Thursday, 28 August 2008

Forget everything you thought you knew about Phineas Gage, Kitty Genovese, Little Albert, and other classic psychological tales

The latest issue of The Psychologist magazine has just been published online and it features two open-access articles (here and here) that together drag psychology's classic tales out from the back of the cupboard, dust them down and cast them in a new, refreshing light.

For example, Phineas Gage is traditionally described as having been transformed by his brain injury into a "restless, moody, unpredictable, untrustworthy, depraved, slovenly, violently quarrelsome, aggressive and boastful dissipated drunken bully, displaying fits of temper, and with impaired sexuality" and yet the historical record shows that he went on to work as a coach driver which would have required him to "deal politely with the passengers, load their luggage (up to 50 pounds each), and collect fares, and so on, before beginning a 13-hour journey over 100 miles of poor roads, often in times of political instability or frank revolution." In his intriguing article, Malcolm Macmillan, Professorial Fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Melbourne, wonders if Gage might actually have shown significant recovery from his injuries. Such a conclusion would "add to current evidence that rehabilitation can be effective even in difficult and long-standing cases. But it would also mean that theoreticians of frontal lobe functioning would have to consider whether the lobes themselves and their functions were much more plastic than we now think," Macmillan writes.

From the second article we discover that some of the bystanders who allegedly watched Kitty Genovese's murder without helping, may actually have been more altruistic than we realised. We also learn that Asch's experiments in some ways demonstrated people's powers of independence, not their propensity for conformity; that Little Albert really didn't develop a fear of all things furry; and that the Hawthorne Effect has become a catch-all term with such vague meaning as to be useless.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to Phineas Gage – Unravelling the Myth (open access).
Link to Foundations of Sand (open access).

4 comments:

Helen Jaques said...

Thanks for pointing these out!

Both Phineas Gage and Kitty Genovese were linch pins of A level psychology, and cropped up time and time again during my biomedical science BSc. I've really enjoyed the new take on these classic case studies!

Digest said...

Thanks Helen - I'm glad you liked the articles. Please spread the word about them.

Encefalus said...

LOL, I wonder what else could be false about other popular studies. This is a little terrifying if you think about it! You can't even, really, trust science :P

Blogger said...

I've just finished working in MRI, and I used to go out to schools with Gage under my arm as the bedrock of our science.

It tickles me to read these articles, and I love to see any science queried or challenged.

Also nice to see a positive note, increased plasticity and more optimistic outcomes for damaged brains.

At 3.30pm my daughter gets in from school, better set the record straight in regards to being less certain about our dinner time conversation piece, Phinease Gage.

Thanks.

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