Social Psychology

Chapter 1: Social Psychology as a Science of Individual Behavior and Consciousness

Floyd Henry Allport

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The Present Standpoint in Psychology. Psychology is the science which studies behavior and consciousness. Of these two terms behavior is placed first because it is an explanatory principle, and therefore more fundamental. The essential formula for behavior is as follows: (1) Some need is present in the organism, such as the necessity of withdrawing from weapons injuring the body, or the need to obtain food or to secure a mate. The need may also be of a derived and complex order; for example, the necessity of solving some problem upon which the satisfaction of the more elementary wants depends. (2) The organism acts: it behaves in such a manner as to satisfy the need.

Need, in the sense here employed, signifies a biological maladjustment. The relation existing between the organism and its surroundings is injurious rather than beneficial to life, and must be changed if the individual is to survive. More specifically, a need arises when certain objects excite the external sense organs, as in an injury to the skin; or when muscular changes in the internal organs, as in hunger, excite sense organs inside the body. These excitations, or stimulations, set up a current of nervous energy which is propagated inward to the central nervous system and outward again to the muscles controlling bodily movement, causing them to act in such a way as to fulfill the need through which the chain of events originated; that is, in the examples used, to withdraw front harm and to obtain food. The making of these adaptive movements is called the reaction.

But the word 'need' may be used in another sense beside that of

(2) biological requirement. It may denote a felt, or conscious, lack, as when we say we feel hunger or feel the need of companionship. Need in this sense is a part of the immediate and private experience of each individual. We can never be directly aware of the felt needs of others; they can only be inferred by observing their behavior when they are biologically maladjusted to their surroundings (need in the former sense). This personal awareness which accompanies behavior extends to other facts beside need or desire. We are aware of the stimulating object, aware of fear or anger when these emotions are a part of our adjustment to it, aware of our purpose in making the reaction, and of our thinking and acting toward that end. These conscious states likewise are known in others only by inference from appropriate reactions.

It is clear that consciousness stands in some intimate relation to the biological need and the behavior which satisfies it. Just what this relation is still constitutes an unsolved and perplexing problem. One negative conclusion, however, seems both justified and necessary as a working principle: namely, that consciousness is in no way a cause of the bodily reactions through which the needs are fulfilled. Explanation is not derived from desire, feeling, will, or purpose, however compelling these may seem to our immediate awareness, but from the sequence of stimulation —  neural transmission —  and reaction. Consciousness often accompanies this chain of events; but it never forms a link in the chain itself.[1]

To present detailed evidence for the stand we have just taken would lead us too far afield. If the reader is inclined to challenge this hypothesis, this book should be weighed as an argument for its validity. Any hypothesis must rest its case upon its capacity for explaining the phenomena with which it deals, in this case the phenomena of human action. If it fails in this, it must be rejected.

(3) While there remain many problems yet to be solved, a material advance has been made in psychology since the adoption of the mechanistic and behavior viewpoint. Much of the confusion resulting from including conscious or 'mental' entities in the sequence of cause and effect has been dispelled; and there is promise of wide future development under the guidance of the behavior hypothesis.

There are a few psychologists who maintain that, since consciousness does not explain events, it has no place in the science which studies behavior. This is a serious mistake. No scientist can afford to ignore the circumstances attendant upon the events be is observing. Introspection on conscious states is both interesting in itself and necessary for a complete account. The consciousness accompanying reactions which are not readily observable also furnishes us with valuable evidence and information of these reactions, and thus aids us in our selection of explanatory principles within the mechanistic field. The phenomena we shall study in this book comprise both behavior and consciousness, with emphasis upon the former because it holds the key to explanation. The introspective account will aid in our interpretations and will supplement them upon the descriptive side. Having outlined the position of present-day psychology as a whole, we may now approach the special branch which is our present interest.

The Province of Social Psychology. Behavior in general may be regarded as the interplay of stimulation and reaction between the individual and his environment. Social behavior comprises the stimulations and reactions arising between an individual and the social portion of his environment; that is, between the individual and his fellows. Examples of such behavior would be the reactions to language, gestures, and other movements of our fellow men, in contrast with our reactions toward non-social objects, such as plants, minerals, tools, and inclement weather. The significance of social behavior is exactly the same as that of non-social namely, the correction of the individual's biological maladjustment to his environment. In and through others many of our most urgent wants are fulfilled; and our behavior toward them is based on the same fundamental needs as our reactions toward all objects, social

(4) or non-social.[2] It is the satisfaction of these needs and the adaptation of the individual to his whole environment which constitute the guiding principles of his interactions with his fellow men.

