Hallucinations Are Both Infrequent And Very Common, Says Science

Science fail of the week: two press releases on the same study suggest hallucinations and psychosis are both super common and relatively infrequent

May 27, 2015 at 5:48 PM ET

Science—this is why we can’t have nice things.

On Wednesday, JAMA Psychiatry published a massive study on rates of psychotic experiences in the general population. As is typical for major studies, both the publishing journal and Queensland University (the authors’ home institution) decided to issue separate press releases—meant to herald the findings and simplify them for journalists on deadlines. But they screwed it up and made things more confusing.

Here’s the release from JAMA:

Here’s the release from Queensland University:

Even though they seem to contradict each other, it turns out both headlines are at least sort of right. The study found that only 5.8 percent of the general population will ever suffer from a psychotic episode. That’s pretty rare (headline 1), but it’s way more common among otherwise healthy people than psychiatrists thought—roughly one third of participants who reported having a psychotic episode said that they only had one in their entire lives (headline 2).

Vocativ discovered the truth by reading the actual paper. Here’s a snippet:

“These overall estimates are broadly consistent with those in the previous literature…Perhaps the most striking finding is that PEs [psychotic episodes] are infrequent for most of the individuals who experience them, with 32.2% reporting 1 PE episode in their life.”

Google searches for the JAMA and the Queensland headlines reveal that a bunch of media outlets seem to have chosen one press release at random—a sad and befuddling commentary on the science news cycle.

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham (

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