Basic facts about the brain are a key part of many introductory psychology courses, including information about brain cells. For instance, for years, students (and the public) have been taught that, thanks to the ageing process, the older we get, the more brain cells we lose. But as outlined in a new review in the Journal of Chemical Neuroanatomy by Christopher von Bartheld at the University of Nevada, many established facts about brain cells (like the idea we lose lots of them as we get older) have been shown by modern techniques to be misconceptions. Taken mostly from the review, here are four myths about brain cells, plus one unresolved issue.
Back in the 1960s, Nobel-prize winning research shook our understanding of what it means to be a conscious entity. Epilepsy patients who’d had the thick bundle of nerves connecting their two brain hemispheres either severed or removed (as a drastic treatment for their epilepsy) responded in laboratory tasks as if they had two separate minds.
It’s an unsettling idea that has appeared in psychology textbooks for decades. But dig into the original studies and you’ll find the evidence for split brains leading to split minds was mostly descriptive. Now a team of researchers led by Yair Pinto at the University of Amsterdam has conducted systematic testing of two split-brain patients over several years, specifically to find out whether the division of their brains has also separated their consciousness. In fact, the results, published recently in the journal Brain, suggest their consciousness remains unified. It may be time to rewrite the textbooks.
Is the job of introductory psychology textbooks to present students with a favourable and neat impression of psychology or to give them a warts and all account of the field? This is a key question raised by a new analysis of the treatment of controversial theories and recognised myths by 24 best-selling US introductory psychology texts.
Writing in Current Psychology, Christopher Ferguson at Stetson University and his colleagues at Texas A&M International University conclude that intro textbooks often have difficulty covering controversial topics with care, and that whether intentionally or not, they are frequently presenting students with a liberal-leaning, over-simplified perspective, as well propagating or failing to challenge myths and urban legends.
While acknowledging the daunting task that confronts textbook authors, Ferguson and his colleagues call on them to aspire to tell the full story. “That may mean telling our students about a psychology that is a little messy, muddled, and doesn’t always have definitive answers,” they write. “But, if that’s the truth, that’s what the psychology students are paying to learn about, not the fantasy we may like to believe is true.”
Some classic psychology experiments, known and discussed far beyond the discipline, have become modern-day myths. Accounts of what happened are frequently simplified and distorted to better convey a powerful revelation about human nature. A perfect example: Stanley Milgram’s so-called “obedience experiments”, conducted in the 1960s, in which the majority of participants, acting as a “teacher” in a learning task, followed experimenter instructions and gave what they thought was a fatal electric shock to another participant, the “learner”, as a punishment for wrong answers.
The usual, disturbing interpretation is that Milgram showed how readily most people will harm others if they are told to do so by authority. Understandably, this has led to a continued fascination with the research, reflected both in popular culture – just this month a new film, The Experimenter, about Stanley Milgram, was aired at the New York Film Festival – and in the academic literature.
Indeed, though Milgram’s obedience studies were published decades ago, the rate at which they are cited actually increased between 2007 and 2012. Importantly, part of the reason for this is that several scholars raised new criticisms of the research based on their analysis of the transcripts and audio from the original experiments, or on new simulations or partial replications of the experiments. These contemporary criticisms add to past critiques, profoundly undermining the credibility of the original research and the way it is usually interpreted. That Milgram’s studies had a mighty cultural and scholarly impact is not in dispute; the meaning of what he found most certainly is.
However, this is not the picture that any psychology student will discover if they turn to their social psychology textbook, at least not if it’s an American text. In a new analysis to be published in Theory and Psychology, Richard Griggs and George Whitehead summarised recent criticisms of the obedience studies and then they turned to the 10 leading and most recently updated social psychology textbooks (in the US, with publication dates from 2012 to 2015) to see which, if any, of the criticisms are featured. The modern criticisms include:
- When a participant hesitated in applying electric shocks, the actor playing the role of experimenter was meant to stick to a script of four escalating verbal “prods”. In fact, he frequently improvised, inventing his own terms and means of persuasion. Gina Perry (author of Behind The Shock Machine) has said the experiment was more akin to an investigation of “bullying and coercion” than obedience.
