I've recently came across the psychohistory theory of deMause. To best of my understanding, it roughly tries to capture the common psychology of an era by analyzing the childbearing practices of that era. See the summary below. enter image description here

I'd like to know how credible this theory is. Briefly, how is it viewed by academicians, what is the summary of some different opinions surrounding it etc. The wiki is rather silent on such discussions.


2 Answers 2


On the subject of criticism and how psychohistory is viewed by academicians, you stated that

The wiki is rather silent on such discussions.

Yet, the Wikipedia article outlines the criticism with plenty of citations. The criticism in the article is laid out below, although I was not able to find url links for some of the journal articles referenced.

Psychohistory remains a controversial field of study, facing criticism in the academic community (DeMause, 1988; Stannard, 1982; Pomper, 1973; Paul, 1982), with critics referring to it as a pseudoscience (Hunt, 2002). Psychohistory uses a plurality of methodologies, and it is difficult to determine which is appropriate to use in each circumstance. In 1973, historian Hugh A. Trevor-Roper dismissed the field of psychohistory entirely in response to the publication of Walter Langer’s The Mind of Adolf Hitler. He contended that psychohistory’s methodology rested “on a defective philosophy” and was “vitiated by a defective method.” He also contended that

Instead of proceeding from demonstrable steps, from fact to interpretation, from evidence to conclusion, psycho-historians move in the opposite direction. They deduce their facts from their theories; and this means, in effect, that facts are at the mercy of theory, selected and valued according to their consistence with theory, even invented to support theory (Shepherd, 1978).

DeMause has received criticism on several levels. His formulations have been criticized for being insufficiently supported by credible research (Demos, 1986). He has also received criticism for being 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) (Aries, 1975). Similarly, his work has been called a history of child abuse, not childhood (Heywood, 2001). The grim perspective of childhood history is known from other sources, e.g. Edward Shorter's The Making of the Modern Family and Lawrence Stone's The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. However, deMause received criticism for his repeated, detailed descriptions on childhood atrocities:

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 Journal of Psychohistory. For more serious and scholarly attempts to understand the psychological dimension of the past, see The Psychohistory Review (Kohut, 1986).

Recent psychohistory has also been criticized for being overly-entangled with DeMause, whose theories are not representative of the entire field (Comtois, 2005).


Aries, P. (1975). De l'enfant roi a l'enfant martyr. Revue Psychologie. 68, 6.

Comtois, M. (2005) Introduction to Historical Method https://web.archive.org/web/20071130222935/http://cliopolitical.blogspot.com/2005/08/introduction-to-historical_112482482753969170.html
Updated 2010 at http://cliopolitical.blogspot.com/2005/08/introduction-to-historical_112482482753969170.html?m=1

DeMause, L. (1988). On writing childhood history. The Journal of Psychohistory, 16(2), 135. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1305588616

Demos, J. P. (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.

Heywood, Colin (2001). A History of Childhood. Cambridge: Polity Press. p. 41.

Hunt, L. (2002). Psychology, Pschoanalysis and Historical Thought -The Misfortunes of Psychohistory. In Kramer Lloyd S. and Maza, Sarah C. (ed.). A Companion to Western Historical Thought. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing. pp. 337–357.

Kohut, Thomas A. (1986). "Psychohistory as History". The American Historical Review. 91 (2): 336–354. https://doi.org/10.2307/1858137

Paul, R. A. (1982). Review of Lloyd deMause's Foundations of Psychohistory. Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology, 5, 469.

Pomper, P. (1973). Problems of a Naturalistic Psychohistory. History and Theory. 12(4): 367–388. https://doi.org/10.2307/2504699

Shepherd, Michael (1978). Clio and Psyche: the lessons of psychohistory. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 71(6): 406–412. https://doi.org/10.1177/014107687807100604

Stannard, D. E. (1982). Shrinking History: On Freud and the Failure of Psychohistory. Oxford University Press, USA.


