On the Problems of Psychobiography – Comment in the American Psychologist

The recently released April issue of American Psychologist includes a comment from myself and Brianne Collins on a recent special section on psychobiography that appeared in the journal. In this brief comment, we outline some of the foundational issues with psychobiographical attempts to analysis contemporary and historical figures through the lens of what is presumed to be universal, ahistorical psychological theories.

“For whose benefit? Comment on the psychobiography special section,” by Jacy L. Young and Brianne M. Collins. Abstract:

This commentary addresses a recent special section on psychobiography that appeared in the pages of the July‚ÄďAugust 2017 American Psychologist. The claims made by the authors of these articles raise a number of serious ethical, scientific, and historical concerns about psychobiography. These concerns include the potential public harm from the indiscriminate analysis of public figures; the inherent problem of publicly analyzing individuals without their participation or consent; overly deterministic conclusions of such analyses; difficulties analyzing figures from a distance and in retrospect; the impossibility of validating psychological theories through singular accounts; the presumption that psychological knowledge is ahistorical; the highly selective nature of psychobiography; and a focus on largely White, male figures as historically significant. These issues highlight the potential risks of this approach for both individuals under analysis and the broader public, while also questioning the professed benefit of psychobiography to psychological science and its value to historical scholarship.

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About Jacy Young

Jacy Young recently completed a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Surrey in the UK. She earned her doctorate in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University in 2014.

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