- A partial replication of the studies found that no participants actually gave in to the fourth and final prod, the only one that actually constituted a command. Analysis of Milgram’s transcripts similarly suggested that the experimenter prompts that were most like a command were rarely obeyed. A modern analogue of Milgram’s paradigm found that order-like prompts were ineffective compared with appeals to science, supporting the idea that people are not blindly obedient to authority but believe they are contributing to a worthy cause.
- Milgram failed to fully debrief his participants immediately after they’d participated.
- In an unpublished version of his paradigm, Milgram recruited pairs of people who knew each other to play the role of teacher and learner. In this case, disobedience rose to 85 per cent.
- Many participants were sceptical about the reality of the supposed set-up. Restricting analysis to only those who truly believed the situation was real, disobedience rose to around 66 per cent.
How many of these criticisms feature in modern American social psychology textbooks? None. In a complementary investigation published recently in Teaching of Psychology, Griggs and Whitehead also looked to see if the textbooks gave better coverage to traditional criticisms of the Milgram studies. Only two of the textbooks mentioned long-standing criticisms about the lack of realism in the obedience studies, and only two mentioned methodological criticisms, such as that the participants may have been behaving in a way to support the purpose of the studies. Coverage of ethical concerns was better, though usually with a pro-Milgram bias.
For comparison, Griggs and Whitehead looked at Milgram coverage in general introductory psychology textbooks in the US, and here the findings were more promising. This leads Griggs and Whitehead to ponder whether social psychologist authors of social psychology textbooks are motivated to paint an untarnished version of one of their field’s classic studies. Another possibility is that textbook authors believe providing caveats and criticisms of classic studies will spoil and confuse a compelling story. Certainly space is not the issue: coverage of Milgram in terms of textbook pages has increased over time.
These new revelations about textbook coverage of Milgram add to previous analyses by Richard Griggs, showing that other classic studies in social psychology are also given biased treatment in introductory texts, including Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment and Asch’s conformity experiments. Griggs has also found that the classic case of Phineas Gage is also covered poorly in textbooks, and that the latest revelations about the classic case of Little Albert are too recent to feature in textbooks.
Griggs and Whitehead call on social psychology textbook authors to remedy their tendentious coverage. “To continue to ignore the flaws and shortcoming of Milgram’s obedience study will not only shortchange our students of an accurate account of this classic study and invaluable practice in critical thinking,” they write, “but also continue the ‘giving away’ of biased information, and both of these outcomes would reflect poorly on our discipline.”
Griggs, R., & Whitehead, G. (2015). Coverage of Milgram’s Obedience Experiments in Social Psychology Textbooks: Where Have All the Criticisms Gone? Teaching of Psychology, 42 (4), 315-322 DOI: 10.1177/0098628315603065
Richard A. Griggs, & George I. Whitehead III (2015). Coverage of recent criticisms of Milgram’s obedience experiments in introductory social psychology textbooks Theory and Psychology
Image: a still from The Experimenter movie
The six forms of resistance shown by participants in Milgram’s notorious “obedience studies”
Milgram’s obedience studies – not about obedience after all?
Psychologist magazine special issue on Milgram.
Foundations of sand? The lure of academic myths and their place in classic psychology
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|Image: Photograph by Jack Wilgus of
a daguerreotype of Phineas Gage
in the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus.
It’s a remarkable, mythical tale with lashings of gore – no wonder it’s a favourite of psychology students the world over. I’m talking about Phineas Gage, the nineteenth century railway worker who somehow survived the passing of a three-foot long tamping iron through the front of his brain and out the top of his head. What happened to him next?
If you turn to many of the leading introductory psychology textbooks (American ones, at least), you’ll find the wrong answer, or a misleading account. Richard Griggs, Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida, has just analysed the content of 23 contemporary textbooks (either released or updated within the last couple of years), and he finds most of them contain distortions, omissions and inaccuracies.