The long and short of it is that DeMause's writings are not to be trusted in the slightest, due to the late author's utter lack of scholarly rigor and honesty. This is precisely why it is nearly impossible to find a single credible scholarly refutation of his claims, since their scientific quality is so low that few if any scholars have engaged with them.

I can however, showcase just how bad his "scholarship" is by simply going through his own sources and showing how unscholarly his conduct is:

He does 3 things that are appallingly dishonest and perfidious, and that's just what I've been able to find out, and I'm just an incompetent student who isn't even studying history:

  1. He uses good sources, but twists and misrepresents his sources in extremely dishonest ways.

  2. He uncritically swallows the most absurdly untrustworthy publications you could possibly imagine, so long as they conform to his monomania, and dutifully conceals from his readers that he has gotten that particular data point from the 1880s equivalent of a 4chan board.

  3. He regurgitates obscenely outdated but popular historical falsehoods that have long been debunked by historians in their respective fields, if they can be instrumentalized to support his narrative.

Just to give you a taste of each of these three things that I have been able to find:

He cites "The Baiga" by Verrier Elwin to claim that the Baiga completely normalize incest. These are his exact words from "The Universality of Incest":

In some endogamous Indian groups, such as the Baiga, actual incestuous marriage is practiced between men and their daughters, between women and their sons, between siblings, and even between grandparents and their grandchildren. “My impression is that most of them have little or no innate repulsion towards incest,” Says Elwin, their ethnographer, the viability of their society disproving by itself all theories about the impossibility of incestuous marriage.

He even calls them "a fully incestuous society"(his articles are mostly only available online, without page numeration, and these particular passages from "The Universality of Incest" can be found between his footnotes 118 and 121. The hyperlink on the word "articles" links to that particular article.)

The rest of the Elwin quote, as well as many anecdotes Elwin goes on to describe, make it aboundantly clear that incest is a stygmatized exception, not the rule, that there are real social punishments for incest, which are collectively enforced by the community, as well as showing that the community has a decent grasp of sexual consent and the moral depravity of raping anyone, but children in particular. This latter point is the clincher. There are indeed tendencies within Baiga society to be lenient towards incest, but only if it's between consenting adults. This blows a massive hole in DeMause's theory, since for him, incest is essentially synonymous with "adult brutally raping their own child".

At least in the abstract, the Baiga believe that incest is a sin that brings on its perpetrators disease and suffering, or invites natural calamities on the society that tolerates it. The book is available online if you want to rummage about it yourself, and I made a blogpost showcasing screenshots of some anecdotes the Baiga told about incest and rape, which convey a much more realistic and much more humane and sane society than DeMause would have us believe exists among the Baiga. Just scroll downwards until you get to the screenshots from the book which I inserted directly into the blogpost. If you want to doublecheck me, the relevant pages in Elwin's work are 188-194.

So much for mangling genuine sources. Now let's see the man use absurdly bad sources uncritically, so long as they serve his preconceived notions.

He claims that doctors once advocated for fathers to "have sexual intercourse with their three-year-old girls “in order to familiarize them with carnal matters"."

His source for this particular claim is: A Woman Physician and Surgeon, Unmasked , or, The Science of Immorality. Philadelphia: William H. Boyd page 88. 1878 Now, this book really does claim this, but it cites absolutely no names, no specifics beyond "one instance of it happened in New Orleans" no witnesses by name, no perpetrator, no victims named absolutely nothing. We just have the anonymous author's word for it. This is generally the level of DeMause's scholarship, and it's bad enough, but when you actually rummage through the book, you will find an absolute plethora of comically inaccurate absurdities which reveal it was written by someone who had absolutely no idea what they were talking about. Basically, at the very beginning of the chapter DeMause cites, which is entitled: "Social Evil"(p.71) the anonymous author lays out her theory of sexuality, work and morality, which sounds like it was made up by a 12-year old boy from 4chan, occasionally blending with some sort of superlatively anti-sex feminist: "Women spread their legs for easy money, but this damages their brains and "nervous powers" making them ever more incapable of productive work. Also, dresses compress blood-flows unnaturally, which causes lots of blood to go through women's vaginas and wombs, which also makes them, like, super-horny. And they also become super-horny and sex-crazed if they don't constantly wash their pussies... while also avoiding all stimulation of them! Oh! Oh! I almost forgot, when men cheat on their wives, with younger girls, the hornieness infects their nerves, which then infects their wives through sex, which makes them insane. And this guy called Barnum paid some worn-out hookers to get fucked by horses, and the horses totally fucking died. It happened twice! Trust me bro, I seen it! Also, this one time, a queen from the Pacific Islands grew teeth inside her vagina, to protect herself from excessive dickery. It's just nature taking revenge for the oppression of women, bruh!" These are the kinds of publications DeMause freely cites to bolster his worldview.

