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Psychohistory is the controversial study of the psychological motivations of historical events.[1] It combines the insights of psychotherapy with the research methodology of the social sciences to understand the emotional origin of the social and political behavior of groups and nations, past and present. Its subject matter is childhood and the family (especially child abuse), and psychological studies of anthropology and ethnology.


File:Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn 035.jpg

Rembrandt's painting of the sacrifice of Isaac, from the Old Testament.

Psychohistory derives many of its insights from areas that are perceived to be ignored by conventional historians as shaping factors of human history, in particular, the effects of childbirth, parenting practice, and child abuse.[citation needed]

The historical impact of incest, infanticide and child sacrifice are considered. Psychohistory holds that human societies can change between infanticidal and non-infanticidal practices and has coined the term "early infanticidal childrearing" to describe abuse and neglect observed by many anthropologists. Lloyd deMause, the pioneer of psychohistory, has described a system of psychogenic modes (see below) which describe the range of styles of parenting he has observed historically and across cultures.[citation needed] Many anthropologists concur that "the science of culture is independent of the laws of biology and psychology".[2] And Émile Durkheim, whose contributions were instrumental in the formation of sociology and anthropology, laid down the principle: "The determining cause of a social fact should be sought among social facts preceding and not among the states of individual consciousness".[3] Psychohistorians, on the other hand, suggest that social behavior such as crime and war may be a self-destructive re-enactment of earlier abuse and neglect; that unconscious flashbacks to early fears and destructive parenting could dominate individual and social behavior.[4][5]

Psychohistory is related to historical biography. Notable examples of psychobiographies are those of Lewis Namier, who wrote about the British House of Commons, and Fawn Brodie, who wrote about Thomas Jefferson.

Science fiction author and scientist/science writer Isaac Asimov popularized the term in his famous "Foundation" series of novels, though in his works the term is used fictionally for a mathematical discipline that can be used to predict the general course of future history.

Areas of psychohistorical study

There are three inter-related areas of psychohistorical study.[6]

1.- The History of Childhood - which looks at such questions as:

    • How have children been raised throughout history
    • How has the family been constituted
    • How and why have practices changed over time
    • The changing place and value of children in society over time
    • How and why our views of child abuse and neglect have changed

2.- Psychobiography - which seeks to understand individual historical people and their motivations in history.[citation needed]

3.- Group Psychohistory - which seeks to understand the motivations of large groups, including nations, in history and current affairs. In doing so, psychohistory advances the use of group-fantasy analysis of political speeches, political cartoons and media headlines since the fantasy words therein offer clues to unconscious thinking and behaviors.[6]

Emergence as a discipline

Sigmund Freud's well known work, Civilization and Its Discontents (1929), included an analysis of history based on his theory of psychoanalysis.

Wilhelm Reich combined his psychoanalytic and political theories in his book The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1933.

The psychologist and philosopher Erich Fromm wrote about the psychological motivation behind political ideology, starting with The Fear of Freedom in 1941.

Its first academic use appeared in Erik Erikson's book Young Man Luther (1958), where the author called for a discipline of "psycho-history" to examine the impact of human character on history.

Lloyd deMause developed a formal psychohistorical approach from 1974 onwards, and continues to be an influential theorist in this field.[citation needed]

Independence as a discipline

DeMause and others have argued that psychohistory is a separate field of scholarly inquiry with its own particular methods, objectives and theories, which set it apart from conventional historical analysis and anthropology. Some historians, social scientists and anthropologists have, however, argued that their disciplines already describe psychological motivation and that Psychohistory is not, therefore, a separate subject. Others have dismissed deMause's theories and motives arguing that the emphasis given by Psychohistory to speculation on the psychological motivations of people in history make it an undisciplined field of study. Doubt has also been cast on the viability of the application of post-mortem psychoanalysis by Freud's followers.[7]

Psychohistorians maintain that the difference is one of emphasis and that, in conventional study, narrative and description are central, while psychological motivation is hardly touched on.[8] For deMause, child abuse takes the center stage. Psychohistorians accuse most anthropologists and ethnologists of being apologists for incest, infanticide, cannibalism and child sacrifice.[9] They maintain that what constitutes child abuse is a matter of objective fact, and that some of the practices which mainstream anthropologists apologize for (e.g., sacrificial rituals) may result in psychosis, dissociation and magical thinking: particularly for the surviving children who had a sacrificed brother or sister by their parents. In a 1994 interview with deMause in The New Yorker, the interviewer wrote: "To buy into psychohistory, you have to subscribe to some fairly woolly assumptions [...], for instance, that a nations's child-rearing techniques affect its foreign policy".[10] Psychohistorians also believe that cultural relativism is contrary to the letter and spirit of human rights.[11]

