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Lesson Plan

Psychology: Dissociative Disorder

About this Video
This 12-minute video introduces students to the story behind “Sybil,” a sensational but scientifically fraught case study in multiple personality disorder that became the subject of a best-selling book and popular movie. Chronicling the questionable research and treatment procedures that led to a crisis of misdiagnosis and maltreatment of patients, the video explains how the now-debunked concept of multiple personality disorder came to be replaced by the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. Useful for setting up a class discussion on the fallibility of diagnostic labels and their evolution over time, the video fits in well with any unit on clinical psychology, and provides students with a deeply contextualized introduction to the basic elements of dissociative identity disorder.
Content Advisory: This video includes discussion of sexual abuse.
  • How the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder was created and popularized.
  • How ethically troubling research and treatment procedures surrounding multiple personality disorder contributed to the misdiagnosis and maltreatment of patients.
  • How multiple personality disorder came to be replaced by the diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder.
  • Psychology
  • Journalism
  • Science
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • 1950s America
  • 1960s America
  • 1970s America
  • 1980s America
  • 1990s America
  • Media Literacy
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

In 1976, “Sybil,” a television movie based on the life of a mentally disturbed young woman, shook the foundations of psychiatry.

The movie was based on a best-selling book of the same title, and transformed a little known malady, multiple personality disorder, into a cultural phenomenon, and, eventually, an officially recognized diagnosis by 1980.

By the 1990s, as many as 40,000 cases had been reported, according to some estimates. But as the numbers rose, so too did questions – about the disorder and its treatment, and about “Sybil” herself, a woman named Shirley Mason.

Mason suffered from chronic emotional problems but her 11-year treatment at the hands of Dr. Cornelia Wilbur was fraught with interventions – including hypnosis and sodium pentothal injections – that are no longer recognized as professionally valid. Those interventions may have induced false memories in Mason.

More troubling, after identifying Mason’s alleged 16 personalities, Dr. Wilbur did not publish her findings in a peer-reviewed medical journal, but instead joined with a journalist friend to write a mass-market paperback that sold 6 million copies.

By the mid-1990s, cases of multiple personality disorder began to wane, after a number of patients sued their therapists for malpractice and were awarded millions of dollars.

In 1994, multiple personality disorder was dropped as an official diagnosis, and replaced with dissociative identity disorder.

Essential Questions
  • What was Dr. Wilbur’s method of interviewing Shirley Mason?
  • How did Dr. Wilbur popularize her case study of multiple personality disorder? How did popular culture contribute to the spread of Wilbur’s theories, both among the general public and among psychologists and psychiatrists?
  • Why did some patients who had been treated for multiple personality disorder file lawsuits against the professionals who had provided their treatment?
  • Why was multiple personality disorder removed from the diagnostic manual used by psychiatrists? What aspects of the procedures used to treat and diagnose multiple personality disorder are now considered “radioactive” by most psychiatrists and researchers?
  • What is dissociative identity disorder? How is it different from multiple personality disorder?
Lesson Procedure
  • What does this video teach us about the intersection of popular culture and psychiatry? How do depictions of mental illness affect how we perceive patients? Can you think of any other examples of inaccurate depictions of mental illness in popular culture? Have you acquired incorrect beliefs about mental illness from novels, movies or TV shows?
  • In terms of professional ethics and intellectual responsibility, how would you evaluate the work of Dr. Wilbur?
  • In the video, Dr. David Spiegel says, “Multiple personality carries with it the implication that [patients] really have more than one personality. Dissociative identity disorder implies that the problem is fragmentation of identity … not that you have more than one personality but less than one personality.” How does this key insight about the integration of personality help explain why the diagnosis of multiple personality disorder has been replaced with dissociative identity disorder?
  • Why is the exact phrasing and word choice surrounding psychiatric labels so important? How does the phrasing affect the attitudes of the public toward patients, and the attitudes that patients have toward themselves? Can you think of other diagnostic labels that may have created stigma for patients?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "Is Multiple Personality Disorder Real? One Woman's Story" Retro Report
Debate Persists Over Diagnosing Mental Health Disorders, Long After ‘Sybil’ Retro Report

1.1: Explain how psychological treatments have changed over time and among cultures.

Describe how biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors influence behavior.

Skill 1.B: Explain behavior in context

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