Resistance to DeMause's Findings:
Sunk Cost of Historical Interpretations
That Omit Human Love

by James C. Duffy

". . . (T)he facts presented by deMause can leave us with no reasonable doubt, in my view,
that the most important improvements in childrearing have to do in general
with increments in the quality and quantity of parental love and protection
that better shielded children from the mind-numbing huge variety of horrible traumas
that have been routinely inflicted on children everywhere
and throughout history until very recently."

--James C. Duffy, Ph.D.

Lloyd deMause's latest accomplishment revealing that human beings are only recently in history recovering from dissociative identity disorder is so rich with supporting empirical evidence that he has justified his revolutionary conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt. [ See The Evolution of Psyche and Society ]

Mark Twain asked, How many times does one have to see a two-headed calf before believing it? His point was that one sighting alone could suffice to make one a believer of some things. Some conclusions, you see, are so nearly self-evident that they just do not require embellished methodologies or intricately complex theorizing in order to arrive at radically significant conclusions. But if what one observes in one's research is reliably found again and again, then no matter how apparently controversial the observations, there is required of us no elaborate inferential methodology to arrive confidently at a true conclusion.


One of the most extraordinary things about deMause's research methodology is that it is long on facts, culled with extraordinary thoroughness and from so many reliable and varied historical observations, and short on inferential conjecture. He grimly shows us fact after fact that all point in the same direction -- human beings' recovery from and movement beyond traumatic childrearing is the engine of social progress.

It is self-evident that conclusions based on many facts and little theory ought to be regarded as more trustworthy than those based on much theory and few facts. DeMause provides facts that need very little theory since the terrible facts he presents virtually speak for themselves. They are also facts that lead us through an extraordinary account of the evolution of the human psyche from its earliest chronically dissociated state to its modern psychoneurotic state. The most startling conclusion--startling not least of all because it is now shown so likely to be true--is that the average person before modern times lived his or her life with the effects of childhood trauma in a dissociated state with many different alter selves. The implications for the entire study of history and of all the human sciences are vast and profound.

The conclusion about the reality of our routinely traumatized and dissociated ancestors could reasonably be called a mere summary description of the historical record. In my judgment, therefore, it is far easier to believe the conclusion that our ancestors suffered routine trauma-based chronic dissociative states than to believe that there are today, and probably will continue to be for some time into the future, many intelligent persons who will resist this summary and conclusion. And because of their resistance, they will seek to discredit this conclusion, as well as much of the evidence upon which it is based, that deMause has laboriously made possible for humankind's self-discovery. I will have some speculative comments later in this essay about possible motivation for this resistance.


An efficient further inference from what deMause has demonstrated in The Evolution of the Psyche and Society is that the evolution of the human psyche coincides with the evolution of society, especially in regard to humanitarian and technological advances. Anything that qualifies as human progress throughout history now stands starkly revealed--exposed, really, from behind a curtain of shame-filled denial that has kept these truths in hiding. What is now revealed is that progress consists in movement away from humankind's desperate struggle to survive as traumatized and dissociated personalities, and toward human personalities today that are able and willing to love and help one another as individuals who are treated as dignified and respect-worthy persons.

The most recent and advanced stage of social and individual psychic development is what favors helping-mode parenting and is made possible by it. But helping-mode parenting has only recently appeared on the historical stage. It has appeared noticeably only recently and only for a rela­tively small number of parents. Just why deMause concludes that improvement in humankind's psychic and social evolution can be most efficiently attributed to better parenting occurring more often is an issue that deserves elaboration.


It is important to keep in mind, as deMause explains, that the child of prehistory was born with precisely the same psyche as contemporary newborns. Note this carefully: precisely the same psyche!

This is such an important fact to contemplate. If genetic changes in the human brain over time do not explain the more unified selves of today's adults as compared to adults of prehistory, then what else can explain this human progress in adult personality functioning? The answer is that improved childrearing explains the more unified selves of modern human adults. To understand why this answer seems to be the most efficient, consider two different approaches that one can take in approaching this issue. Consider first that adult functioning could change over time as a result of three possible antecedent conditions:

1. Changes in genetic endowment, in the psyches children are born with,
2. changes in childrearing, in experiences from childhood to adulthood, and
3. improvements in general living conditions.

