Type the query “Psychology of Genealogy” into a search engine and scores of articles both scholarly journals and popular magazines appear as results. I had done such a search many years ago to prepare for a basic family history lecture, but many new books and articles have been written about the topic in recent years spanning the globe. The premise in the writings differs from work to work as some authors look at the psychology of the researchers and attempt to explain the attraction of family history, others look at the emotional benefits or problems attributed to the research of ancestors, sometimes the reference to Genealogy simply means a lineal history of a subject as seen in new articles that have appeared in the past decade that speak to Academic Genealogy.
or Academic Genealogy is now used in various disciplines to trace the links
from one scholar to another back in time often concentrating on the study of
mentors for graduate degrees. A contemporary researcher in any discipline is
thought to be influenced by his academic opportunities and mentors who in turn
were influenced by their teachers that can be depicted in a pedigree form which
allows evaluation of the credibility of works produced and bias of contemporary
scholars. If it is true that academic scholarship is
influenced by the history of the researcher, it can be argued that the
personality of an individual has been influenced by their ancestors. Whether genetics
plays a greater role in human development or if it is believed that environment
influences an individual to a larger degree, nature and nurture can both be
studied in family history to develop a snapshot of the individuals under study
since our ancestors influence their descendants could be passed on both
through the genes determining health and eye color or the environment they
created around their offspring which shaped personalities.
in published works of the personality of family history researchers or what
makes a genealogist tick are often based on feedback and study of serious historical
researchers who love the various aspects of genealogy such as organizational charts
and color-coded notebooks, detective work long into the night, curiosity about
individuals and what influenced their lives, passion for documentation and
source citations and continuing education in evolving research methods and best
practices. These personality traits of course do not describe the vast majority
of individuals who crave some basic ancestral facts or have a curiosity about
their ethnicity or perhaps are searching for answers as a result of adoption
questions but do not have the time, resources, or skill set to research their
questions in depth. So, it is unreasonable to believe that there is a particular
psychology to those who have family history questions.
It seems the
emphasis in the Psychology of Genealogy should be not on what drives those to
partake in what is often seen as a popular fad but instead, should be on the
benefits or cautions to individuals who explore their ancestry. There are a few
simple advantages to researchers creating family trees. In a world much
separated by distance and busy schedules and most recently the pandemic, socialization
takes place online between researchers working on a common family line. Long-lost extended family can reconnect. I had an unknown grandparent ancestry that
took deep digging and hours of analysis to piece together, then a distant
cousin met online sent me a large box of original family photos giving me the
opportunity in middle age to see my ancestors on that line for the first time. The
collaboration with newly discovered
cousins is heartwarming as I discovered having tea in Devonshire, UK with a previously
unknown cousin of my grandmother who took me on a car tour of the ancestral
village after I connected with her friend online.
memories can be made including some with immediate family as my children each
in turn traveled and researched with me on our shared family history. They
trudged through cemeteries looking for names on headstones, sat in libraries
and archives, and patiently listen to my latest findings. My daughter can
remember the day I ran to her school to let her know she was related to Daniel
Boone, she was there when the Kalmar Nyckel ship was launched 25 years ago in
Delaware as a replica of the one on which her Colonial Swedish ancestors journeyed
to North America, and the children were beside me when I touched the ancient
wall in Germany where their ancestors were baptized. The shared experiences of
travel, new cultures, and academic research made history come alive for each of us
and I am so grateful for them beside me through the experience.
stimulation of constructing a family puzzle with some stubborn pieces taking
much effort to place in the big picture is as rewarding to fighting off aging
as Sudoku or Crosswords. Family researchers find they must keep up with the latest
innovations in technology to access records and sometimes need to utilize
educational opportunities such as conferences or formal classes to understand
research tools and analysis methods to break through brick walls in
Continuing education keeps minds sharp and gives new depths to interesting
aspects of personality. New vocabulary is acquired and thought processes and
communication skills can deepen.
on family trees and their impact on health is abundant. Familial Health history is
often required before medical treatment. Famously the family tree of Ernest
Hemingway has been studied, researched, and depicted in detailed family charts
showing the impact of the genetic ancestral connection to bipolar disease and
suicide in his family. Sometimes the knowledge of family medical
history allows patients to mitigate risk. Recent studies in Emotional
Genealogy and how the last few generations of ancestors influence contemporary
individuals are important for mental health practitioners to review in their
efforts to give counseling to suffering patients.
