What Is Psychobiography?

What is psychobiography? First let me say what it is not, because what it’s NOT is what most people think it IS.

First, a link to a five minute clip in which I talk a bit about the field HERE

  1. Psychobiography is NOT pathography. If you come across a psychobiography whose aim is to diagnose a person, chances are GOOD that it is BAD. People are not diagnoses. A diagnosis is a name—a label—not a true explanation. What we want to know is how someone became who she is, not what her DSM-derived “disease” might be. I talk a lot about this subject in chapter one of my Handbook of Psychobiography. You can check that out for more detail.Here’s a little illustration I use in my psychobiography courses. Say a mother tells a psychiatrist, My son hears voices. Why? The psychiatrist answers, Well, sorry to say this, but it’s because he’s a schizophrenic. Mom replies: Oh. Well, how do you know he’s a schizophrenic? Psychiatrist says, Because he hears voices.
  2. Psychobiography is NOT biography, although all psychobiographies make use of biographical data, obviously. In biography the aim is to tell the story of a life, to be as comprehensive as possible. In most psychobiographies, one focuses instead on one facet of a life, a single mysterious question, such as why Elvis Presley had such difficulty performing the song Are You Lonesome Tonight? (the Handbook of Psychobiography contains a chapter on this very question, by Elms and Heller). Psychobiography is primarily a way of doing psychology by focusing on single cases, single lives. Biographers do not aim to do psychology, at least not primarily. They want, instead, to set down the record of the life. Biographers, therefore, are chiefly descriptive; psychobiographies are more explanatory, more interpretive. Biography is about the WHAT, psychobiographies are about the WHY, the question of motives.
  3. Psychobiography is NOT all about finding some childhood origin for adult behavior, it is not “originology.” Childhood is often key. In childhood we develop particular patterns of response that can persist for a lifetime. Childhood can set an emotional tone or leave behind certain dynamics that become partially determinative. BUT—childhood is not everything! It is a part of the picture, but not the whole picture. Adolescent or adult experiences can be just as important as childhood experiences in shaping the contours of a life, so they can’t be neglected. If one argues, for instance, that Elvis’s personality can be understood simply in terms of his relationship with his mother Gladys and how she treated him when he was a small boy, this is an oversimplification. No doubt Elvis’s boyhood has SOMETHING to do with who he became; it just does not have EVERYTHING to do with what he became. So, good psychobiographies avoid simplistic formulations such as those met with in originology.
  4. In a related vein, psychobiography is NOT a search for single causes of behavior. As Freud once said, everything we do is overdetermined, a function of a concert of reasons, not one reason operating in isolation. One looks, therefore, for multiple causes. Take the case of van Gogh cutting off his ear (again, for more on this subject, see the Runyan chapter in the Handbook of Psychobiography). Why did van Gogh do it? Because unconsciously he was mimicking the scene at Gethsemane, and engaging in a symbolic castration, and hoping via self-mutilation to keep his brother from leaving him at Christmas-time, and copying a practice common to matadors in bullfights who cut off the animal’s ear and give it to a woman of their choosing (van Gogh took his earlobe to a prostitute named Rachel). All such reasons explain, perhaps, a portion of the variance. No single reason will ever do.
  5. Psychobiography is NOT naively person-centered. True, the main aim in psychobiography is to understand personality. That goal is front and center. But the person can’t be divorced from his context—political, historical, social, economic, etc. Psychobiographers do focus on the personal, but this does not mean that they deny the influence of societal factors.
  6. Psychobiography is NOT always and only Freudian in nature. Freudian theory is one lens with which to view a life. It is not the only lens. Dan McAdams, for instance, recommends looking at personality from three different vantage points at least: invariant traits derived from the Five Factor model of personality, characteristic adaptations (goals, motives, beliefs, strategies, mechanisms of defense, internalized object relations), and individual scenes and stories (see chapter four, Handbook of psychobiography). Recently McAdams has added two other levels of analysis: biology and culture. The fact is, any theory or line of research (for instance, on attachment theory) may be used to make sense of any one individual. Those who assume that all psychobiography is Freudian are, simply put, naïve.

