Graduate student instructors can demonstrate the importance of critical thinking
by taking a closer look at the tales of Kitty Genovese and Phineas Gage.
BY BERYL LIEFF BENDERLY
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
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
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.