It is easy
to imagine the good feelings generated in individuals who find their place in a
story of a family. A sense of belonging could result and personal links to past
and future would be felt by those discovering their ancestry. Sometimes there
are sad, unexpected, or scary tales within a family history that can be
jolting. There are ancestors who inspire pride and some for which we feel
shame, but their victories or sins are not ours. Family history should not be
ancestor worship, but the discovery of the cultures and historical circumstances
that shaped those who raised us who were in turn raised by humans who had
made along the way by ancestors in a family tale impact the present from the
choice to move to an urban or rural area, financial and occupational selections,
choice of spouse, or abandonment of children can all change the opportunities
and feelings of self-worth for contemporary individuals. Some emotional turmoil
follows them into adulthood and changes the way they respond to their own
descendants. Understanding the stories of those who came before sometimes gives
room for compassion for family members who suffered or inspiration by trials
they suffered and may have overcome. It can aid in us feeling I am not in this
alone nor am I the only one who has dealt with joy or grief.
I knew a
person who was universally thought to be negative and stern. The cold
personality put a damper on social gatherings and was stressful. A short time
before death they reached out to me and explained the abandonment by a parent
and abuse by another family member caused mistrust as a young person which was
never resolved. Knowing the story allowed for forgiveness and understanding.
Another acquaintance lost their house in the depression and their car was put
up on blocks by the bank, they lost two businesses and then their spouse died
young. Empathy for those touched by such events goes a long way to an appreciation
of the blessings we do have or may give us space to forgive ourselves for regretted
to a few genealogists, there is a passion for the past and a feeling of responsibility
to honor those who came before even outside our own immediate family. Sometimes
it is a touchstone to reflect on their impact on our lives, sometimes they have
no family to remember them. Often when I lose a friend I put together a basic
family tree to teach me something about how and where they were raised, the occupations of the family members, where they went to school, and what activities
interested them. Reading obituaries, leafing through online yearbooks, looking
at extended family online trees, and finding old photos brings them closer to me,
gives me an understanding of the robust lives they led, allows for grieving then healing,
and celebrates their lives.
2000 DNA test kits have been publicly available and have increased in accuracy
and types of genetic testing. Various DNA test results at multiple companies
together with analysis of overlaps in family trees have resulted in startling results,
sometimes just having a test result confirm what you believed about your family
connections creates a wow moment that is empowering. Increasingly stories of
unexpected results end in emotional trauma for testers.
But the most heart welling consequence of the widespread DNA testing seems to
be the profound realization that we are all related.... all humans share 99.9%
identical genetic makeup.
The difference is 0.1%...
One of my genealogy methodology mentors is the genetic genealogist, Diahan Southard who is a fantastic scientist and expert family historian who cheerleads her students through the maze of DNA analysis. She taught middle school students in Atlanta about their DNA test results to promote racial healing as she showed the young people how related they were, how diverse their backgrounds, and yet share identity with all those around us. A 2016 study by a travel company to promote worldwide cultural acceptance followed 67 diverse individuals who found they had much in common. Genealogy and DNA studies can be used by devoted researchers to make a difference in the world, promoting kindness and racial healing.
Although anyone regardless of their passions, gifts and occupation can give back and support others, I have seen the work of “genealogy angels” over the past few decades unselfishly guide those who have holes in their hearts from empty spaces on their family trees. Hugs from library staff at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City when a brick wall comes down, Archivists who photocopy and mail birth or death records on their own time and cost, online volunteers who find the long-lost siblings separated by adoption all done with energy and joy that celebrates the newly found connections for others is heart swelling. I sat quietly in a small German town archive beside my youngest son attempting to read old German Script and struggling to discern the location of an ancestral home. The archivist realized my dilemma and in broken English explained he would escort us to the spot which was a few blocks away. My broken German did not do justice to my gratitude for his kindness. Often family historians sense profound moments in others and share willingly in celebration of connection.
I have a bad habit of watching sappy Hallmark
movies and keep the box of tissues nearby, but I also use those to stem the
tide of tears when I watch Henry Louis Gates, Jr. interact with guests on his “Finding
Your Roots” PBS series.
With a gentle spirit, he gifts family ties to those seeking a sense of their
heritage, good or bad and they are profoundly changed. Not all people need the journey
into their past as they find their lives fulfilled with busy schedules and a good
support system in the present. But many find at least some time in their lives
the need for connection to their family history which may provide comfort or answers,
forgiveness or understanding of those in the past and who we are today.
 Susan Moore, Doreen Rosenthal,
Rebecca Robinson, The Psychology of Family History (Abingdon, UK: Routledge,
2020). Australian authors S. Moore a social psychologist and professor, D.
