My Journey to Integrating Psychohistory into My Courses

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Richard Booth, Black Hawk College

During my developmental period as a neophyte psychotherapist and psychology professor, I was reluctant to deviate from the fundamental, empirical principles and findings of either clinical practice or teaching.  My fear stemmed from a sense that I did not possess the proficiency to extrapolate from principle to subtle application, let alone hypothetical possibility.  In those days, I would not have thought it safe to generalize the findings of the courses I was teaching to content I then considered more appropriate to other psychology courses and even other disciplines.  In other words, I did not feel secure applying course material from Personality Theories, Abnormal Psychology, Introduction to Psychology, and even Social Psychology far beyond direct and obvious applications to extra-classroom life experiences.

As the years went by, I continued to improve my practice skills and acquire more information about my discipline, as well as other disciplines, including history, anthropology, and political science, among others.  I began to see interactive threads rather than discrete discipline entities.  Naturally, every discipline has its primary focus and function, but I began to understand, on a deeper level, that social institutions could not exist without interacting with economic and political institutions; that psychology, being, in my view, the study of the entire lived experience with the primary focus on the individual person, interacted with everything else, since human behavior and experience are part and parcel of the matter and spirit that comprise all that happens.  Then, some years ago, I came across an article written by Paul Elovitz (Editor, Clio’s Psyche) that immediately sparked both my interest and my scientific skepticism.  While I was taken with the nature of psychohistory, I could not help but wonder whether this approach to knowledge was too speculative to be given credence.  I researched further and discovered Clio’s Psycheitself, which went so far as to examine people’s lives, including contemporaries, from psychological and psychoanalytic perspectives.

Putting aside my empirical orientation and training for the moment, I read Cliowithin the context of my existing understanding of Freud, Fromm, Horney, Object Relations theorists, and Erikson.  I learned, by further reading in the areas of metaphor and by studying the differences between scientific verification and different types and levels of validation, that much of what was being written in Clioand a few other places could be understood as theoretically valid if (1) sufficient, consistent, and believable support constituted the foundation of the authors’ work, and (2) the evidence/truth could be seen without the use of scientific quantification.  I was reminded of having read Erikson’s Luther and Freud’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci, finding their “evidence” well-founded, well-integrated and compelling with, in the first instance, many biographical understandings of Luther and, in the second, the powerful use of Leonardo’s actual works in the construction of da Vinci’s psychoanalysis.  Moreover, with the help of Spence, Bettelheim, Ernest Becker, and others, I began to comprehend that “evidence” can be understood as that which appears evident to the parties involved after all other possible explanations have been carefully discarded.  This notion appeared to me to be a variation of the “reasonable man” theory, which grounds a significant amount of ethnopsychology and ethnosociology.  I had finally arrived at a conclusion: while quantification is vital in scientific verification, evidence, which also leads to validation, may be attained through thoroughly reasoned argument and sufficient logical analysis.  I also made an internal discovery during my evolution: somewhere in my mind, I had known this all along.

So, here I am today, having taught college for about thirty years.  Now, and for some years past, I have engaged students not only in applications of psychology to everyday living, but also in delving into the more abstract implications of what psychological principles can tell us about historical figures, politics and political figures. This methodology has become a natural dimension of my teaching.

An opportunity to exercise this type of extrapolation occurred when feelings were running strong about the Bush administration’s not expecting the chaos Iraq demonstrated after the “liberation.”  At the time, I was teaching the chapter on social psychology in my Introduction to Psychology course, and the concepts of crowding and group behavior in my Social Psychology course.  Fundamental psychological research has repeatedly demonstrated that, after a period of close confinement, animals begin to attack each other.  Then, when released from confinement, chaos ensues.   Analogously, in humans, with a sheer increase in numbers within a group or geographical area, people have been shown to commit atrocities and ignore normative expectations, such as laws.  Why, then, with a history of Saddam Hussein’s “thumb” on his multitudes of people living very closely together (e.g., imprisonments, murders, rapes), would the Bush administration expect order when the thumb was released, particulary given the scientific maxim that the normal outcome of behavior is chaos unless there is an overriding force that keeps order?  I put this question to my students, and the single most frequent response was that Bush and his aides were ignorant of the basic principles of human behavior.  That discussion led to others.  For example: politicians who have an agenda and will do almost anything to achieve its outcomes; the issue of whether politicians care about people, power, both, or neither; the degree to which politicians, in general, can be believed; and, very importantly, what kind of leader the American people want and why.

When the course arrived at the section addressing the self-actualized person and the authoritarian personality, I gave students some of the primary dimensions of both and then asked them to discuss what kinds of people in public life appear to conform to the two types.  Not surprisingly, students were not as sure about whom they perceived as self-actualized, but they noted a number of political figures who, to them, appeared to reflect some major features of the authoritarian personality.  I then raised the issue of the “Patriot Act” and whether its controls might fit within the discussion we were having.   During these discussions, it was rarely necessary for me to intercede; students tended to feel strongly about these issues and most were willing to discuss them.  I tended to be the arbiter rather than the lecturer.

There are numerous other issues that can be transferred from psychology courses into the public policy, judicial, social, and political arenas. The following two examples derive from the research and theory on decision-making and the psychology of persuasion. Multiple studies have attempted to determine if there is a particular number of people who tend to make the best “correct” decisions when confronted with a problem. For example, does an individual confronted with a problem tend to be more accurate in solving it than three or four people?  Is the best solution derived from the greatest number of people one can garner to attack the problem?  When research findings are examined, we see that, on average, the number of persons most likely to make accurate decisions about problematic situations is three.  Knowing this, I invite my students to evaluate our jury system in light of the data. This leads them into the study of group influence, face-saving, anonymity in groups, groupthink, and all manner of problems that might emerge during a jury’s deliberation process.  Then, I ask them to tell me how soon the system is likely to change to a jury of three if we were all to write a letter to the appropriate officials.  Needless to say, laughter ensues.

The second issue goes to the question of what kind of leader is most influential with what kinds of audiences under what sets of conditions?  In other words, what kinds of people are likely to be persuaded by President Bush and what kinds are not?  Is there anything the President can do change the minds of those who disbelieve him?  Other questions follow naturally: What role does inducing fear play in influencing a change of mind or behavior?  What kinds of people conform when an emotional appeal is used and what kinds conform when a rational, intellectual appeal is used?  Under what conditions, if any, are people, in general, good judges of truth-telling?  The questions go on and on.

Finally, those who teach realize that only a certain amount of time can be allotted for discussions and debates like those described above.  One adjunctive tool I use is the analytic essay, in which students are asked to describe a public figure in terms of psychological principles and findings.  But, I always use a caveat,which I believe to be true: both in psychotherapy and in psychohistory, while evidence may be powerful, we must remember that we are talking “about” a person from what we observe; we must refrain from considering our conclusions definitive or absolute.

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