The British Psychology Society research blog is reporting on an ace little piece of research about the psychological benefits of thinking about your ancestors, which I’m going to henceforth assume you’ve read. Off you go. (The original paper, referenced at the bottom, is short and also well worth reading if you have an institution log-in.) One of the reasons I liked it is because I have consciously used this “mechanism” myself – usually, it must be said, when situations of physical bravery are required, because I’m such an utter physical coward (teeth! falling over on the ice! hnnnnnnng!), and the study is concentrating on improved intellectual expectations and performance.  But still.

It’s just a preliminary study. I think there could be some two-way trade here with historically and archaeologically attested instances of ancestor worship. That is, future findings could enlarge our understanding of past societies as well as our own. And also, attested cases of historical ancestor worship could suggest directions for the follow-up research, which will attempt to isolate underlying “processes of social identity, family cohesion, self-regulation or norm activation elicited by increased ancestor salience.”

Rome immediately springs to mind as a culture engaged in formal – and quite explicitly performance-related – ancestor worship. The study’s findings of the increased perception of control and the improved promotion orientation (inclination to tackle problems) associated with ancestor salience are certainly quite handy concepts to bring to Roman history. I’m particularly struck by the finding that ancestor salience is just as marked when a subject considers fifteenth-century ancestors as when he or she considers immediate or living forbears. This rules out the possibility that it’s really the fact that individuals are relatively close in time or even known to one that produces the boost to confidence and performance. It made me think of the processions of ancestor masks, stretching into the past, that were carried at Roman funerals even under the Republic – the more venerable, the better.

We tend, I suppose, to conceive of these displays in the received terms of modern aristocracies – “blue blood”, class, noble birth and so on. But it makes perfect sense if these are the outward justifications and defences for what is essentially a beneficial psychological practice – to which everyone, apparently, has access, whether or not they knew who their ancestors actually were. The study suggests that part of the mechanism of ancestor salience is to “increase the cognitive accessibility of things [the study's subjects] learned from [their ancestors] via intergenerational socialization processes” (p2). If this really is how the mechanism works, then a longer line of death masks at a Roman funeral really would be  better – more generations, more useful knowledge.

Mind you, I think the first experiment in the study assumes one of these received terms itself. In measuring the impact of thinking about 15th century ancestors, it instructed subjects as follows (from the paper, p2):

Please imagine your ancestors in the 15th century, that is, your great-great-great-great-great-. . . grandparents. Please imagine what they did at that time, how they lived, what their profession was and how many children they had, etc. Please also imagine what your ancestors from that time would tell you today, if you were still able to meet them.

This is a pre-circumscribed thought experiment because it encourages subjects to believe that they have only one line of ancestors – a “family-sized” line, simplified exactly as aristocracies and patronymic/matronymic systems in general do, and exactly as the Romans were doing with their successive line of masks. Of course, we all have several millions of direct ancestors living in the fifteenth century even allowing for the many duplicates (reckoning on four generations per century. Anyone know the precise way of calculating the number of duplicates? I”m sure there must be one).

It would be difficult to design an experiment to tease out why this simplification down to a single “line” is apparently necessary to ancestor salience (if it is). Is it just because a family-sized unit, or succession of them, can be more comfortably accommodated by our social conditioning? Or is it something more complex and specific to do with the linear nature of an ancestral line itself. Consider this part of the researchers’ hypothesis:

when we think about [our ancestors], we are reminded that humans who are genetically similar to us can successfully overcome a multitude of problems and adversities. In other words, because we are the successors of our ancestors and thus their genetic heritage, we tend to attribute successful problem-solving of our ancestors to our own problem-solving abilities

In other words, survival is being invoked, and by implication survival of the fittest, and that leads one to conceive of ancestry in terms of series of refinements leading down to a “perfect” result in the present (well, we’re here, aren’t we?) Half the population of England died of plague in 1348-9; one big tick against “some natural plague resistance” for the rest – and that “rest” is us. One of the many occasions on which we’ve been collectively winnowed for chaff, and disease resistance is just the most obvious example. Success of the “bloodline” is what I think the researchers are really getting at here.

Separating out the impact of notional lines of ancestry from familial warmth is one nudge Rome’s example could provide to future research. Another is the double-edged sword effect of formal ancestor worship – sure, ancestors may strengthen a sense of confidence and entitlement, but they can also provide an explicit set of targets to meet, and be used as a stick with which to beat errant descendents. So is this ancestral equivalent of parental expectation also operating in modern subjects? Or is it unique to Rome and other societies whose elites consciously emulate ancestors’ activities? Perhaps it cuts both ways, and we seek or imagine parallels between our own lives and ancestral lives – I remember being pleased to discover signs that some of my Mortimer/ore ancestors were nonconformists and part of a fairly radicalised trade (brushmaking, would you believe. Stiff with early radicalism, apparently). I wonder what attributes the study’s subjects imputed to their imagined 15th century ancestors.

One last thing about Rome as compared to the present; everyone alive today in the western world could probably say with confidence that they have it easier than most of their ancestors. Technological and scientific progress virtually guarantee it. So there’s going to be an innate widespread acceptance of the notion that our ancestors survived greater difficulties than we’ll ever have to face (five minutes thinking about the First World War and suddenly that exam or dental appointment doesn’t look so bad).

That isn’t the case with Rome, is it. Of course, plenty of similar mood music seems to surround how Romans thought about ancestors – they were simpler, cleaner, more virtuous, “good honest Romans”, and so on, and this is why they overcame various odds – but their life chances were in many respects the same as those of the descendents invoking them. Indeed, that is what made Roman ancestors such effective weapons of chastisement. We don’t have the same relationship of equals with our ancestors – our life chances are unimaginably better than theirs were. It’s possible that one of the factors future research needs to isolate is whether we’re really being reminded of our ancestors’ “problem-solving abilities” and capacity to overcome odds, or whether they simply cause us to reflect on our own technological and economic good fortune. My First World War/dentist example points that up rather nicely.

So we would have to take care in applying the lessons of modern psychological research in history or archaeology. An interesting way to use this research direction, it  strikes me, would be to identify elements of historical ancestor worship that fit modern findings – and then look at what is left inexplicable. Whatever that is, it may constitute the essence of a relationship that ancient societies had with their ancestors that we can no longer access.

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