AskDefine | Define psychohistory

User Contributed Dictionary



Coined circa 1950 by Isaac Asimov in the stories collected as the novel Foundation, but first used academically by psychologist Erik Erikson in his 1958 book Young Man Luther as psycho-history.


  1. The scientific study of psychology and motivation in history.

Related terms

Extensive Definition

For Isaac Asimov's use of the term in science fiction, see psychohistory (fictional).
Psychohistory is the study of the psychological motivations of historical events. 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.


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. 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.
Many anthropologists concur that "the science of culture is independent of the laws of biology and psychology". 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". 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.
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.

Areas of psychohistorical study

There are three inter-related areas of psychohistorical study.
  • 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
  • Psychobiography - which seeks to understand individual historical people and their motivations in history.
  • 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.
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. For deMause, child abuse takes the center stage. Psychohistorians accuse most anthropologists and ethnologists of being apologists for incest, infanticide, cannibalism and child sacrifice. They maintain that what constitutes child abuse is a matter of objective fact, and that some of the practices which mainstream anthropologists apologize for 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". Psychohistorians also believe that cultural relativism is contrary to the letter and spirit of human rights.

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 (presumably the new psychoclass) and Red State voters in the contemporary United States.
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.
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:
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. especially in China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, New Guinea, and many other developing countries in Asia and North Africa explain why millions of women are "missing" in Asia. 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. 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.


Critics of the discipline consider psychohistory to be "pseudoscience" and Jacques Barzun has called it "pseudo-historical". 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 have had detractors in the academic community. DeMause's formulations have been criticized for being insufficiently supported by credible research. 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. Recent psychohistory has also been criticized for being overly-entangled with DeMause, whose theories do not speak for the entire field.


deMause founded both the Institute For Psychohistory and the Journal of Psychohistory, the headquarters of which are his own apartment; many of the international "branches" are also personal residences of his supporters.
The 1974 book in which he included essays of nine professional historians, The History of Childhood, offers a survey of the treatment of children through history. 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).
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. Thomas Kohut went even farther:
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.
deMause's work has been criticized for being a history of child abuse, not childhood, and that his sources lack sufficient systematic analysis to allow confidence that they are based on reliable evidence.
deMause believes that his detractors are not largely moved by any evidence, but rather are unconsciously motivated to attack those who would challenge the idea of "good parenting" throughout the many of cultures.


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.

Notable psychohistorians

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



  • A Bibliography of Psychohistory
  • The New Psychohistory
  • Foundations of Psychohistory ">}}
  • Reagan's America ">}}
  • deMause, Lloyd (2002). The Emotional Life of Nations, Publisher: Other Press; ISBN 1-892746-98-0 (available online at no cost)
  • Jimmy Carter and American fantasy: psychohistorical explorations
  • Lawton, Henry W., The Psychohistorian's Handbook, New York: Psychohistory Press, ISBN 0-914434-27-6 (1989)
  • Loewenberg, Peter, Decoding the Past: The Psychohistorical Approach, Transaction Pub, ISBN 1-56000-846-6 (2002)
  • Stannard, David E., Shrinking History, On Freud and the Failure of Psychohistory, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-503044-3 (1980). A critique of the Freudian approach to psychohistory.
  • Szaluta, Jacques, Psychohistory: Theory and Practice, Publisher Peter Lang, ISBN 0-8204-1741-6 (1999)

External links

psychohistory in Czech: Psychohistorie
psychohistory in German: Psychohistorie
psychohistory in Spanish: Psicohistoria
psychohistory in Croatian: Psihopovijest
psychohistory in Russian: Психоистория
psychohistory in Chinese: 心理史學
Privacy Policy, About Us, Terms and Conditions, Contact Us
Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2
Material from Wikipedia, Wiktionary, Dict
Valid HTML 4.01 Strict, Valid CSS Level 2.1