Psychogenic mode

Psychohistorians have written much about changes in the human psyche through history; changes that they believe were produced by parents, and especially the mothers' increasing capacity to empathize with their children. Key to deMause's thought is the concept of psychoclass, which emerges out of a particular style of childrearing, and child abuse, at a particular period in a society's development. The conflict of new and old psychoclasses is also highlighted in psychohistorians' thought. This is reflected, for instance, in the clash between Blue State and Red State voters in the contemporary United States.[12][13]

Another key psychohistorical concept is that of group fantasy, which deMause regards as a mediating force between a psychoclass's collective childhood experiences (and the psychic conflicts emerging therefrom), and the psychoclass's behavior in politics, religion and other aspects of social life.[14]

A psychogenic mode in Psychohistory is a type of mentality (or psychoclass) that results from, and is associated with, a particular childrearing style. The major psychogenic modes described by deMause are:[15][16]

Mode Childrearing characteristics Historical manifestations
Infanticidal Early infanticidal childrearing:
Ritual sacrifice. High infanticide rates, incest, body mutilation, child rape and tortures.
Child sacrifice and infanticide among tribal societies, Mesoamerica and the Incas; in Assyrian and Canaanite religions. Phoenicians, Carthaginians and other early states also sacrificed infants to their gods. On the other hand, the relatively more enlightened Greeks and Romans exposed some of their babies ("late" infanticidal childrearing).
Late infanticidal childrearing:
While the young child is not overly rejected by the mother, many newborn babies, especially girls, are exposed to death.
Abandoning Early Christians considered a child as having a soul at birth, although possessed by evil tendencies. Routine infanticide was replaced by joining in the group fantasy of the sacrifice of Christ, who was sent by his father to be killed for the sins of others.[16] Routine pederasty of boys continued in monasteries and elsewhere, and the rape of girls was commonplace.[14] Infanticide replaced by abandonment. Those children who survived the experience did not internalize a completely murderous superego. Longer swaddling, fosterage, outside wetnursing, oblation of children to monasteries and nunneries, and apprenticeship.
Ambivalent The 12th century saw the first child instruction manuals and rudimentary child protection laws, although most mothers still emotionally rejected their children.[16] Children were often treated as erotic objects by adults. The later Middle Ages ended abandonment of children to monasteries. Enemas, early beating, shorter swaddling, mourning for deceased children, a precursor to empathy.
Intrusive During the 16th century, particularly in England, parents shifted from trying to stop children's growth to trying to control them and make them obedient. Parents were prepared to give them attention as long as they controlled their minds, their insides, their anger and the lives they led.[16] The intrusive parent began to unswaddle the infant. Early toilet training, repression of child's sexuality. Hell threats turned into the Puritan child so familiar from early modern childrearing literature. On the other hand, the end of swaddling and wet-nursing made possible the explosive modern takeoff in scientific advance.
Socializing Beginning in the 18th century, mothers began to actually enjoy child care, and fathers began to participate in younger children's development.[16] The aim remained instilling parental goals rather than encouraging individuation. Psychological manipulation and spanking were used to make children obedient. Hellfire and the harsher physical disciplinary actions using objects to beat the child disappeared.[16] The Socializing Mode remains the most popular model of parenting in North America and Western Europe to the present day. Use of guilt, "mental discipline", humiliation, rise of compulsory schooling, delegation of parental unconscious wishes. As parental injections continued to diminish, the rearing of the child became less a process of conquering its will than of training it. The socializing psychoclass built the modern world.[16]
Helping Beginning in the mid-20th century, some parents adopted the role of helping children reach their own goals in life, rather than "socialize" them into fulfilling parental wishes. Less psychological manipulation, more unconditional love. Children raised in this way are far more empathic towards others in society than earlier generations.[16] Children's rights movement, deschooling and free schooling, natural childbirth, Taking Children Seriously and the abandonment of circumcision.

Psychohistorians maintain that the six modes of abusive childrearing (excluding the "helping mode") are related to psychiatric disorders from psychoses to neuroses.

The chart below shows the dates at which these modes are believed to have evolved in the most advanced nations, based on contemporary accounts from historical records. A black and white version of the chart appears in Foundations of Psychohistory.[16]

The timeline doesn't apply to hunter-gatherer societies. It doesn't apply either to the Greek and Roman world, where there was a wide variation in childrearing practices. It is notable that the arrival of the Ambivalent mode of child-rearing preceded the start of the Renaissance (mid 14th century) by only one or two generations, and the arrival of the Socializing mode coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, which began in the late 18th century.