So, with that said, WHAT IS PSYCHOBIOGRAPHY?

Psychobiography is the analysis of historically significant lives through the use of psychological theory and research. Its aim is to understand persons, and to uncover the private motives behind public acts, whether those acts involve the making of art or the creation of scientific theories, or the adoption of political decisions. Some figures who have been the subject of a great number of psychobiographical books and articles include Hitler, Sylvia Plath, Freud, Jung, Gordon Allport, James Barrie, Gandhi, Luther, Marilyn Monroe, Abraham Lincoln, van Gogh, Clinton, Bush, and Saddam Hussein.

To get a really good idea of what psychobiography is and how to do it well, and to read a number of examples of psychobiographical research, check out these books:

26 thoughts on “What Is Psychobiography?

  1. very insightful for my psychobiography. This gave me wonderful insight on what questions i should ask myself when making my analysis.

    1. this was a great insight to what is and is not PSYCHOBIOGRAPHY. Very helpful in answering questions on a paper i am doing for a growth and development class I am currently taking.

  2. Hi, I’m doing a paper on psychobiography’s and have used this article as a reference, but there doesn’t seem to be a date of when this article was written. I need to use APA referencing so if you could let know the date it would be much appreciated🙂 Thank you

  3. Mr. Schultz, I am a student that is writing on designing research and I wanted to cite your work in my paper. I cannot find the year of the posting. Do you mind sharing? By the way very good article which helped me understand psychobiography much better.

  4. i plan to write about myself, but not an autobiography. I want to examine my neuroses and describe numerous events, esp. in childhood, that caused me to be the way I am. I want it to be “story telling” and not scholarly. Would it simply be called memoir-writing? Do you think it can be done? I’ve read Karen Horney’s books, including on Self-Analysis. It isn’t easy. I will also be ordering your book soon.

    I like your website. Who did it for you, or did you do it?

    I have a blog a http://www.strugglinghomeownerssharestories.com.
    (struggling homeowners share stories dot com)

  5. Hello. I am trying to see how I can use psychobiographical analysis to interpret literary texts in my PhD thesis. But i am having a tough time convincing my Dept that such exercise is possible in a literary sphere.
    Dobbie B. and Abrams, M. H. have conceptualized it within literary study. That Freud made an attempt when he turned to Sophocles Oedipus Rex to deduce the Oedipal complex and the Electra complex. However, Freud later turned away and left it to future researchers in the literary climate. Of which I am eager to continue in my research by experimenting with African literary texts.But a lot of impediments

  6. Hi, thanks for your article. I am currently taking a personality psychology class and I have to do a Psychobiography. I want to do it on either Bob Marley or Usain Bolt but I am still unclear as to how to structure or organize it. Can you point me to any Psychobiographical articles or papers (not books) that you may know if so I can take a look and get a better idea as to how I should structure my paper. Thanks in advance.

  7. Good afternoon. I am using psychobiographical analysis to interpret Mark Twain’s posthumously published book, “No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.” I am in the infant stages of my research, and not certain which theory I will apply. Freudian, of course, is a possibility, whereas “few psychobiographies employ Jungian theory” (Elms 86). Also, I just finished “Handbook of Psychobiography” and noticed that you contributed to “Turns in the Road: Narrative Study of Lives in Transition,” specifically using Oscar Wilde as your subject. Thank goodness for Kindle, as it is out of print, according to Amazon. My question–I have far too many, but how does one refrain from a psychobiography becoming little more than a biographical criticism–which is long-outdated, as my professors keep reminding me–or “adopting a diagnostic bent?” Also, do you feel Lacanian theory would work? Thank you.

  8. Hi! Thanks for the article. I’m currently writing a post grad paper on psychobiography and need some help with my section on the value of psychobiography. Could you possibly point me in the right direction? Or email me any articles you have ?

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