Degree In Sight

Psychology's tall tales

Ever heard of Phineas Gage, who survived a spike through his head that transformed him from a gentle, sober man into an angry alcoholic? Or Kitty Genovese, brutally murdered while dozens of New Yorkers watched from their apartments but failed to help?

Of course you have. More than 60 percent of psychology textbooks tell the story of Gage, according to historian Malcolm Macmillan, author of the book "An Odd Kind of Fame: Stories of Phineas Gage." Similarly, the unresponsive witnesses to Genovese's murder appear in all 10 of the most popular undergraduate psychology textbooks, according to an 2008 article (PDF, 251KB) in the American Psychologist.

However, the tales have several other things in common: They are dramatic and compelling. They appear to shed light on psychological principles. And they may not be completely true.

"Psychology, unlike many of the other sciences, doesn't have a canon of uncontested facts," says Mark Levine, PhD, of the University of Exeter, who co-authored the American Psychologist article. "Because of this, psychology textbooks are not made up of facts students must learn. Instead, they are full of experiments and research techniques. Parables like the Kitty Genovese story serve to link the experiments to the real world. There is thus a strong incentive not to abandon the stories in the textbooks, even if the stories themselves are on shaky ground." 

Getting these stories right is more than a matter of accuracy. Examining such events more closely — and finding primary sources whenever possible — can uncover new areas of research and underscore the importance of critical thinking. To see how, take a closer look at two of psychology's tall tales.

The real story of Phineas Gage

The horrible blow to Phineas Gage’s head did not appear to change his personality at all, despite reports in psychology textsGage's supposed personality and cognitive transformation happened in 1848, when the 25-year-old railroad company foreman was blasting away rock to clear the way for a railroad. He drilled a hole into a rock and, as usual, pushed the explosive powder into the hole with a three-and-a-half-foot-long iron. The powder exploded unexpectedly, driving the iron below his left cheekbone and out through the crown of his head with such force that the rod landed some 70 feet away. Gage not only survived, but, according to witnesses, talked coherently and walked just minutes after the injury.

This much of the story is undoubtedly true, Macmillan says. At this point, however, myth diverges from contemporary sources. Textbooks tell how the gaping, bleeding injury — probably to one or both frontal lobes — turned the popular, temperate Gage into an angry, unstable drunk. But Gage's closer associates reported that while he was recuperating on his parents' farm, he amused his nieces and nephews by making up adventurous stories. He also showed a particular fondness for animals, especially horses. His previous employer refused to take him back after he recovered, so he earned money appearing with his tamping iron in P.T. Barnum's American Museum, a freak show in New York. Later, he worked for a New Hampshire livery stable and stagecoach company.

About four years after the accident, Gage went to Chile, where he drove a stagecoach on the 60-mile route between Valparaiso and Santiago. Succeeding in this type of work in a foreign country would require adaptability, discipline and interpersonal skills, which contradicts the popular belief that Gage was intellectually and emotionally impaired, argues Macmillan. A doctor who knew him during this period observed "no impairment whatever," Macmillan adds. Nonetheless, Gage's health began to deteriorate, and in 1860 he returned to his family, now living in California. There he suffered several seizures but continued to work. He died of a seizure in 1861. "There was nothing psychopathic in Gage's behavior and … the changes in his life are more coherently explained … as his way of dealing with disfigurement that he suffered after the accident," argues Zbigniew Kotowicz, PhD, of London University in a 2007 article in the History of the Human Sciences. "Although … Phineas may not have been the Gage he once had been, he seems to have come much closer than is commonly believed," adds Macmillan in a 2010 article in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation.

The myth persists "partly because a small number of writers deliberately distort the facts in order to fit Phineas into a theoretical framework of their own," says Macmillan.

However, as a graduate student instructor, you can right the record, he says, by telling the true story of Gage. Or even better — encourage students to read primary-source accounts of Gage's life and draw their own conclusions. "It's a great story for illustrating the need to go back to original sources," Macmillan says.

Who tried to help Kitty Genovese?

