“The Psychologist” on Scientific Myths

The British Psychological Society’s flagship journal, The Psychologist, has published two items related to the history of psychology in its latest issue, and it has kindly made them freely available on its website.

The first is an article by Australian psychologist Malcolm Macmillan on the mythology surrounding the case of Phineas Gage, the Vermont railroad worker who had a tamping iron blasted through his head in 1848 and lived to tell about it.

Macmillan’s research on the case was published in An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage (MIT, 2002), and he has been interviewed for my podcast series, “This Week in the History of Psychology” (Sept. 11-17). Through extensive examination of the primary documents in the case, MacMillan has discovered that the Gage case has been distorted repeatedly through the century-and-a-half since, to suit the neuropsychological theories of the person writing the account. The major report of the case was not published until 20 years after the accident had occurred. It detailed many extreme changes in Gage’s personality (for which the case has become famous) that had not been recorded in the early short reports, and it did not appear until several years after Gage had died. The author of the major report, John Harlow, a physician who had attended Gage soon after his accident, did not see Gage for the last several years of the injured man’s life. What is more, it seems he got several details of Gage’s life wrong, and the extremity of the personality changes he reported does not seem consistent with the work that Gage did as a stagecoach driver in the years after his injury. When the case was revived another decade later (now nearly 30 years after the accident) by the famed brain physiologist David Ferrier, a new phase of the story began, as Gage’s case became a pawn in the chess game between various competing theories of the localization of brain function. That story continued on into the 21st century with conflicting reconstructions by Antonio Damasio in 1994 and by Peter Ratiu in 2004.

The second historical article in the latest issue of The Psychologist extends this theme by examining “the lure of academic myths and their place in classic psychology.” Authored by Christian Jarrett, the article re-examines four famous psychological studies that have come, through repeated telling, to attain a certain sort of elevated status, especially in the teaching of psychology. But in the process, the studies or the events on which they were based have become badly distorted in one way or another. The studies discussed by Jarrett are (1) LatanĂ© and Darley’s “bystander effect” based on the Kitty Genovese murder [at AHP here], (2) Solomon Asch’s conformity studies [at AHP here], (3) Watson’s & Rayner’s “Little Albert” study, and (4) the studies of the “Hawthorne Effect” [at AHP here]. Jarrett also includes among his “myths” of psychology the existence of the “cognitive revolution” in psychology.

I think that this last putative example raises an important issue in the popular project of “debunking” supposed “myths.” It is, to be sure, well worth the trouble to correct common misperceptions about the facts of certain well-known cases — whether in science, politics, or what have you. But in the case of the cognitive revolution, what we have appears to be somewhat different. There is all manner of debate over what the precise character of the cognitive revolution was. Some have even argued that the continuities with behaviorism are so great that it cannot be considered to be a scientific “revolution” at all. But this kind of historiographic debate is not at all the same project as excavating indisputable facts that have become distorted over the decades with retelling. It is simply the case that many of the details of the story commonly told about the Kitty Genovese case are not true. It is simply the case that Little Albert was conditioned to be afraid of a rat rather than a rabbit. This is not the case with debate over the cognitive revolution, which is a very complicated social and scientific movement that took place over a period of decades. What we have here, I fear, is a case of revisionist history attempting to deflect criticism by masquerading as a case of factual “debunking.”

See also at AHP: Common Errors in History of Psychology Textbooks

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.

2 thoughts on ““The Psychologist” on Scientific Myths

  1. Thank you for your great resource site. One of our clients mentioned it to us and we agree with her; your site is truly excellent.

    We are seing articles here that seem refreshingly outside of the scope of many of the journals and websites we have read in the past. It seems a truly useful forum for critical thinking.


    Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney – Australia

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