He rehashes the tired, old idea that everyone was overjoyed to join WWI, that people went happily to their deaths, because dolce et decorum est, pro patria mori, which, supposedly, was a result of social psychosis stemming from childhood abuse*.* Michael Nyberg absolutely eviscerates this idiotic old trope about giddy, suicidal WWI militarism, and explains much better than I ever could that people back then knew how horrific the war was going to be, and were horrified of it, but thought for a wide array of credible reasons that they were being forced to defend themselves from external aggression.

Again, these are just representative samples, not by any means exhaustive. There's plenty more where that came from in the aforementioned blogpost. And that blog-post is just based on the stuff I found on the internet, before losing interest.

If you're really interested in seeing even more of his vicious lies debunked, I'll oblige:

For instance, in "The Origins of War in Child Abuse" -> "Chapter 7: Child Abuse, Homicide, and Raids in Tribes" he claims that all Australian Aborigines cut open the penises of all the boys when they're twelve, and then rape the holes. His citations for this are 109 and 110. The two sources refer to two different tribes. Seeing as Australia is extremely diverse in every way, this does not bode well for DeMause's thesis. One is a reputable source on the Mardudjara tribe: The Mardudjara aborigines : living the dream in Australia's desert New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston 1978 by Robert Tonkinson. It mentions absolutely nothing about children on the page (page 23) given in DeMause's citation. And yes, that's the same edition DeMause is using, marked in his footnotes under 109.

But the book has a section on childhood, which describes them as a child-centric society where parents are chastised for letting their children cry without giving into their demands, where children are allowed to scream at and curse their parents without consequence, and where adults are generally expected to be extremely gentle and forgiving in their attempts to get children to behave more pro-socially, even if the child is throwing sticks and rocks at them. Yeah, not lookin too god there, Lloyd ole chap!

The other source (The Women's history of the world by Rosalind Miles, Topsfield, Mass. Salem House) really does mention the mutilation on page 38, just as DeMause claims, but not the raping. And that source is piss-poor, as it cites an anecdote from a single tribe. The footnote for that anecdote leads to a note at the end of the book (page 252) which mentions the supposed authors of whatever publication the anecdote was supposedly sourced from without saying anything about the publication itself, which is a serious instance of sloppy citation, if nothing else. Nevertheless, you will find that particular book in Miles' bibliography section.

The book in question is Man's rise to civilization as shown by the Indians of North America from primeval times to the coming of the industrial state

A reminder for those of you who must be confused by this sources within sources maze, since I sure as hell am: DeMause accuses all Australian aborigines of cutting holes into little boys' penises and then raping those holes. This allegation is made in "The Origins of War in Child Abuse" Chapter 7, citation 110. His source for this is Rosalind Miles The Women’s History of the World. Topsfield: Salem House, 1988, p. 38 On that page, Rosalind mentions the mutilation, but not the raping, and it refers to only one tribe on the entire continent of Australia. She backs this claim up with footnote 4. We find footnote 4 on page 252 of her book. Here she tells us to consult 2 publications. The first one is about North America: Man's rise to civilization as shown by the Indians of North America from primeval times to the coming of the industrial state by Farb, Peter 1968 p.72 On page 72,(a different edition from the one Rosalind Miles uses, but the same disturbing content on the same page.) the author really does claim that the Aranda people(the same people mentioned by Miles) of Australia engage in frankenfurterting the penises of young boys. Let's just remind ourselves that this is a single tribe, and not all indigenous Australians He doesn't have any citations in the text itself, but if you flip to the end of the book, you will find that he uses Bettelheim (1954) as a source for an this claim. These references can be found on page 296. of Farb's book. Fine, let's go through yet another source within a source, within a source, withi... you get the picture. Farb cites two sources of so called "interpretation" Bettelheim and Greenway. Let's start with Bettelheim: Symbolic wounds; puberty rites and the envious male by Bruno Bettelheim Once again, I couldn't find the exact edition, but the book does exist and is available online.

