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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.


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. 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".[1] 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".[2] 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.[3][4]

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.[5]

  • 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.[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 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.

Independence as a discipline


The remains of a boy, sacrificed to Huitzilopochtli in the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan.

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. 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. Psychohistorians also believe that the extreme cultural relativism proposed by many anthropologists is contrary to the letter and spirit of human rights.[9]

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.[10][11]

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.[12]

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: [13][14]

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[14] Routine pederasty of boys continued in monasteries and elsewhere, and the rape of girls was commonplace.Cite error: Closing </ref> missing for <ref> tag 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 sixteenth 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. [14] 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 eighteenth century, mothers began to actually enjoy child care, and fathers began to participate in younger children's development. [14] 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.[14] 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.[14]
Helping Beginning in the mid-twentieth 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.[14] 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.[14]

Evolution of psychogenic modes.png

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 1300s) by only one or two generations, and the arrival of the Socializing mode coincided with the Age of Enlightenment, which began in the late 1700s.

Reports of selective abortion (and sometimes even exposure of baby girls)[15] especially in China, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, New Guinea, and many other developing countries in Asia and North Africa[16] explain why millions of women are "missing" in Asia.[17] 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.

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.[18] 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.[19]


Psychohistory remains a controversial field of study, and deMause and other International Psychohistorical Association scholars have had detractors in the academic community.[20] Some historians and anthropologists openly say that deMause's own formulations are insufficiently supported by credible research.[21]

DeMause's ideas are expressed most comprehensively in his 2002 book The Emotional Life of Nations. 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.[22] 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).[23]

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.[24] 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. [25]

Also, it has been argued that deMause has written a history of child abuse and not of childhood.[26] Furthermore, some critics maintain that the sources he used lack the systematic analysis that would give the reader confidence in them as 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.[27]


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

The International Psychohistorical Association 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.

Psychohistory is taught at a few universities as an adjunct to history or as a post graduate study. The following have published course details: Boston University, City University of New York and Wesleyan University. [28] [29] [30]

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


  1. Murdock, G.P. (1932). The science of culture. American Anthropologist 34: 200.
  2. Durkheim, Émile (1962). The Rules of the Sociological Method, 110, IL: Free Press.
  3. Milburn, Michael A., S.D. Conrad (1996). The politics of denial. Journal of Psychohistory 23: 238-251.
  4. Rhodes, Richard (2000). Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, Vintage.
  5. Lloyd deMause and Psychohistory
  6. Lloyd deMause and Psychohistory
  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. Godwin, Robert W. (2004). One cosmos under God, 166-174, Minnesota: Paragon House.
  10. Dervin, Dan (2005). George W. Bush's Second Term: Saving the World, Saving the Country. The Journal of Psychohistory 33: 117-124.
  11. deMause, Lloyd (2008). [Book review of] Jonathan Schell's The Seventh Decade. The Journal of Psychohistory 35: 308-309.
  12. deMause, Lloyd (2002). The Emotional Life of Nations, 104-109, 391, 430ff, NY/London: Karnak.
  13. The Evolution of Childrearing Modes
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 14.7 deMause, Lloyd (January 1982). Foundations of Psychohistory, 61 & 132-146, Creative Roots Publishing.[2] Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "PsFoundations" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "PsFoundations" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "PsFoundations" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "PsFoundations" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "PsFoundations" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "PsFoundations" defined multiple times with different content
  15. Female Infanticide
  16. A. Gettis, J. Getis, and J. D. Fellmann (2004). Introduction to Geography, Ninth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, pp. 200f.
  17. Goodkind, Daniel. (1999). Should Prenatal Sex Selection be Restricted?: Ethical Questions and Their Implications for Research and Policy. Population Studies, 53 (1), 49-61.
  18. The land that developmental time forgot - Robert Godwin's critique of contemporary Islam from the psychohistorical viewpoint.
  19. The evolution of psyche and society - deMause's explanatory chapter of The Emotional Life of Nations (op. cit.).
  20. Paul, Robert A. (1982). Review of Lloyd deMause's Foundations of Psychohistory. Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology 5: 469.
  21. 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', 68-91, NY: Oxford University Press.
  22. deMause, Lloyd; Richard B. Lyman; Mary Martin McLaughlin; James Bruce Ross; M. S. Tucker; Elizabeth Wirth Marwick; Joseph E. Illick; John F. Walzer; Patrick P. Dunn, and Priscilla Robertson (1995). The History of Childhood (The Master Work), New Ed, Jason Aronson.
  23. Aries, Philippe (1975). De l'enfant roi a l'enfant martyr. Revue Psychologie 68: 6.
  24. Cunningham, Hugh (1995). Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500, 9, London: Longman.
  25. Kohut, Thomas A. (1986). Psychohistory as History. The American Historical Review 91: 341.
  26. Heywood, Colin (2001). A History of Childhood, 41, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  27. deMause, Lloyd (1988). On Writing Childhood History. The Journal of Psychohistory 16 (2) Fall. [3]
  28. Boston University has a Psychohistory Course. See [4] and CAS HI 503 at [5]
  29. Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut has a course. See [6]
  30. City University of New York. See HIS 360 [7]


  • deMause, Lloyd (1975). A Bibliography of Psychohistory, New York: Garland Pub.
  • deMause, Lloyd (1975). The New Psychohistory, New York: Psychohistory Press.
  • deMause, Lloyd (1982). Foundations of Psychohistory, New York: Creative Roots.
  • deMause, Lloyd (1984). Reagan's America, New York: Creative Roots.
  • deMause, Lloyd, The Emotional Life of Nations, Publisher: Other Press; ISBN 1-892746-98-0 (2002) (available online at no cost)
  • Ebel, Henry; deMause, Lloyd (1977). Jimmy Carter and American fantasy: psychohistorical explorations, New York: Two Continents.
  • 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)

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