It needn’t be so. Thanks to painstaking historical analysis of primary sources (by Malcolm Macmillan and Matthew Lena) – much of it published between 2000 and 2010 – and the discovery during the same time period of new photographic evidence of post-accident Gage (see image, right), it is now believed that Gage made a remarkable recovery from his terrible injuries. He ultimately emigrated to Chile where he worked as a horse-coach driver, controlling six horses at once and dealing politely with non-English speaking passengers. The latest simulations of his injury help explain his rehabilitation – it’s thought the iron rod passed through his left frontal lobe only, leaving his right lobe fully intact.
|Image: From Van Horn et al 2012|
Yet, the textbooks mostly tell a different story. Of the 21 that cover Gage, only 4 mention the years he worked in Chile. Only three detail his mental recovery. Fourteen of the books tell you about the first research that attempted to identify the extent of his brain injuries, but just four of the books give you the results from the most technically advanced effort, published in 2004, that first suggested his brain damage was limited to the left frontal lobe (watch video). Only 9 of the books feature either of the two photos to have emerged of Gage in recent times.
So the textbooks mostly won’t tell you about Gage’s rehabilitation, or provide you with the latest evidence on his injuries. Instead, you might hear how hear never worked again and became a vagrant, or that he became a circus freak for the rest of his life, showing off the holes in his head. “The most egregious error,” says Griggs, “seems to be that Gage survived for 20 years with the tamping iron embedded in his head!”.
Does any of this matter? Griggs argues strongly that it does. There are over one and half million students enrolled in introductory psychology courses in the US alone, and most of them are introduced to the subject via textbooks. We know from past work that psychology textbook coverage of other key cases and studies is also often distorted and inaccurate. Now we learn that psychology’s most famous case study is also misrepresented, potentially giving a misleading, overly simplistic impression about the effects of Gage’s brain damage. “It is important to the psychological teaching community to identify inaccuracies in our textbooks so that they can be corrected, and we as textbook authors and teachers do not continue to ‘give away’ false information about our discipline,” Griggs concludes.
Griggs, R. (2015). Coverage of the Phineas Gage Story in Introductory Psychology Textbooks: Was Gage No Longer Gage? Teaching of Psychology, 42 (3), 195-202 DOI: 10.1177/0098628315587614
Phineas Gage – Unravelling the Myth
Coverage of Phineas Gage in “Great Myths of the Brain”
Glimpsed at last – the life of neuropsychology’s most important patient (Monsieur Leborgne)
Foundations of Sand – the lure of academic myths and their place in classic psychology.
Looking back: Blasts from the past
|One of the pairs of cards used in Asch’s
1950s research. Image from Wikipedia.
Like Zimbardo’s prison study and Milgram’s so-called “obedience experiments”, the research that Solomon Asch conducted at Swarthmore College in the 1950s has acquired an almost mythical quality, being distorted and exaggerated in frequent retellings over time. Asch’s studies arguably showed the power of people’s independence in the face of an apparently misguided majority, and yet paradoxically they’ve come to be known widely as the “conformity experiments”.
This biased characterisation is found on Wikipedia and even on Google auto-complete. Worse still, an analysis of textbook coverage of Asch’s work from the 50s to the 80s found that, here too, coverage of the findings was highly tendentious.
Now Richard Griggs, emeritus professor at the University of Florida, has assessed some of the most popular contemporary introductory psychology texts and his finding is that coverage of Asch’s seminal work has grown increasingly biased and misleading, not less.
First a recap of Asch’s research. Lone participants were embedded in groups of what they thought were other participants, but were in fact actors working for Asch. The apparently simple task was to say, on each trial, which of three comparison lines matched a reference line for length. On most trials, the participant heard the other group members unanimously choose the wrong line, and the key test was whether the participant would go along with the blatantly wrong consensus, or stay true to their own judgments.
The results arguably provide a powerful demonstration of people’s confidence in their own perception and their willingness to defy majority opinion. The majority of participants’ responses (63.2 per cent vs. 36.8 per cent) went against the erroneous majority. Stated differently, 25 per cent of the sample consistently defied majority opinion, compared with just 5 per cent of participants who were always swayed by the crowd. In 1952, Asch himself wrote: “… the facts that were being judged were, under the circumstances, the most decisive.”
But that’s not the account you’ll find in most popular introductory psychology textbooks, at least in the US. Griggs’ new assessment of 20 such books published or re-issued in the last few years finds the conformity narrative dominates stronger than ever – just one book reported the larger percentage of participant responses that defied majority opinion, compared with 14 of them that reported the smaller percentage of responses that were swayed by the crowd.