Our dear Mr. Farb tells us that the above book is where he is getting his alleged frankenfurtering information from(This is all about just one tribe in Australia, let's remember that). He tells us the title of the book and the year, but not the publishing house, nor the page on which the particular claim of frankenfurtering is made. Which is conspicuous, since most of the surrounding data-points are provided with both typed of information. Extremely sloppy scholarship. Let's try to find the frankenfurtering allegation, shall we? We'll be looking in the edition of the Bettelheim book I can find online, the 1962 Collier Books edition from New York. On page 100 of Bettelheim, we really do find that subincision/frankenfurtering, does happen, but even Bettelheim emphasizes that this is relatively rare among hunter-gatherers, even within Australia. Notably, there is still no question of adult men or women using the hole thus created in a boy's penis for sex, as DeMause claims. Also, Bettelheim describes no insertion of a bone into the penis - this seems to have been simply made up by Farb - and it's also made abundantly clear that this ritual is done at the initiative of the teenaged guy being initiated, and that he is allowed to set his own pace, given time to recover between operations etc. Farb on the other hand describes the ritual as being essentially forced onto the initiated youth, who is described as being violently restrained by many other men. This harsher description cannot be found anywhere in Bettelheim So just a quick reminder. DeMause claims the ritual of subincision is essentially universal among Australians and forced onto the young man in question, and that it includes the insertion of a bone into the penis. These claims he gets from Rosalind Miles, who in turn gets them from Peter Farb, who claims to have gotten then from Bettelheim.

and then sub-incising them with “a slit made on the underside of his penis” that is said to create a powerful vagina.109 The men then have intercourse in the split on the underside of the penis, “like a split-open frankfurter.”110

Those are DeMause's exact words, and even his immediately cited sources don't back him up on this bizarre sex thing.

Bettelheim in turn makes it clear that subincision is not universal, voluntarily accepted by the pubescent boys it is performed on(Bettelheim, 102.) and makes no mention of bone insertion. This is a game of Chinese whispers, adding more and more horror with each retelling.

Let's look into Bettelheim's source for this claim. The "source-ception" continues. He cites Ashley Montagu, Coming into being p.293 No year, no publisher. But it is available online, and p.293 does in fact have information about subincision. The intensity of the ritual mutilation varies widely, and gets smaller the farther away one is from the center of Australia. It can be anything from a horrible gashing open of the entire male urethra - a la DeMause and his immediate sources, or a minimal cut at the base of the penis.

The practice of subincision does appear to be real, but it's both less widespread and usually far less cruel than DeMause would have us believe. Crucially, it's something the pubescent boys and later adult men ask to have done to them. There are also female forms of ritual cutting, which are similarly varied.

Montagu goes on to cite some guy named Basedow, claiming that subincision is probably a superstitious folk-remedy, designed to protect the subject from certain kinds of diseases. It probably only makes diseases worse, but humans are horribly adept at creating horribly bad folk-remedies for just about everything. There is probably an entire anthropological study somewhere on the internet about counterproductive folk remedies around the world.

In summary, subincision exists, but it is neither universal in Australia, nor necessarily as physically extreme as DeMause claims, nor is it forced onto children by adults who use the occasion to sexually pleasure themselves.

It is something pubescent boys and often adult men(Bettelheim p. 102.) choose to have done to themselves, out of a tradition which probably sprang from an idiotically misguided desire to protect one's health, which has become purely customary and magical in significance, marking a transition into adulthood.