We know that children have the same psyches they had in prehistory; so item (1) is irrelevant. Item (3), improvements in general living conditions, could also be hypothesized to account for improvements in adult personality functioning over time. So the first approach we can take in addressing the issue of what accounts for improvements over time in adult functioning is to say that it is adequately explained by item (3).

A problem with this explanation, however, is that it is difficult to imagine how improvements in the general conditions in which human beings lived would have come about, since we now know our ancestors were severely traumatized as children and thus lived in a state of chronic dissociation as adults the further back in time we go. That is, they would have had to live with an enormous amount of crippling terror and delusion and be effectively unable to create significant improvements in their general living conditions. Fortuity would then be left to "explain" improved general living conditions, but chance is an "explanation" we give when we have no explanation for something.

So we consider the second approach we can take in addressing the issue of what accounts for improvements in adult personality functioning. Thus we can say that item (2) is the antecedent precondition for item (3), via the causal mediation of improvements in adult personality functioning... Accordingly, we account for improvements in adult personality functioning by reference to adults' having had better childrearing, and then use improvements in adult personality functioning as the mediating causal explanation for improvements in general living conditions.

This second approach explains both better adult personality functioning and general living conditions, while attributing neither of these improvements to chance. Moreover, if we take seriously the findings from more than a century of clinical studies of human personality development, such that we believe that one's childrearing really does matter with respect to what kind of adult personality one will have, then we can be confident that adults can be expected to function better when treated better as children.

This second explanatory approach, however, identifying a causal chain that attributes causal primacy to better childrearing, which then produced better adult functioning, which then mediated improvements in general living conditions, still leaves us wanting an explanation of how child­rearing itself was able to improve or, at least, what general features of child-rearing improved over time. No explanation can ever explain everything one may wish to know about a phenomenon, of course. Nonetheless, evidence is clearly accessible, thanks mostly to deMause's research, allowing us to confidently assert that childrearing did improve and that it improved in a general way that can be precisely stated.


There is room for disagreement about just what specific improvements in child-rearing have been responsible for better adult functioning over the centuries. One can dispute, that is, the facts that allow us to know specifically which particular aspects of childrearing that have improved over the centuries can account for human progress. But the facts as presented by deMause can leave us with no reasonable doubt, in my view, that the most important improvements in childrearing have to do in general with increments in the quality and quantity of parental love and protection that better shielded children from the mind-numbing huge variety of horrible traumas that have been routinely inflicted on children everywhere and throughout history until very recently.


Another insightful discovery presented in this recent prodigious research by deMause refers to something that is also radically significant in unmasking the truth of institutions that remain influential today. I am referring to the complex relationship between animal alter-spirits, religion, and the func­tion of religion as a device for inventing idealized authorities and exteriorization rituals. Animal alter spirits are a central feature of early religions. However, deMause has made clear for us the symbolism between human infancy and non-verbal or crawling animal images of early religions.

That animal sacrifice represents infantile alter sacrifice now comes into focus in order to explain the psychological meaning of religious sacrificial imagery in general. Religion in general exists to devise rituals to exteriorize alters and form delusions in groups that afford relief from feeling like unlovable children.

This is another legacy of abusive and negligent child­rearing. Religion is thus comparable to politics in providing a means for traumatized human beings to have rituals to exteriorize trauma-induced alters and to idealize authorities in order to defensively and delusionally find protection from re-experiencing abandonment by parents (such abandonment to be expected when one has desires to individuate). When we follow these findings to their conclusion, it is clear that religious and political violence will no longer be part of human society when violence against children no longer has any part of human childrearing.


In order to understand what I have to offer about the likely motivation of persons who find it difficult to accept the findings about the chronic dissociative traumatized condition of humankind throughout much of history, I need to explain two concepts: (1) sunk costs and (2) the greater suffering from disappointment in the frustration of a maintenance goal as compared to an acquisitive goal.1


To understand the notion of sunk costs, consider that when one pursues a goal and the pursuit is frustrated as one gradually comes to learn that one cannot really reach the goal, there are useless costs that already have been incurred along the way in what now looks to be a futile pursuit.

Rather than abandoning the pursuit of a goal that can now be seen to be impos­sible to attain, human beings are typically resistant to giving up. This amounts to irrational persistence. We human beings seem to have much difficulty accepting that all costs already incurred in a futile pursuit are sunk, or, as is also said, are stranded costs. These sunk or stranded costs have taken us nowhere near our goal and almost certainly never will; so we must conclude that our past effort and other costs can serve only to teach us we have been on a dead-end pursuit. But we may not want to come to this conclusion no matter how compelling the evidence.

