Psychohistory (fictional)

Psychohistory is a fictional science in Isaac Asimov's Foundation universe which combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people, such as the Galactic Empire. It was first introduced in the four short stories which would later be collected as the 1951 novel Foundation.


Psychohistory depends on the idea that, while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events. Asimov used the analogy of a gas: An observer has great difficulty in predicting the motion of a single molecule in a gas, but with the kinetic theory can predict the mass action of the gas to a high level of accuracy. Asimov applied this concept to the population of his fictional Galactic Empire, which numbered one quintillion. The character responsible for the science's creation, Hari Seldon, established two axioms:
Ebling Mis added these axioms:
Golan Trevize in Foundation and Earth added this axiom:
Asimov presents the Prime Radiant, a device designed by Hari Seldon and built by Yugo Amaryl, as storing the psychohistorical equations showing the future development of humanity.
The Prime Radiant projects the equations onto walls in some unexplained manner, but it does not cast shadows, thus allowing workers easy interaction. Control operates through the power of the mind, allowing the user to zoom in to details of the equations, and to change them. One can make annotations, but by convention all amendments remain anonymous.
A student destined for Speakerhood has to present an amendment to the plan. Five different boards then check the mathematics rigorously. Students have to defend their proposals against concerted and merciless attacks. After two years the change gets reviewed again. If after the second examination it still passes muster the contribution becomes part of the Seldon Plan.
The Radiant, as well as being interactive, employs a type of colour-coding to equations within itself for ready comprehension by Psychohistorians.
Other colours have been imagined by fans, and mentioned by Asimov, such as:
In his later career, Asimov described some historical origins of psychohistory. In The Robots of Dawn, which takes place thousands of years before Foundation, he describes roboticist Han Fastolfe's attempts to create the science based on careful observation of others, particularly of his daughter Vasilia. Prelude to Foundation suggests that one of Fastolfe's robots, R. Daneel Olivaw, manipulated Seldon into practical application of this science.


The fact that Seldon established a Second Foundation of mental-science adepts to oversee his Seldon Plan might suggest that even Seldon himself had doubts about the ultimate ability of a purely mathematical approach to predicting historical processes, and that he recognized that the development of psychic skills, such as those used by the Mule, had the ability to invalidate the assumptions underlying his models, though he did not predict the appearance of the Mule himself. The Seldon methodology might therefore only work at a certain level of species-development, and would over time become less useful.
Psychohistory has one basic, underlying limitation which Asimov postulated for the first time on the last page of the final book in the Foundation series: psychohistory only functions in a galaxy populated only by humans. In Asimov's Foundation series, humans form the only sentient race that developed in the entire Milky Way Galaxy. Seldon developed psychohistory to predict the actions of large groups of humans. Even robots technically fall under the umbrella of psychohistory, because humans built them, and they thus represent more or less a human "action", or at least, possess a thought-framework similar enough to that of their human creators that psychohistory can predict their actions. However, psychohistory cannot predict the actions of a sentient alien race; their psychology may differ so much from that of humans that normal psychohistory cannot understand or predict their actions.
The end of the series offered two possibilities:
  1. sentient races actually very rarely develop, such that only humans evolved in the Milky Way Galaxy, and in most other galaxies, it appears probable that only one sentient race would develop. However, statistically two or more alien races might evolve in the same galaxy, leading them into inevitable conflict. The fighting in this other galaxy would only end when one race emerged the victor, and after the prolonged conflict with other races, would have developed an aggressive and expansionist mindset. In contrast, humans had never encountered another sentient species in the Milky Way Galaxy, so they never felt greatly compelled to expand to other galaxies, but instead to fight other humans over control of the Milky Way. Eventually, such an aggressive alien race would expand from galaxy to galaxy, and try to invade the Milky Way Galaxy.
  2. through genetic engineering, subsets of humanity could alter themselves so significantly from baseline humans that they could for all intents and purposes be considered "aliens". Specifically exemplifying this theory we find Asimov's Solarians: humans evolved from an old Spacer world who had genetically modified themselves into hermaphrodites with telekinetic mental powers.

