the time of Richard Nixon. He was also a campaign assistant. This woman was well known in her time for her unstable personality, frequent outbursts, and a presumed drinking problem.

Martha Mitchell also denounced on numerous occasions different irregularities produced by the administration, including corruption and allegations such as espionage. However, her allegations were ignored as they were considered delusions or other problems resulting from mental illness.

Some time later, the Watergate scandal would come to light.. All the people who had humiliated Martha by trying to stigmatize her with the weight of her mental illness had made a clear mistake. While some of the irregularities she mentioned were not proven, many of the corruptions that had been taken for delusions or even attempts to attract attention turned out to have a real basis.

Why does it occur?

The reasons why the Martha Mitchell effect occurs are mainly its similarity to delusions: the events reported are implausible and usually refer to aspects that are difficult to evaluate objectively.

Besides, It is more likely that this diagnostic error will occur if the person in question has certain characteristics that make it more likely that it is a delusional perception or interpretation of reality.

For example, a person with an already diagnosed psychotic disorder, an individual who has previously suffered from delusions, a subject with a histrionic personality or someone who is addicted to substances with hallucinogenic effects. These are aspects that encourage facts that are innocuous in principle to be processed in a distorted manner.