Kitty and Phineas: Always print the legend?
Recently I feel a little like the rug has been pulled out from under my feet. I’m referring to revelations (uncovered by speaking to friends and when ‘researching’ (read: looking on Wikipedia) an answer for ’I’m a Scientist’ last year) about two of my firmest held beliefs from my psychology studies. Specifically, two case studies so well known they are simply referred to by their names. Kitty Genovese and Phineas Gage.
These are stalwarts of (I’m willing to wager) almost every undergraduate Psychology degree in the country, if not the world. Kitty Genovese was the New York lady who was brutally murdered in 1964, as 38 neighbours and bystanders did nothing. Phineas had an unfortunate accident with a tamping iron whilst building a railway, the rod passed through his frontal lobe, and the resulting damage taught undergraduates like myself that this brain area was the home of the personality.
Kitty Genovese’s murder was tragic for a number of reasons. Her killer was actually scared off by shouts or movements from her neighbours, and she almost escaped to the safety of her building, but was thwarted by a locked door, and weakened having already been stabbed. Newspaper reports at the time painted a picture of a group of 38 neighbours who were all aware she was being attacked by did nothing to help. In fact, a recent paper (Manning et al., 2007) has documented how these newspaper reports, exaggerating the facts, have started a snowball rolling; Latané and Darley’s (1970) ‘bystander effect’ was found to be robust and compelling, and the story of Kitty’s murder inspiring these experiments is really neat, and has pervaded popular culture from graphic novels to folk songs inspired by her.
But the facts about the story, presented by Manning, seem to be somewhat different from the ‘good Samaritan parable’ that is printed in Psychology textbooks. Firstly, the witnesses could not all see, some could only hear screams or a scuffle. In particular, the final attack took place in a secluded place visible only to a few people. The witnesses also claim they called the police immediately after the first attack. The figure ‘38’ came from a policeman saying “I believe that many people heard the screams…It could have been more than 38”. Manning paints a compelling picture from police reports at the time suggesting witnesses could not see the severity of the situation, and far from doing nothing, made calls to the police and succeeded in scaring her attacker away once, while not seeing him return later to murder Kitty.
Now, I’ll admit, despite my youthful looking face, that this paper came out a while after I’d finished my Undergraduate course, but I’d love to know from lecturers or students whether this case study is still used.
Now to Phineas, who I’ve always had a soft spot for, due to our sharing a surname. Somewhat of an older case study, his accident occurred in 1848. He was a fit, active 25 year old, and despite blasting a large iron rod through his head, he was speaking and walking within minutes, and completely conscious as he travelled to get medical attention. There’s a particularly gory description of this on Wikipedia, my favourite section being a quote from the first doctor who saw him; ‘Mr. G. got up and vomited; the effort of vomiting pressed out about half a teacupful of the brain, which fell upon the floor’. Yuk!
This is where the story in text books departs from what’s known. I recall being told during my studies that Phineas became a different man after the accident. He couldn’t hold a job, he became more bawdy, had difficulty behaving appropriately for the situation that he was in, became more impulsive, less inhibited, and started lying or confabulating.
The evidence appears to be somewhat less conclusive. It took Phineas a long time to recover. Despite his initial ability to walk and talk straight after the incident, his doctor’s notes suggest he was semi-comatose for a week afterwards, and was only able to return to his parents’ house after a couple of months. However, the evidence that his personality was so negatively affected is much less obvious. It is somewhat unsurprising that he didn’t go back to his work on the railway; however well he recovered, he only had one eye now, and he had a hole in his skull! Reports suggesting he mistreated his wife and child are clearly untrue, as records show Phineas did not have either.
A book about inaccuracies in the reporting of Gage’s personality changes was first published in 2000, (just) before I went to University, so I can understand why this knowledge may not have made it in to text books by the time I started, but in this book there’s a report of a British psychologist Ferrier, who in 1877 expressed concern about misreporting and exaggeration in this case!
Should teaching Undergraduates the facts about these cases get in the way of a good story, or is it OK to use these apocryphal examples to teach about psychological phenomena that do seem to stand up to rigorous experimentation? I can see the argument either way, these stories certainly stuck in my mind, and the underlying ‘bystander apathy’ and frontal lobe function are well known from multiple evidence sources. In these days of ubiquitous knowledge at the end of an Ethernet cable, the truth will out though, so should Psychology text books catch up? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter!
(image From the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus.)