Can Historians Study the Mind?

By Carys Brown

Carys is a studying for an MPhil in Early Modern History. Her current research is on trust, Catholicism, and confessional co-existence, c. 1688-1750.

Looking into the minds of people who have been dead for 300 years may seem like something of an impossible task. Since the 1970s, however, historians have increasingly attempted just that. A focus on ‘mentalities’ and ideology has demanded creative uses of source material in an attempt to tap into past minds. This has included turning to other disciplines, such as anthropology, sociology, and psychology for methodologies new to history. Yet enriching as such interdisciplinary work may be, the tricky problem of how to understand worlds very different to ours remains.

My current work, on the idea of ‘trust’ in early eighteenth-century England and how this shaped relationships between Catholics and Protestants, has forced me to engage with this issue. I had examined the meanings of trust as used in contemporary print, but this brought me no closer to being able to think about the reasons behind trust or mistrust. For this, I needed to know how trust works. This meant turning towards psychology.

Reading about the conditions in which trust may be established in a laboratory context allowed me to think in a new way about exactly why it might have been difficult for Protestants and Catholics to trust one another in this period. One of the key stereotypes of Catholics presented in the press during this period was that they were secretive and devious, whereas trust relationships demand a degree of certainty about the intention of the other party involved. Laboratory experiments have also shown that trust relationships usually require that both parties can see that the relationship is in their long-term interest. Catholics, as a persecuted minority, might well have been able to see the benefits of protection or support from a Protestant friend, but for most Protestants there was seemingly little they could gain from such a relationship. This makes situations in which Protestants did build trust relationships with Catholics appear all the more significant. Studying the work of modern psychologists enabled me to picture a framework within which past people could and couldn’t trust one another.

This is all very well, but I am plagued by a sense that it doesn’t quite work. Recent research on the genetic and environmental origins of human behavioural traits has shown not only that ‘nurture’ can be more important that ‘nature’ in determining how we behave, but that the relative influence of each is different in different places in the UK. This raises something of a problem for my use of modern-day psychology to understand past relationships. Given the clear importance of our environment in how we behave, we might consider that the way we built relationships and understood them was rather different in the past. My use of psychology was labouring under the assumption that there are innate human characteristics that determine whether or not we trust one another. There probably are, but there are also probably a large number of environmental factors, variable across time and space, which affect human relationships.

Should I then abandon all attempt to engage with psychological research on this issue and retreat to the familiarity of the archives? Not necessarily. Psychological neural-pathways-221719_1280definitions of trust have given me a framework to work within where I was previously somewhat lost. I am not restricted by this and the archival evidence I find may cause me to deviate from it, but to study human relationships, past or present, without trying to understand the mechanics behind them would seem distinctly foolhardy. Who better to advise on matters of the mind than the psychologists who study it?


Further reading:

  • O.S.P. Davis, C.M.A. Haworth, C.M. Lewis, and R. Plomin, ‘Visual analysis of geocoded twin data puts nature and nurture on the map’, Molecular Psychiatry, 17 (2012) 867-874.
  • David Good, ‘Individuals, Interpersonal Relations, and Trust’ in Diego Gambetta, ed., Trust. Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988).
  • Colin Haydon, Anti-Catholicism in Eighteenth-Century England, c. 1714-80: A Political and Social Study (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993).
  • Lewis M. Terman, ‘Should the Historian Study Psychology?’, Pacific History Review, 10, 2 (June 1941), pp. 209-216.
  • Charles Tilly, Trust and Rule (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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