Moreover, sixteen of the books mentioned the proportion of participants (75 per cent) who were influenced by majority opinion at least once, yet none of the books mentioned the far larger proportion of participants (95 per cent) who “rebelled” at least once. Only three books included mention of studies that have criticised the popular conformity interpretation. And just one book mentioned the interview data that Asch published, which reinforces the independence perspective (many participants said that although they had agreed with the group on occasions out of awkwardness, they were certain all along that the group were wrong).
Comparing the results from this new contemporary analysis with the analysis of textbook coverage from the 50s to the 80s, shows an increasingly biased portrayal of the Asch studies. The mischaracterisation of Asch’s work as demonstrative of people’s readiness to conform has not waned, it has become more entrenched. This disappointing picture was repeated and reinforced when Griggs conducted a follow-up analysis focused on modern social psychology texts (to match the social psych focus of the earlier textbook analysis).
Griggs calls the state of affairs “truly baffling” and he appeals to textbook authors to modify their coverage to “add some discussion of Asch’s findings on independence”. Why do modern textbooks get this so wrong? In fact the situation with Asch is part of a wider bias in social psychology towards narratives of obedience and conformity, to the neglect of discussion and investigation of dissent. For example, historically, the resistance to tyranny shown by many participants in Zimbardo’s prison study has been largely been ignored, and so too has the disobedience shown by many participants in Milgram’s seminal work. It is surely time for more psychology textbook authors to show a little independence of their own, and to cease regurgitating the popular but inaccurate trope of men and women as obedient, conformist minions.
Griggs, R. (2015). The Disappearance of Independence in Textbook Coverage of Asch’s Social Pressure Experiments Teaching of Psychology, 42 (2), 137-142 DOI: 10.1177/0098628315569939
Asch’s “conformity study” without the confederates
What the textbooks don’t tell you – one of psychology’s most famous experiments was seriously flawed
Foundations of sand? The lure of academic myths and their place in classic psychology
|The Gendered Society contained 12 errors
about evolutionary psychology, more
than any other book in this evaluation.
Evolutionary theory is universally accepted among the mainstream science community. And yet, when the evolutionary perspective is applied to human behaviour, the approach continues to meet with resistance, and in some cases outright disdain.
A team led by Benjamin Winegard thinks part of the reason is because of the misrepresentation of evolutionary psychology in textbooks, especially social science textbooks on the topics of sex and gender. Based on their analysis of eight types of error in 12 widely used books in this genre, the researchers conclude that the treatment of their subject is “shoddy”.
Winegard and his colleagues chose to focus on sex and gender textbooks that were published since 2005 and that are used widely on sociology and psychology university courses in the US. Among the books studied: The Psychology of Gender (4th ed.) by V.S. Helgeson and Gender Roles: A Sociological Perspective (5th ed.) by L. Lindsey.
The categories of error that the researchers looked for included the claim that evolutionary psychologists think biology determines or explains all of behaviour, or that evolutionary psychologists think some phenomena are influenced by nature while others are influenced by nurture (rather than reflecting an interaction between the two). Other error categories: that evolutionary psychologists have a conservative ideological agenda; that they endorse the “naturalistic fallacy” (that the natural way of things is morally desirable); and that evolutionary psychologists think people consciously attempt to boost their “evolutionary fitness” and are aware of the “evolutionary logic” of their behaviour, an error known as the “intentionalistic fallacy”.
There was an average of 5.75 errors per book and all contained at least one error. The most common type of error was miscellaneous and placed into a general “straw man” category (for example, the mistaken claim that evolutionary psychology ignores and cannot account for homosexuality). The next most common type of error related to biological determinism and nature/nurture, and after that came the Naturalistic and Intentionalistic Fallacies.
For each error, the researchers provide examples from the texts they studied, and then they provide refutational evidence, either citing from works by evolutionary psychologists, or by pointing out straight facts, such as that there are many female evolutionary psychologists (countering the claim in one textbook that the field is androcentric), and that a survey of evolutionary psychologists found their political views matched those of social scientists in general (countering the claim that the field has a conservative agenda).