Reports of selective abortion (and sometimes exposure of baby girls)[17] especially in China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, New Guinea, and many other developing countries in Asia and North Africa[18] explain why millions of women are "missing" in Asia.[19] From the psychohistorical view, this demonstrates that the earlier forms of childrearing coexist with later modes, even in the most advanced countries. However, the chart should not be regarded as an accurate representation of the relative prevalence of each mode in the present day, as it is not based on large-scale, formal surveys.

According to psychohistory theory, each of the six psychoclasses co-exists in the modern world today, and, regardless of the changes in the environment, it is only when changes in childhood occur that societies begin to progress.

The Y-Axis on the above chart serves as an indicator of the new stage and not a measurement of the stage's size or relation to the x-axis.

A psychoclass for postmodern times

According to the psychogenic theory, since Neanderthal man most tribes and families practiced infanticide, child mutilation, incest and beating of their children throughout prehistory and history. Presently the Western socializing mode of childrearing is considered much less abusive in the field, though this mode is not yet entirely free of abuse. In the opening paragraph of his seminal essay "The Evolution of Childhood" (first article in The History of Childhood), DeMause states:

The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of childcare, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized and sexually abused.

There is notwithstanding an optimistic trait in the field. Psychohistorians believe that when violence against children disappears in the Muslim world, the murderous drive of Islamic terrorists will fade away.[20] In a world of "helping mode" parents, deMause believes, violence of any other sort will disappear as well, along with magical thinking, mental disorders, wars and other inhumanities of man against man.[21]


There are no departments dedicated to psychohistory in any institution of higher learning, though some history departments have run courses in it. Psychohistory remains a controversial field of study, and deMause and other psychohistorians face criticism in the academic community.[22][23][24][25][26] DeMause's formulations have been criticized for being insufficiently supported by credible research.[27] Psychohistory uses a plurality of methodologies, and it is difficult to determine which is appropriate to use in each circumstance. The discipline has the advantage of being able to deal with motive in history and is useful in developing narratives, but is forced to psychoanalyse its subjects after the fact, which was not considered when the theory was developed and expanded.[citation needed] Recent psychohistory has also been criticized for being overly-entangled with DeMause, whose theories do not speak for the entire field.[28]

The 1974 book in which deMause included essays of nine professional historians, The History of Childhood, offers a survey of the treatment of children through history.[29] Although critics generally spare these nine historians, they see deMause as a strong proponent of the "black legend" view of childhood history (i.e. that the history of childhood was above all a history of progress, with children being far more often badly mistreated in the past).[30] Similarly, his work has been criticized for being a history of child abuse, not childhood.[31]

The History of Childhood, authored by ten scholars (including deMause), is often linked to Edward Shorter's The Making of the Modern Family and Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800, because of the common ground they share in agreeing with a grim perspective of childhood history. But deMause's work in particular has attracted hostility from historian Hugh Cunningham.[32] Thomas Kohut went even further:

The reader is doubtless already familiar with examples of these psychohistorical "abuses." There is a significant difference, however, between the well-meaning and serious, if perhaps simplistic and reductionistic, attempt to understand the psychological in history and the psychohistorical expose that can at times verge on historical pornography. For examples of the more frivolous and distasteful sort of psychohistory, see The Journal of Psychohistory. For more serious and scholarly attempts to understand the psychological dimension of the past, see The Psychohistory Review.[33]

DeMause and the psychohistorians respond that their detractors are not largely moved by evidence, but rather are unconsciously motivated to attack those who would challenge the idea of "good parenting" even in very primitive tribes or cultures.[9]


The principal center for psychohistorical study is The Institute for Psychohistory founded by Lloyd deMause which has 19 branches around the globe and has for over 30 years and published the The Journal of Psychohistory.

The International Psychohistorical Association founded by Lloyd deMause in 1977 is the professional organization for the field of psychohistory. It publishes Psychohistory News and has a psychohistorical mail order lending library. It hosts an annual convention.

A course in Psychohistory has been taught at a three universities at the undergraduate level. The following have published course details: Boston University, City University of New York and Wesleyan University.[34][35][36]

Notable psychohistorians

  • Lloyd deMause, founder of The Institute for Psychohistory.
  • Robert Jay Lifton, a psychiatrist specializing in psychological motivations for war and terrorism.