Rosenthal a developmental social psychologist, and R. Robinson a computer
scientist and theologian together study why genealogists research and the effect on
Susan M Moore, “How Ancestor Research Affects
Self-Understanding and Well-Being,” Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing
Institute, Basel, Switzerland (https://www.mdpi.com/2313-5778/6/1/20/htm : accessed 10 July 2022); original publication, Genealogy,
Vol. 6, no. 1:20, published 1 March 2022. The author references scholarly articles
Jurai Darongkamas and Louise Lorenc, "Going Back to Our
Roots," The Psychologist, publication of the British Psychological
accessed 7 July 2022), Vol. 21, December 2008, pp. 1022-1025. The UK.
Paula Nicholson, Genealogy, Psychology, and Identity:
Tales from a family tree (1st ed.) (London: Routledge, 2016). Explores psychosocial
factors run across generations.
Nathan H. Lents, "The Meaning and Meaninglessness of
Genealogy," Psychology Today
(https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/beastly-behavior/201801/the-meaning-and-meaninglessness-genealogy : accessed 7 July 2022), Online U.S. magazine
post 29 January 2018.
Penny Walters, Ph.D., The Psychology of Searching (Author: United Kingdom, 2020); Search my Past (https://www.searchmypast.co.uk/ : accessed 22 August 2022).
 Hortense Le Ferrand, “Academic Genealogy to Follow the Evolution of
Materials Research,” Cambridge University (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/mrs-bulletin/article/academic-genealogy-to-follow-the-evolution-of-materials-research/06462C93B217E8A8D377A1A3013A5FB9
: accessed 8 July 2022) Materials Research Society at Cambridge University
Press, MRS Bulletin 45, no. 8 (2020): 675–76. doi:10.1557/mrs.2020.228.
 Arnon Hershkovitz and Sharon Hardof-Jaffe,
"Genealogy as a lifelong learning endeavor," Leisure/loisir 41, no. 4
(2017): 535-560. Canadian researchers analysis of lifelong learning in
 Dean F. Mackinnon, M.D., “A family tree filled with
mental illness,” journal article, National Library of Medicine (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3574759/
: accessed 9 July 2022), Cerebrum, 30 May 2012. A physician review of
the family research by Victoria Costello: a lethal inheritance: a mother
uncovers the science behind three generations of mental illness.
Neel Burton, M.D., “The
Many Names of Bipolar Disorder,” online article, Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/ie/blog/hide-and-seek/201509/the-many-names-bipolar-disorder
: accessed 8 July 2022), posted 16 September 2015. While this example is from a
popular magazine, many scholarly peer-reviewed journal articles can be found on
this subject with in-depth analysis.
 Judith Fein, “What is Emotional Genealogy?,” website, Emotional
Genealogy (emotionalgenealogy.org : accessed 9 July 2022). Also described by
the author “What is your Emotional Genealogy?,” online article, Psychology
: accessed 9 July 2022), posted 26 January 2014.
Helen Parker-Drabble, “How
key psychological theories can enrich our understanding of our ancestors and
help improve mental health for present and future generations: A family
historian’s perspective,” Genealogy, 6: 4, viewed at Google Scholar (https://scholar.google.com/)
 David R. Topher, Ph.D., MS-HPed, “Genealogy testing:
Prepare for the emotional reaction, blog post, Harvard (https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/genealogy-testing-prepare-for-the-emotional-reaction-2018060613990
: accessed 9 July 2022), posted 6 June 2018.
Library of Congress (https://guides.loc.gov/family-secrets : accessed 9
 James F. Crow, “Unequal by Nature: A Geneticist’s
Perspective on Human Differences,” Daedalus 131, no. 1 (2002): 81–88; JSTOR
(http://www.jstor.org/stable/20027739 : accessed 10 July 2022).
 Diahan Southard, “DNA Ethnicity Results Connect Us,
Not Divide Us,” undated Blogpost, your DNA Guide (https://www.yourdnaguide.com/ydgblog/dna-ethnicity-results-can-connect-not-divide-us
: accessed 8 July 2022).
 Jeppe Rønde, director "Momondo-the DNA
Journey," video, Momondo-Let’s Open our World
(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tyaEQEmt5ls : accessed 7 July 2022), video
post 2 June 2016. 67 culturally diverse individuals find common ground with
their DNA results.
 Oscar Schwartz, “DNA search angels: the Facebook
'detectives' who help reunite families,” online news article, The Guardian
: accessed 9 July 2022), 29 April 2019 from New York City.
 “Finding Your Roots,” database, Public Broadcast
System (https://www.pbs.org/weta/finding-your-roots/about/about-series :
accessed 9 July 2022). “Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr….stimulating a
national conversation about identity with humor, wisdom, and compassion.”