Winegard and his team said their analysis has furnished “a well-defined catalog of errors in the presentation of evolutionary psychology and [demonstrated] that these errors occur frequently in undergraduate sex and gender textbooks.” They added: “Evolutionary psychologists have frequently addressed these errors, but our results demonstrate that, despite these efforts, errors persist.”
Winegard BM, Winegard BM, & Deaner RO (2014). Misrepresentations of evolutionary psychology in sex and gender textbooks. Evolutionary psychology : an international journal of evolutionary approaches to psychology and behavior, 12 (3), 474-508 PMID: 25299988
|Zimbardo speaking in ’09|
Conducted in 1971, the Stanford Prison Experiment (SPE) has acquired a mythical status and provided the inspiration for at least two feature-length films. You’ll recall that several university students allocated to the role of jailor turned brutal and the study had to be aborted prematurely. Philip Zimbardo, the experiment’s lead investigator, says the lesson from the research is that in certain situations, good people readily turn bad. “If you put good apples into a bad situation, you’ll get bad apples,” he has written.
The SPE was criticised back in the 70s, but that criticism has noticeably escalated and widened in recent years. New details to emerge show that Zimbardo played a key role in encouraging his “guards” to behave in tyrannical fashion. Critics have pointed out that only one third of guards behaved sadistically (this argues against the overwhelming power of the situation). Question marks have also been raised about the self-selection of particular personality types into the study. Moreover, in 2002, the social psychologists Steve Reicher and Alex Haslam conducted the BBC Prison Study to test the conventional interpretation of the SPE. The researchers deliberately avoided directing their participants as Zimbardo had his, and this time it was the prisoners who initially formed a strong group identity and overthrew the guards.
Given that the SPE has been used to explain modern-day atrocities, such as at Abu Ghraib, and given that nearly two million students are enrolled in introductory psychology courses in the US, Richard Griggs, professor emeritus at the University of Florida, says “it is especially important that coverage of it in our texts be accurate.”
So, have the important criticisms and reinterpretations of the SPE been documented by key introductory psychology textbooks? Griggs analysed the content of 13 leading US introductory psychology textbooks, all of which have been revised in recent years, including: Discovering Psychology (Cacioppo and Freberg, 2012); Psychological Science (Gazzaniga et al, 2012); and Psychology (Schacter et al, 2011).
Of the 13 analysed texts, 11 dealt with the Stanford Prison Experiment, providing between one to seven paragraphs of coverage. Nine included photographic support for the coverage. Five provided no criticism of the SPE at all. The other six provided only cursory criticism, mostly focused on the questionable ethics of the study. Only two texts mentioned the BBC Prison Study. Only one text provided a formal scholarly reference to a critique of the SPE.
Why do the principal psychology introductory textbooks, at least in the US, largely ignore the wide range of important criticisms of the SPE? Griggs didn’t approach the authors of the texts so he can’t know for sure. He thinks it unlikely that ignorance is the answer. Perhaps the authors are persuaded by Zimbardo’s answers to his critics, says Griggs, but even so, surely the criticisms should be mentioned and referenced. Another possibility is that textbook authors are under pressure to shorten their texts, but surely they are also under pressure to keep them up-to-date.
It would be interesting to compare coverage of the SPE in European introductory texts. Certainly there are contemporary books by British psychologists that do provide more in-depth critical coverage of the SPE.
Griggs’ advice for textbook authors is to position coverage of the SPE in the research methods chapter (instead of under social psychology), and to use the experiment’s flaws as a way to introduce students to key issues such as ecological validity, ethics, demand characteristics and subsequent conflicting results. “In sum,” he writes, “the SPE and its criticisms comprise a solid thread to weave numerous research concepts together into a good ‘story’ that would not only enhance student learning but also lead students to engage in critical thinking about the research process and all of the possible pitfalls along the way.”
Griggs, R. (2014). Coverage of the Stanford Prison Experiment in Introductory Psychology Textbooks Teaching of Psychology, 41 (3), 195-203 DOI: 10.1177/0098628314537968
Foundations of sand? The lure of academic myths and their place in classic psychology
Tyranny and The Tyrant, From Stanford to Abu Ghraib (pdf; Phil Banyard reviews Zimbardo’s book The Lucifer Effect).