Basedow's article also notes that the age when the ritual incision is performed varies, and that it is sometimes performed on adult men who already have children. It's almost never performed on anyone under the age of 14 (124-125) So, on average, it likely happens in one's mid to late teens. Still an idiotic, vile and harmful tradition, don't get me wrong, but it's about superstition and blind adherence to custom, not sexual sadism or anything like that.

(Just for the sake of pedantic sadism and pettiness, let's look at Rosalind Miles' other alleged source for the practice of sub-incision. She calls this source "Lewenhak p. 36" (p.252) Her bibliography section has the book "Women and Work" by Sheila Lewenhak. She cites a London edition from 1980, without telling us the publishing house. More sloppy scholarship.

I did however find another edition of "Women and Work" by Sheila Lewenhak. It has a hunter-gatherer section, but it's all about manual labor, about producing various kinds of goods, about how men hunted and women prepared and preserved the food and so on. From page 30 onwards, the author remarks on how unperturbed women were about aborting unwanted pregnancies or infanticiding unwanted newborns. She also mentions how strongly everyone valued sexual consent, and that women deeply loved any children they actually, willingly chose to birth and raise. Shocking as this might sound to us, this apparently caused no cognitive dissonance. But it shouldn't be all too surprising, seeing as many women today are often extremely blase about abortion as well. Then you add the fact that even desired and cared for neonates often died before modern medicine was a thing, so it was easy for these primitive peoples to delude themselves into thinking it's no big deal to kill a newborn baby you don't want to bother raising. Hence all their religious nonsense about spirits and the afterlife. Not at all different from modern people with their nonsense about an afterlife. Her data is supposedly from an anthropologist living with a woman named "Xhooxham" of the San. So that data-point is from some primary source, but I cannot be bothered to go into that one as well. I mention this part, because that's about as close as this book comes to discussing parenting in any way.

I'd also like to point out that this is also at odds with DeMause's general claim that all hunter-gatherers treated all children like scum. They didn't. They murdered the unborn for convenience, same as modern people do, they discretely murdered newborns they didn't want, but they lovingly raised every child they did want to raise. And the sources of his sources prove that. Another important point; when discussing infanticide, Lewenhak describes how it is done in private, with the assistance of an older woman who has experience. DeMause also has this weird claim that hunter-gatherer mothers love to force their existing children to participate in infanticide, and to then force them to eat the dead baby. The private nature of infanticide quite flatly contradicts that. Yet more evidence that DeMause loves to ignore evidence contrary to his thesis.

I know it's a different edition, since Rosalind Miles claims to be citing from a 1980 London edition(no publishing house given), and this is a New York edition, also from 1980, from St. Martin's publishing house so it's extremely unlikely that the two editions - printed in the same year - are going to have any differences in substance, as opposed to just different page numbers due to adding or removing pictures, or due to having larger or smaller pages or something. So yeah, Rosalind Miles had two sources for subincision and one of them doesn't even mention it. Poor choice of sources Lloyd.)

[9]:Basedow, H. (1927). Subincision and Kindred Rites of the Australian Aboriginal. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 57, 123–156

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Psychology.SE. This "answer" is not particularly conducive to learning about the subject and instead attacks the founder of the theory with no corroborating evidence within the "answer". $\endgroup$ Mar 6 at 7:08
  • $\begingroup$ My point is that Lloyd DeMause so utterly failed to show any kind of scholarly rigor or honesty in his writings. This is so obvious to anyone who looks into his footnotes to check what his sources say, that practically no professional scholar has ever taken him seriously enough to refute his points, seeing it - rightly - as a waste of their time. Hence, no "reputable sources" to cite. Nonetheless, the reddit thread I wrote goes into detail to explain just how horribly DeMause mangles his sources, ignores contrary evidence or just outright lies to suit his preconceptions. $\endgroup$ Mar 7 at 18:56
  • $\begingroup$ So I don't understand why I am being asked to simply rewrite my own reddit-posts when anyone reading the answer can just click a link and get all the information they need. $\endgroup$ Mar 7 at 18:57

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