Minds and myths

The September issue of The Psychologist has two excellent and freely available articles that smash the popular myths of scientific psychology.

The first examines the widely mythologised story of hole-in-the head celebrity Phineas Gage, and the other tackles commonly repeated stories of famous studies that don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Gage, whose skull is pictured on the front cover, is legendary, but, as the article makes clear, there’s actually a great deal we don’t know about his life and the information that typically accompanies his story is based on only a very few sources.

The article on other myths in psychology focuses on some of the most widely incidents and studies in the field: the murder of Kitty Genovese, Asch’s conformity experiments, Little Albert and the Hawthorne Effect.

Particularly interesting is a discussion of the role of myths in science and what benefit they bring to the study of the human mind:

Other sciences certainly do have their own myths – just think of the story of Newton and the falling apple or Archimedes leaping out of the bath following his Eureka insight. Perhaps myths just seem more prominent in psychology because we tend to talk and write about our science in terms of studies rather than facts. Certainly the work of Mary Smyth at Lancaster University would appear to be consistent with this view – she has compared psychology and biology textbooks and found that psychology appears to have comparatively few taken-for-granted facts. Instead, numerous experiments are described in detail, lending scientific credence to any factual claims being made.

Related to this, there’s no doubt that the actual subject matter of psychology plays a part too – there’s that ever-present pressure to demonstrate that psychological findings are more than mere common sense. Benjamin Harris says that historians have described psychology as putting a scientific gloss on the accepted social wisdom of the day. ‘Psychology is always going to have a strong social component,’ he explains. ‘With psychological theories speaking to the human condition, there’s always going to be an appeal to myths that resonate more with experience than something coming out of the lab that’s sterile and ultra scientific.’

Another role that myths play is to reinforce the empirical legitimacy of psychology and to create a sense of a shared knowledge base. ‘In this way, tales such as of Kitty Genovese or Little Albert are rather like origin myths, pushing the creation of psychology, or a particular approach within psychology back in time, thus giving an air of greater authority,’ says Harris. Hobbs agrees: ‘It’s nice to have something that you can take for granted,’ he says. ‘In the case of the Hawthorne effect and other myths, you shouldn’t take it for granted, but it’s comforting to be able to say “Oh, this could be the Hawthorne effect” and for others to nod and say “Ah yes, that’s right”.’

Link to article ‘Phineas Gage ‚Äì Unravelling the myth’.
Link to article ‘Foundations of sand?’.

Full disclosure: I’m an unpaid associate editor for The Psychologist.

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