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Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Why create a family tree: The Psychology of Genealogy Research

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.[1] 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.

Intellectual 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.[2]  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.

The descriptions 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.

Priceless 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.

The mental 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 research.[3] 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.

Analytical Literature 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.[4]  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.[5]

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 significant stories.

Decisions 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 decisions.

Perhaps unique 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.

Since May 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] A 2016 study by a travel company to promote worldwide cultural acceptance followed 67 diverse individuals who found they had much in common.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.

[1] 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 self-identity.

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 and journals.

Jurai Darongkamas and Louise Lorenc, "Going Back to Our Roots," The Psychologist, publication of the British Psychological Society (https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-21/edition-12/going-back-our-roots : 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).

[2] 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.

[3] 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 genealogy.

[4] 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.

[5] 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 Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/life-is-trip/201401/what-is-your-emotional-genealogy : 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/)

[6] 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 July 2022).

[7] 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).

[8] 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).

[9] 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.

[10] Oscar Schwartz, “DNA search angels: the Facebook 'detectives' who help reunite families,” online news article, The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/apr/29/dna-search-angels-adoption-facebook-detectives-reunite-families : accessed 9 July 2022), 29 April 2019 from New York City.

[11] “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.”