See also


  2. Murdock, G.P. (1932). "The science of culture". American Anthropologist 34: 200. doi:10.1525/aa.1932.34.2.02a00020.
  3. Durkheim, Émile (1962). The Rules of the Sociological Method. IL: Free Press. pp. 110.
  4. Milburn, Michael A.; S.D. Conrad (1996). "The politics of denial". Journal of Psychohistory 23: 238–251.
  5. Rhodes, Richard (2000). Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist. Vintage.
  6. 6.0 6.1 "Lloyd deMause and Psychohistory". Primal Psychotherapy WebPages. Retrieved 2008-03-11.
  7. [1] Review of Shrinking History on Freud and the Failure of Psychohistory - Reviewed in 1980 by Cosma Shalizi
    Note: The book under review criticizes the Freudian approach to psychohistory. It makes no mention of deMause or The Institute for Psychohistory.
  8. Davis, Glenn (1976). Childhood and History in America. NY: Psychohistory Pr.
  9. 9.0 9.1 deMause, Lloyd (1988). "On Writing Childhood History". The Journal of Psychohistory 16 (2) Fall.
  10. "The talk of the town", The New Yorker, authored by Editors of the periodical (December 5, 1994), pp. 55-56.
  11. Godwin, Robert W. (2004). One cosmos under God. Minnesota: Paragon House. pp. 166–174.
  12. Dervin, Dan (2005). "George W. Bush's Second Term: Saving the World, Saving the Country". The Journal of Psychohistory 33: 117–124.
  13. deMause, Lloyd (2008). "[Book review of] Jonathan Schell's The Seventh Decade". The Journal of Psychohistory 35: 308–309.
  14. 14.0 14.1 deMause, Lloyd (2002). The Emotional Life of Nations. NY/London: Karnak. pp. 104–109, 391, 430ff.
  15. The Evolution of Childrearing Modes
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 16.6 16.7 16.8 deMause, Lloyd (January 1982). Foundations of Psychohistory. Creative Roots Publishing. pp. 61 & 132–146. ISBN 094050801X.[2]
  17. Female Infanticide
  18. A. Gettis, J. Getis, and J. D. Fellmann (2004). Introduction to Geography, Ninth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 200f.
  19. Goodkind, Daniel. (1999). Should Prenatal Sex Selection be Restricted?: Ethical Questions and Their Implications for Research and Policy. Population Studies, 53 (1), 49-61.
  20. The land that developmental time forgot - Robert Godwin's critique of contemporary Islam from the psychohistorical viewpoint.
  21. The evolution of psyche and society - deMause's explanatory chapter of The Emotional Life of Nations (op. cit.).
  22. Stannard, David E. (1982). Shrinking History: On Freud and the Failure of Psychohistory. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 0-19-503044-3.
  23. Eysenck, Hans Jurgen (2005). "7 Psycho-babble and Pseudo-History". Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0765809451.
  24. Pomper, Philip (1973). "Problems of a Naturalistic Psychohistory". History and Theory 12 (4): 367–388. doi:10.2307/2504699. Retrieved March 2008.
  25. Hunt, Lynn (2002). "Psychology, Pschoanalysis and Historical Thought -The Misfortunes of Psychohistory". In Kramer Lloyd S. and Maza, Sarah C.. A Companion to Western Historical Thought. Blackwell Publishing. pp. 337–357. ISBN 0631217142.
  26. Paul, Robert A. (1982). "Review of Lloyd deMause's Foundations of Psychohistory". Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology 5: 469.
  27. Demos, John (1986). "Child Abuse in Context: An Historian's Perspective". In Past, Present and Personal: The Family and The Life Course in American History. NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 68–91.
  28. Marc Comtois. "Historical Sources On Line - A weblography of Historical Sources on the Internet". Retrieved March 2008.
  29. DeMause L; Lyman RB, McLaughlin, MM et al. (1995). The History of Childhood (The Master Work). Northvale, N.J: Jason Aronson. ISBN 1-56821-551-7.
  30. Aries, Philippe (1975). "De l'enfant roi a l'enfant martyr". Revue Psychologie 68: 6.
  31. Heywood, Colin (2001). A History of Childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press. pp. 41.
  32. Cunningham, Hugh (1995). Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. London: Longman. pp. 9.
  33. Kohut, Thomas A. (1986). "Psychohistory as History". The American Historical Review 91 (2): 341. doi:10.2307/1858137.
  34. Boston University has a Psychohistory Course. See [3] and CAS HI 503 at [4]
  35. Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut has a course. See
  36. City University of New York. See HIS 360


External links

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