    Seldon Plan

Seldon used psychohistory to predict that the Galactic Empire would fall: this was a generations-long process which had already begun, and was too far gone to stop. This would result in a subsequent 30,000 years of barbarism, before the various petty kingdoms of the galaxy eventually aggregated again into a Second Empire. It was possible, however, to use psychohistory to influence future events in such a way that this "Great Interregnum" was shortened from 30,000 years to a mere 1,000. To implement his plan, Seldon creates the Foundations – two groups of scientists and engineers settled at opposite ends of the galaxy – to preserve the spirit of science and civilization, and thus become the cornerstones of the new galactic empire. The First Foundation was located at Terminus, an isolated planet at the fringe of the galaxy, and was tasked with preserving and advancing scientific knowledge. As the outer provinces of the Galactic Empire fragmented politically and declined technologically, the First Foundation would maintain this advantage over them. Secretly, the Second Foundation was focused on psychohistory itself, updating Seldon's predictions as the generations passed and subtly influencing events to ensure that the Plan would succeed.
The Seldon Plan for the First Foundation focused on ten major crises that it would face over then next thousand years. Hari Seldon made a series of holographic recordings about each crisis, set to be revealed one at a time to the Foundation at the predicted time each one occurred. The general outline of the Seldon Plan can be inferred from the Crises:
  1. Balance of Power - the political fragmentation of the galaxy would begin at its outermost fringes, as the Periphery provinces split off into petty interstellar kingdoms, fifty years after the settlement of Terminus. When this came to pass, the region around Terminus itself broke up into the "Four Kingdoms", the most powerful of which was Anacreon. Each of the Four Kingdoms wanted to conquer Terminus to seize its advanced technology. The solution to this crisis was to play off each of the Four Kingdoms against each other, arranging treaties so that a direct invasion by any one of the kingdoms would be met with an immediate counter attack by the other three, ensuring the invading kingdom was defeated before they could make use the Foundation's technology defeat the other kingdoms.
  2. Religion - thirty years later, one of the surrounding barbarian kingdoms would aggregate enough power that even the threat of all its neighbors united against it could no longer deter it. When this came to pass, it was Anacreon. During the intervening time period, the neighboring kingdoms had pressured the Foundation to send them technological aide rather than face conquest - in turn, making them dependent on the Foundation, which actively encouraged the population of these kingdoms to revere their technology with religious awe. Thus when Anacreon attempted a direct attack on the Foundation, its own people revolted against it.
  3. Trade Alone - By about 150 years into the Plan, the religious infiltration of the Foundation into surrounding kingdoms would begin to wear off - due to a combination of time, recovering technological base in other parts of the galaxy, or simply that other barbarian kingdoms wised up to the prior strategy and refused to let Foundation missionaries into their borders. Seldon's own recording stated that a major reason religious/spiritual sway would eventually lose influence was due to a growing sense of regionalism/nationalism among the barbarian kingdoms, in which the prior rule of the Galactic Empire was beyond living memory. By this point, however, the Foundation would become enough of an economic power, that it could wield this as a non-violent weapon. Through trade alone, barbarian kingdoms would become dependent on Foundation technology, and then could be blockaded into submission without firing a shot. This passed as predicted, using an economic blockade to defeat the Republic of Korell.
  4. Foundation and Empire - Two centuries into the Plan, the Foundation's growing trade hegemony in the Periphery would grow large enough that it would attract the direct attention of the Galactic Empire - mighty even in decay. While by that point the Empire only retained control over the inner third of the galaxy, these interior provinces had always been their core powerbase, controlling three-quarters of the galaxy's wealth and population. This happened as predicted: the last great general of the Empire, Bel Riose, serving its last great emperor, Cleon II, launched a campaign to conquer the Foundation. This time there was no masterstroke that the Foundation needed to win other than sheer tenacity, as the Empire was doomed to fail: a weak general was no threat to them, while a strong general under a weak emperor would rather conquer the centers of imperial power than the Foundation at its fringe. The only scenario that would result in an attack was a strong general under a strong emperor, but inherently, that emperor would see the general's growing conquests as a threat and eventually remove him - Cleon II ultimately had Bel Riose arrested on false charges of treason, after which the Empire experienced numerous civil wars and its rate of decline drastically increased. The strong general and emperor could never be the same person, because if the emperor went to conquer the fringes in person, usurpers would rise up in the central provinces.
