Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

Cognitive History and the Neurotic Regulation of Historical Beliefs: The Case of Canadians Encountering War Plan RED (1904-1939)

Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

Cognitive History and the Neurotic Regulation of Historical Beliefs: The Case of Canadians Encountering War Plan RED (1904-1939)

Article excerpt

History is a very psychological discipline, and it is remarkable that there has been relatively little interdisciplinary collaboration between history and psychology (Runyan, 1988). To be sure, historical explanations of the causes of past events usually include inferences about the motivations and the decision processes of the individuals involved, as described, for example, by Collingwood (1994). Furthermore, two subfields of history have psychological aspects: 1) the "mentalité" tradition of ethnohistory (e.g., Burke, 1997; Harkin, 2010; Lloyd, 1989) and 2) the conceptualization of history as collective "social memory" (e.g. Fentress & Wickman, 1992; Thelen, 1989). When psychological methods have been used more overtly and formally in history, the focus has been on explaining the psychological development of important individuals or groups of individuals. This is called "psychohistory" if inferences are based on psychodynamic interpretations (e.g., Albin, Delvin & Heeger, 1980; de Mause, 1975; 1982; Stannard, 1980) and "historiometry" if inferences are based on statistical studies of multiple cases (Simonton, 1990; Woods, 1911).

The role of psychology in history is not remote, not limited to faraway peoples or to dead personalities from the past. Historical beliefs are psychologically active in the heads of all of us who are alive today. Beliefs about history seem to influence our thinking and our behavior, especially political behavior. Thus, many governments find it important to control school history curricula and textbooks. History is psychologically intimate to us. We identify ourselves by history. We possess and are possessed by history. When we say, "I am an American," "1 am a German," "I am a Jew", we attach national histories to our personal biographies (Liu & László, 2007). It is predictable that national history and personal memory might become confused in our cognitive processes. Because historical beliefs are bound to psychology, they are bound by psychology and thus relatively resistant to new information (Rudmin, 1996a).

Historical beliefs are powerful motivators and play a central role in our psychological readiness for war. All over the world, from Rwanda to Israel to Bosnia to Armenia, Chechnya, Iraq, India, Indonesia, people will risk death and dare the destruction of their own communities in order to assert their historical beliefs (Horrock, 1993; Koring, 1993; Rudmin 1996b). Yet, historical beliefs have rarely been the focus of systematic study.

There is need for the development of a sub-field called "cognitive history," to be defined as the interdisciplinary study of the psychology of historical beliefs (Rudmin, 1993; 1995). Austrian psychologist, Fritz Heider, one of the founders of cognitive social psychology, was perhaps the first to suggest this:

One should write history as a development of 'beliefs' (not in the narrow religious sense), as a description of the succession and changes in the world pictures, the world images. The changes in cognitive maps, the life spaces. (Heider, 1989, p. 42)

The focus should be on the contents and the internal structure of historical beliefs and on their dynamics, meaning their acquisition, disposition, and interaction with motivations, emotions, and other beliefs and behaviors. As cognitive phenomena, beliefs are held by individuals, but often collectively within national groups, within ethnic and religious minorities, and within specialist communities such as historians. Thus, beliefs can be studied at both the individual and the group levels.

Beliefs, of course, are difficult to study since they are essentially private, internal, phenomena. Beliefs cannot be directly observed. They must be inferred from behaviors and self-reports. When our beliefs are widely shared, they are doubly difficult to observe since we tend to be unaware of our beliefs without some contrasting points of external reference. Historical beliefs stand out dramatically as beliefs, and thus potential misbeliefs, when neighboring nations endorse contrary histories, as with the wellknown example of Canadian schools teaching that the United States lost the War of 1812 and U. …

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