No one doubts that Kitty Genovese, 28, was stabbed to death in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., in the early hours of March 13, 1964. However, the story of the impassive witnesses seems to have sprung up about two weeks later.

The first articles in The Long Island Press and The New York Times made no mention of witnesses. But a front-page March 27 Times story shocked the nation. "For more than half an hour," the article began, "thirty-eight respectable, law-abiding citizens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.… Not one person telephoned the police during the assault." Publications across the nation quickly followed with their own accounts.

Recently, Joseph De May Jr., a lawyer, historian and Kew Gardens resident, has argued that few residents of nearby buildings could have seen the attack or understood that Genovese's life was in danger — and, more important, that people did intervene, by either shouting at the attacker or calling the police.

The truth is that several people did call for help when they heard Kitty Genovese’s screams (credit: The New York Times/Redux)Trial testimony established that Winston Moseley attacked Genovese not three times but twice, with a 10-minute hiatus in between, argues Levine. When the first attack happened, on Austin Street, a shout from a window scared Moseley away. In addition, a retired police officer recalls that, as a boy, he saw Genovese staggering down Austin Street and Moseley fleeing in the opposite direction, and that his father called the police. Others have also said that they called, Levine adds.

As Genovese made her unsteady way around the corner and down an alley to the back vestibule of the building where she lived, Moseley returned and attacked her again — out of sight of the Austin Street windows, says Levine. A man whose apartment had a view of the second stabbing contacted another resident, who immediately called the police, according to the trial. That woman then rushed to the mortally wounded Genovese, holding her in her arms until the ambulance came, according to trial testimony.

Despite that evidence, Bibb Latane, PhD, whose research on the bystander effect was inspired by the events, says that many of the trial's witnesses could have revised their stories to make themselves seem more caring. "They had a strong reason to sort their memories and say that they weren't such bad guys after all," he says.

Latane further disputes Levine and his colleagues' methodology. "Here are three psychologists in England purporting to analyze history and newspaper accounts and even some sociology that they have no expertise in, purporting to claim that [New York Times editor] A.M. Rosenthal and the crack staff of The New York Times had it wrong."

Levine, however, defends the conclusion that the oft-told Genovese story distorts the facts. "Several people besides us — even Americans, journalists for The New York Times and National Public Radio — have made exactly the same points," he says.

Regardless of how many witnesses to Genovese's murder stood idle, Latane's and others' research on the bystander effect has stood the test of time and peer review — showing, for example, that groups are less likely to help someone in trouble than a lone individual (Psychological Bulletin, 1982). However, recent research suggests that the picture may be more complicated. One 2010 meta-analysis on the bystander effect in Psychological Bulletin, for instance, found that while groups are a little slower to help than individuals, this difference tends to disappear when it's clear there's a real emergency, and also when someone must physically intervene to help.

Overall, researchers have largely ignored when people do help — perhaps because of the Genovese story, Levine says. "Because of the power of [the Genovese] story, we rarely seek to look at situations where the power of the collective can actually enhance intervention," Latane says.

If these myths teach us anything useful, it is that stories, no matter how engaging, dramatic, seemingly revealing they may be, are not evidence. Stories can spark curiosity, enliven class presentations, suggest hypotheses, even inspire research. But they deserve the same level of critical scrutiny that should go into all thinking about psychology.

Beryl Lieff Benderly is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Further Resources


The murder of Kitty Genovese shook the nation, but at the time, few knew about the person it perhaps devastated the most — her girlfriend Mary Ann Zielonko. In this "Sound Portrait," interview, Zielonko shares her memories of that fateful night.


Further Reading

Fischer, P., Krueger, J.I., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., … Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137(4), 517–537. doi:10.1037/a0023304


Kotowicz, Z. (2007). The strange case of Phineas Gage. History of the Human Sciences, 20(1), 115–131. doi:10.1177/0952695106075178


Macmillan, M. (2000). An odd kind of fame: Stories of Phineas Gage. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


Manning, R., Levine, M., & Collins, A. (2007). The Kitty Genovese murder and the social psychology of helping: The parable of the 38 witnesses. American Psychologist, 62(6), 555–562. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.62.6.555