The lost, stranded, or sunk costs in pursuing a goal that now comes into focus as practically impossible to attain are a powerful image that can irrationally sustain still more futile motivation to persist in pursuit of a lost cause. "I've put all this effort into this project, so I'm not going to leave it behind now no matter what!" can be either the rational voice of reasoned optimism or the irrational voice of someone lost in the irrational psychology of being unable to yet accept that one's costs are sunk and will continue to sink more if put into the same old futile pursuit.

In this state of resistance we are irrationally persistent and then are likely to incur still more sunk costs to pursue what is surely a lost cause!2 The ubiquity and power of the psychology of the irrationality of futile persistence when having to confront the harsh reality of sunk costs should not be underestimated. The irrational human persistence in pursuit of lost causes for which one has already incurred many stranded costs is powerful enough, but it is made even more powerful whenever the goal that is unattainable is a "maintenance goal" as opposed to merely an "acquisitive goal." Accordingly, it is important to know the difference between these two kinds of goals.


A maintenance goal exists when the goal we are seeking is anticipated to be almost within reach such that we can also easily anticipate our satisfaction in its achievement. We anticipate so confidently, that is, that we are in an "as if" state of mind in which we feel as if our satisfaction of goal attainment is nearly upon us. So confident do we feel that we actually dwell more and more on the enjoyment of imagining having already attained the goal. This is tantamount to regarding our pursuit of the goal "as if" it were completed, as if, in a sense, the goal has already been achieved and our continuing pursuit of it is merely to maintain our enjoyment in contemplating it.

Maintenance goals are imagined so confidently as just within reach and as already enjoyed in anticipation that pursuing them feels like--but is not--the same thing as merely maintaining the goal. Acquisitive goals, on the other hand, are not so confidently pursued and thus are not felt to be enjoyed or enjoyable until they are finally attained in actuality.

If one has to face the reality of sunk costs in pursuit of an acquisitive goal, the irrationality and suffering from disappointment is not so severe as when having to face the sunk cost of pursuing a maintenance goal. For in the case of frustration of a maintenance goal, one's disappointment is not simply that of having failed to find a sought--after satisfaction; instead one also experiences the frustration as something more--as an actual loss. It is "as if" something were lost since one perceives a frustrated maintenance goal "as if" it has already been attained and then lost--as if one were cheated or robbed of a cherished possession.


What does all of this have to do with resistance to accepting deMause's recent findings and their many implications? The answer is this: What deMause has shown is that any costs one has incurred in pursuit of the maintenance goal of regarding human beings as only having evolved from accumulations of chance improvements in living conditions, or as not having evolved, is now more surely frustrated by a confrontation with prodigious contrary evidence deMause has presented.

It has been the satisfying maintenance goal of many historians and other students of humanity to either romanticize the present psychological and social condition of humanity as simply a fortuitously less naive version of the past, or to regard the past as simply different from today.

These two cherished views are satisfying maintenance goals--sought--after descriptions and conclusions about the essence of humanity. Either goal--either the goal of being able to regard human behavior as not progressing over time, but simply as different at different times, or as progressing but only as a result of chance improvements in living conditions--can no longer be attained as the most likely explanations of the historical development of humankind because of so much contrary evidence that deMause presents.

Clearly deMause has shown that social and psychic progress is evident in history and is a result of advances in the human ability to love such that children may be raised to be better functioning adults. Love as the engine of human social progress, a love most importantly expressed toward children by protecting them more and more from traumatic experiences especially in early life--is a deMausian finding that now shows unmistakably how very stranded and sunk are any costs incurred defending a view of history that fails to recognize the profound causal role of human parental love in creating increasingly humane and intelligent lives for more and more persons on earth.

1 For a more detailed explanation of these concepts of human motivation, see: Miceli, M. and Casteifranchi. C. "Nature and Mechanisms of Loss of Motivation." Review of General Psychology, 4(2000): pp. 238-263.

2The classic study of the psychology of human irrationality when encountering sunk costs is: Arkes. H.R. and Blumer, C. "The Psychology of Sunk Cost." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35 (1985): pp. 124-140.

James C. Dufty, Ph.D., is a former university psychology professor and is now an independent humanistic researcher and educator.

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