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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Psychobiography aims to understand historically significant individuals such as artists, political leaders, and so on, through the application of psychological theory and research. It is, in essence, a form of case study.


Origins and development

Sigmund Freud's analysis of da Vinci (titled "Leonardo da Vinci, A Memory of His Childhood") is generally considered to be the first "modern" psychobiography. Persons who have been the subject of much psychobiographical research over the years include Freud, Adolf Hitler, Sylvia Plath, Carl Jung, Vincent van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Gordon Allport, Elvis Presley, and Richard Nixon, among others.


The discipline of psychobiography has developed various methodological guidelines for psychobiographical study (see, for examples of many of these, Schultz, 2005). Some of the most prominent are these:

1. The use of prototypical scenes in the life of the subject to serve as a model of their personality pattern

2. The use of a series of indicators of salience, markers such as primacy, frequency, and uniqueness of an event in a life, to identify significant patterns

3. The identification of pregnant metaphors or images that organize autobiographical narratives

4. Logical coherence or consistency as a criterion for adequate psychological interpretations

Psychobiographical authors

Psychobiographical authors include William Todd Schultz, Alan C. Elms, Erik Erikson, Irving Alexander, James A. Anderson, Henry Murray, Dan Ogilvie, Nicole Barenbaum, George Atwood, William Runyan, and Robert White.



Psychobiography has faced criticism from the very start, crystallised above all in the production of what Erikson caricatured as “originology” - the explaining away of significant public events and actions as the product of some minute childhood detail.

Bad psychobiography - using mechanical psychologising, a selective mining of the facts, overdeterminism, and a tendency to pathologise - is considered to be very easy to write. Anna Freud condemned the study of Woodrow Wilson Freud himself co-authored with William Bullitt on just such grounds, and the haphazard historical evolution of the disciple has not helped reduce its prevalence.


  • Elms, Alan (1993). Uncovering Lives. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Ogilvie, Dan (2004). Fantasies of Flight. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Runyan, William (1982). Life Histories and Psychobiography. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Schultz, William Todd (2005). Handbook of Psychobiography. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Safranski, Rudiger. Nietzsche: a Philosophical Biography Granta Books, London, (2002); Vienna, (2000); New York (2002) ISBN 0-393-05008-4
  • Waite, Robert G.L. The Psychopathic God: Adolf Hitler. New York: First DaCapo Press Edition, (1993) (orig. pub. 1977). ISBN 0-306-80514-6.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Psychobiography" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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