  5. Independent Traders - Three centuries into the Plan, the Foundation's sphere of influence would expand enough that Terminus was no longer the only center of economic power. The "Merchant Princes" on its border worlds, selling technology to barbarian kingdoms, would become powerful in their own right. Meanwhile, the central power of the Mayors of Terminus would grow increasingly corrupt, as wealth became concentrated. The independent traders would revolt against the central authority of the Mayor of Terminus, and although they would ultimately lose, the civil war would nonetheless result in key social and political reforms that would undo the corruption that instigated the crisis. In many ways the Foundation would experience the same problems that led to the decline of the Empire, although it would become stronger for doing so. The conditions for this Crisis to occur happened as predicted - the Mayor became a hereditary office, inherited by the incompetent descendant of once-competent predecessors, and the consortium of Independent Traders began talks where they mentioned rebellion. The crisis did not pass as predicted, the first of Seldon's Crises to not occur when predicted. Indeed, a hologram of Seldon appeared and discussed the Crisis, and how it would've been solved, before a large audience that was occupied by a different crisis.
  6. *Seldon's Plan was totally upset by the unpredicted appearance of the Mule, a mutant with the telepathic powers to control people's minds - 'mentalic' powers. The Mule conquered the Foundation, and the Independent Trader worlds, and swept aside the last remnants of the Galactic Empire. The Mule, however, was eventually defeated by the Second Foundation, which was also focused on developing mentalic powers in order to guide Seldon's Plan with a firm hand, ensuring that either important events occur as predicted, or that the consequences of those events are managed such that the original event might as well have passed as predicted. With the Mule defeated, The Second Foundation then essentially "fakes its own death", convincing the resurgent First Foundation that the Second Foundation had existed but was now destroyed, to fulfill the tenet of psychohistory that the target population must not be aware they are being influenced, lest it alter their behaviors. Knowing that they were being influenced would be an additional influence.
  7. This Seldon Crisis was not described.
  8. This Seldon Crisis was not described.
  9. Relocating the Capital - after 500 years, the people of Foundation would be in a position to consider moving their capital from Terminus, safe at the edge of the Galaxy, to a point much closer to the centre. While this debate did occur, this Crisis was not, as the others had been, a focal point for the narrative, and is given is less detail. The debate is ostensibly about moving the capital for economic purposes but, five centuries after the creation of the Foundation, halfway through the 1,000 year long "Great Interregnum", the Foundation, now known as the Foundation Federation, is now in a position of great power. Therefore there is an underlying debate about obeying Seldon's Plan or following a different path - they directly controlled one third of the galaxy, spread out from Terminus at the edge. They had faced no other major galactic rivals since the defeat of the First Galactic Empire, with the greatest threat in that time being internal enemies that could form if it expanded too recklessly. The Foundation's control over so much territory led to a push to move the capital closer to the center. Ultimately this was rejected and the capital remained on Terminus, as Seldon predicted. Moving the capital closer to the center of their own territories, and thus the galaxy as a whole, would only embolden the Foundation to consider beginning campaigns into the territory of the powerful Interior provinces that once formed the core of the Galactic Empire, which would carry significant risk. To ensure a stable absorption, the Foundation could only accumulate these territories gradually over the next five centuries.
  10. This Seldon Crisis was not described. Following events occurring in Foundation's Edge, there is a high likelihood neither the ninth or tenth Seldon Crisis occurred. Alternatively, given that Seldon was aware of Olivaw's plan for Galaxia, it is possible that the final two crises were actually dealing with it, or, with the inherent limits of psychohistory.
  11. This Seldon Crisis was not described.
1,000 years after the creation of the Foundation, having survived 10 Seldon Crises, Seldon's Plan predicted that it would control and unify the entire galaxy, forming a Second Galactic Empire. According to the Second Foundation in Foundation's Edge, who had maintained Seldon's original plan with revisions and corrective actions where necessary, the specific goal for this Second Empire was to make it a "Federated Empire" - with more power shared with the provinces so that the central government wouldn't become corrupt and decline as Trantor once had.

