Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Parental Loss and Eminence: Is There a Critical Period for the Phaeton Effect?

Academic journal article North American Journal of Psychology

Parental Loss and Eminence: Is There a Critical Period for the Phaeton Effect?

Article excerpt

The present study examined the lives of a sample of outstanding men and women who had experienced parental loss up to the age of twenty, to determine the statistical distribution of their ages at the time of this loss. This aim was prompted by the observation that eminent individuals in certain fields have suffered a rate of early parental loss which greatly exceeds that found in the general population. This trend has been found across historical periods for geniuses in various fields (Eisenstadt, 1978; Eisenstadt, Haynal, Rentchnick, & de Senarclens, 1989), and for British prime ministers by Iremonger (1970 & 1984), who termed it the Phaeton effect, after an ambitious Greek god who aspired to drive his fiery chariot across the sky. A similar pattern has also been noted for American writers, presidents, and influential public figures of the 20th century (Standing, Aikins, Madigan, & Nohl, 2014). It should be noted that Iremonger's (1970) conclusions are supported by the resourceful study of Berrington (1974), who found that orphans were much more common among prime ministers (all of them aristocrats) than among the British peerage as a whole, who were used as a control group.

There is a sizeable literature on the subsequent effects on adults of losing a parent in childhood which is at odds with the observation that many eminent people have lost a parent early in life, and a PsycNET search for "parental death" yielded 245 hits. Some disagreement exists among workers in this area, with occasional studies failing to find measureable harm from bereavement, within some particular domain. Stikkelbroek, Prinzie, de Graaf, ten Have & Cuijpers (2012), for example, observed only minor impairment of mental health due to bereavement, while others suggest that a more precise predictor of psychological harm is the degree of grief that the bereaved child actually experiences (Spuij et al., 2012) rather than death itself. Nevertheless, the overall pattern shows that a remarkably wide range of ill effects has been reported. For example, bereavement in childhood has been found to be associated with depression (Coffino, 2009), adult psychopathology (Kendler, Neale, Kessler, Heath, & Eaves, 1992), adult wellbeing (Leopold & Lechner, 2015), poor academic performance (Abdelnoor & Hollins, 2004), attempted suicide in adulthood (Dieserud, Forsen, Braverman, & R0ysamb, 2002), violent crime (Leibman, 1992), alcoholism and drug abuse (Tennant & Bernardi, 1988), reduced life-expectancy (Smith, Hanson, Norton, Hollingshaus, & Mineau, 2014), and increased risk of cancer in early life (Kennedy et al., 2014). These areas of study represent only a small selection of those in which adverse effects from early bereavement or parental loss have been reported.

The only studies which suggest the possibility of any positive features of early bereavement are those of the Phaeton effect, and we must remember that subsequent outstanding achievements by an orphan do not guarantee that they will enjoy a happy life overall as an adult (e.g., John Barrymore, John Berryman, Edvard Munch), nor that they will be benign individuals (e.g., Adolf Eichmann, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin). The Phaeton effect initially appears surprising, since in the general population early parental loss due to death (or divorce) is associated with so many adverse developmental outcomes in subsequent adult life, but different domains are generally involved, so that someone who is depressed or alcoholic could still become a great artist or politician, for example.

We would also expect that this type of exceptional achievement is only likely to follow in fields where intense personal motivation in the face of failure is crucially important, rather than innate ability or luck. Creative writers, for example, show high rates of bereavement and loss (Standing et al., 2014), so that it is not easy to find a major writer whose life was unmarked by bereavement and/or other privations, but we see no reports of the Phaeton effect among professional or business people. …

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