The term was coined in 1964 by psychologist H. J. Sants, referring to the plight of children who have uncertain, little, or no knowledge of one or both of their natural parents. Sants argued that genealogical bewilderment constituted a large part of the additional stress that adoptees experienced that is not experienced by children being raised by their natural parents .
Sants worked in the same clinic as psychiatrist E. Wellisch, who wrote in a 1952 letter to the journal Mental Health, entitled "Children without genealogy: The problem of adoption":
"Knowledge of and definite relationship to his genealogy is ... necessary for a child to build up his complete body image and world picture. It is an inalienable and entitled right of every person. There is an urge, a call, in everybody to follow and fulfill the tradition of his family, race, nation, and the religious community into which he was born. The loss of this tradition is a deprivation which may result in the stunting of emotional development''
Sorosky, Pannor and Baran drew upon the work of Sants in a number of publications during the 1970s including a book entitled The Adoption Triangle, thus exposing the concept of "genealogical bewilderment" to a larger audience.
According to Jones (1997), identity development presents a challenge for adoptees, especially those in closed adoptions, and describes this "genetic bewilderment" as a logical consequence of a lack of immediate knowledge of their origins:
"[An issue] that surfaces repeatedly in an adoptee's life is that of identity. The development of an identity is a crucial building block for self-esteem, and an adoptee's struggle to achieve a coherent story is often a daunting task. The sense of continuity, of a past and present that is necessary for identity formation (Glen, 1985/1986) is defied in mandates governing closed adoption" (p. 66).
Levy-Shiff (2001, p. 102) elaborated based on findings from a study on adult adoptees:
"Whereas previous studies have documented adoption during childhood and adolescence, the findings of the present study suggest that during adulthood as well, adoptees are at a higher risk for psychological maladjustment. Thus they were found, on average, to have a less coherent and positive self-concept and to manifest more pathological symptomatology than did nonadoptees. ... It has been suggested (Sorosky et al., 1975; Verrier, 1987) that the difficulties in resolving a sense of coherent and positive self-identity is tied to four fundamental psychological issues: ... (4) confusion and uncertainty regarding genealogical continuity, tied to the lack of knowledge about one’s ancestors. Accordingly, the lack of ‘‘biological mutuality’’ among adoptive family members, such as shared biologically based characteristics regarding appearance, intellectual skills, personality traits, and so forth, impedes the adoptee’s ability to identify with adoptive parents. Moreover, the lack of information about one’s biological background is likely to create a ‘‘hereditary ghost’’ which may contribute to a confused, unstable, and distorted sense of self. It is possible that self development does not have closure in adolescence, especially among adoptees, but continues to evolve over the lifespan through reconciliation and integration of many complex perceptions, cognitive systems, and self-object representations. (p. 102).
There is some debate about the contribution of genealogical bewilderment to adoption searches. On other hand, Storm (1988) in the Psychoanalytic Quarterly, summarizes Humphrey and Humphrey (1986) who state that:
"The term genealogical bewilderment refers to a group of psychological problems stemming from lack of knowledge of one's ancestors. Adopted children and children conceived by artificial insemination from an anonymous donor are two examples of groups who may suffer from this problem. The literature is reviewed. Early papers suggested that not knowing about one's ancestors keeps one from developing a secure self-image. More recent work suggests that good surrogate family relationships lead to good development, regardless of the lack of information about biological ancestors, and that the drive to search out biological ancestors usually reflects poor relationships with the surrogate parents.
On the other hand, in a more recent article, Affleck and Steed (2001) state:
"Dissatisfaction with adoptive parents was originally thought to be a motivating factor related to adoptees' searching (Sorosky, et al, 1975; Triseliotis, 1973). However, more recent research has found that the vast majority of adoptees who search have positive relationships with adoptive parents (Pacheco & Eme, 1993) or that the quality of adoptive relationships (either positive or negative) is not associated with a decision to search (Sachdev, 1993).... In fact, the most common reasons for searching given by adoptees are related to four themes: "geneological bewilderment" (adoptees' need for historical connection to resolve identity issues); a need for information, a need to reduce stigma, and a desire to assure the [natural parents] of the adoptees' wellbeing" (p. 38).