Asimov on psychohistory

On September 25, 1987, Asimov gave an interview to Terry Gross on her National Public Radio program, Fresh Air.
In it, Gross asked him about psychohistory:

Asimovian psychohistory and similar concepts in other fiction

Polymath Adolphe Quetelet developed in the 19th century what he called "social physics". Quetelet studied the statistical laws underlying the behaviour of what he called "average man".
Some individuals and groups, inspired by Asimov's psychohistory, seriously explore the possibility of a working psychohistory not unlike the one imagined by Asimov—a statistical study of history that could help in the formulation of some "theory of history" and perhaps become a tool of historical prediction.
Complexity theory, an offshoot of chaos mathematics theory, explored by Stuart Kauffman in his books "At Home in the Universe" and "Redefining the Sacred" cover the concept of statistical modeling of sociological evolutions. The concept was also explored in "Order Out of Chaos" by Ilya Prigogine.
Another theory that has similarities to Psychohistory is "Generational Dynamics" proposed by John J. Xenakis, where he proposes, "Generational Dynamics is a historical methodology that analyzes historical events through the flow of generations, and uses the analysis to forecast future events by comparing today's generational attitudes to those of the past". Essentially, generations immediately after a major crisis event will be unwilling to live through such events again and will be risk-averse. Generations after them may well be aware of previous crisis events, but will be more risk-tolerant, as they have not been exposed to the crisis themselves. Xenakis states that this allows one to predict future crisis events by analyzing the current generation's outlooks.
For similar ideas see Peter Turchin's WAR AND PEACE AND WAR: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations - his science is called cliodynamics.
Nathan Eagle and Alex Pentland have developed useful techniques for predicting human behavior through statistical analysis of smartphone data.
At the 67th science-fiction world convention in Montreal, Paul Krugman, the Nobel laureate in Economics, mentioned Hari Seldon, a central character in Foundation who was a psychohistorian, as his inspiration to study Economics since it is the closest thing to Psychohistory.
The Living Earth Simulator, a platform of the proposed FuturICT project, aims to simulate social and economic developments on a global scale in order to anticipate and predict global phenomena, like for example financial crisis. For similar ideas see Dan Braha's work on predicting the behavior of global civil unrest. This work demonstrates, based on historical records and mathematical modeling, the existence of universal patterns of collective unrest across countries and regions.
The evolving field of behavioral economics embodies elements of Asimov's psychohistory.
Looking at several revealed conspiracies, the estimated chance of a conspiracy being busted is 4 parts per million per year per conspirator, combining history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people.
The 3 February 2017 issue of Science has a special section "Prediction and Its Limits". This section has articles on many mathematical techniques of predicting human behavior, and explicitly compares them to Asimov's psychohistory.

In role-playing games

Psychohistory appears in the Traveller science-fiction role-playing game, released in 1977. The alien race known as the Hivers use extensive manipulation of other cultures based on psychohistorical data to achieve their own ends. Rumors ascribe the assassination of the Third Imperium's Emperor Strephon to a Hiver manipulation based on psychohistorical data indicating the eventual fall of the Third Imperium. Humans in the setting have also attempted to use psychohistory, but with less skill or success; the Psionic Suppressions resulted, unknown to most, from an experiment in psychohistory that got out of control and went much farther than the experimenters intended.

Literary influences

Some literary critics have described Asimov's psychohistory as a reformulation of Karl Marx's theory of history, though Asimov denied any direct influence. Arguably, Asimov's psychohistory departs significantly from Marx's general theory of history based on modes of production in that psychohistory is predictive, and in that psychohistory is extrapolated from individual psychology and even from physics.
Psychohistory also has echoes of modernization theory and of work in the social sciences that by the 1960s would lead to attempts at large-scale social prediction and control such as Project Camelot.
Poul Anderson used a similar concept in his earlier future history, known as The Psychotechnic League. In the story Marius, set in the aftermath of the Third World War, the Finnish Professor Valti invents the science of Psychodynamics, which is very similar to Seldon's Psychohistory, and which is used to help rebuild the devastated Earth. In later stories Valti's disciples in the Psychotechnic Institute subtly "guide" the world much as Asimov's Second Foundation does on the Galactic scale.

Similar concepts