Social Psychology as a Science of the Individual. The Group Fallacy. Impressed by the closely knit and reciprocal nature of social behavior, some writers have been led to postulate a kind of 'collective mind' or 'group consciousness' as separate from the minds of the individuals of whom the group is composed. No fallacy is more subtle and misleading than this. It has appeared in the literature under numerous guises; but has everywhere left the reader in a state of mystical confusion. Several forms of this theory will be examined presently. The standpoint of this book may be concisely stated as follows. There is no psychology of groups which is not essentially and entirely a psychology of individuals. Social psychology must not be placed in contradistinction to the psychology of the individual; it is a part of the psychology of the individual, whose behavior it studies in relation to that sector of his environment comprised by his fellows. His biological needs are the ends toward which his social behavior is a developed means. Within his organism are provided all the mechanisms by which social behavior is explained. There is likewise no consciousness except that belonging to individuals. Psychology in all its branches is a science of the individual. To extend its principles to larger units is to destroy their meaning.

Psychological Forms of the Group Fallacy. 1. The 'Crowd Mind.'The most flagrant form of the group fallacy is the notion of 'crowd consciousness.' It has long been observed that persons in an excited mob seem to lose control of themselves, and to be swept along by tempestuous emotions and impelling ideas. It is therefore alleged that there is a lapse of personal consciousness and a rise of a common or 'crowd ' consciousness. The objections to this view are fairly obvious. Psychologists agree in regarding

(5) consciousness as dependent upon the functioning of neural structure. Nervous systems are possessed by individuals; but there is no nervous system of the crowd. Secondly, the passing emotion or impulse common to the members of a crowd is not to be isolated introspectively from the sensations and feelings peculiar to the individual himself.

Another argument for crowd mind proceeds as follows. The turbulent and riotous deeds of a mob point to the existence of a 'mob consciousness,' for such behavior would be quite unthinkable for men in their right minds taken separately and in isolation. There is an element of absurdity in this argument: we are asked to explain the nature of crowd action by considering the individuals in isolation; that is, when there is no crowd at all. The mere adding up of the reactions of isolated individuals has no meaning whatsoever beyond mere enumeration. But given the situation of the crowd — that is, of a number of persons within stimulating distance of one another —  we shall find that the actions of all are nothing more than the sum of the actions of each taken separately. When we say that the crowd is excited, impulsive, and irrational, we mean that the individuals in it are excited, impulsive, and irrational. It is true that they would probably not be in this state if they were in isolation from one another; but that means that only in the close group each is so stimulated by the emotional behavior of others that he becomes excited to an unusual degree. The failure to take note of these interstimulations and reactions between individuals has given rise to the illusion that a 'crowd mind' suddenly descends upon the individuals and takes possession of them. The crowd as a whole has been attended to rather than the individual members. Spectacular mob action has thus combined with loose terminology to draw attention away from the true source of crowd explanation, namely, the individual.

2. The ‘Collective, or Class, Mind.' Another sense in which the group is sometimes tail to possess a consciousness and behavior of its own is in the sameness of thought and action among the members of such a body as an army, a political party, or a trade union. In these groupings the uniformities of mind are considered as elevated to the position of a separate entity participated in by all. One

(6) hears, for instance, such phrases as "the spirit of the meeting," "the community of opinion," "the army personality," and "esprit de corps." If these terms are used in a literal, rather than a metaphoric, sense, they partake of the group fallacy. A particular segment of the individual's life is picked out because of its similarity with the corresponding segments in other individuals, and is set up as a separate psychological entity. The question, of course, arises as to what becomes of the spirit of the meeting when it is broken up and the minds of its members are concerned with other matters; or what becomes of the army personality when the soldier is off on furlough. The answer to the latter question is that the so-called 'army personality' is merely a set of military habits belonging to the individual. He retains these as neurological patterns when off on leave, and employs them in action when under military duty. He does not suddenly acquire the 'mind of the army' upon coming into the presence of his fellow soldiers, any more than a man attains skill upon the violin by coming into an assembly of accomplished violinists. In both cases we are dealing with individually acquired habits.

Collective consciousness and behavior are simply the aggregation of those states and reactions of individuals which, owing to similarities of constitution, training, and common stimulations, are possessed of a similar character. Many social applications follow from this homogeneity. All men in political life try to "keep their finger on the pulse of the public," and neglecting minor dissensions strike the high peak of the curve of "public opinion." In this sense the collective mind is not an entity in itself, but a practical working concept. It is a convenient designation for certain universal types of reaction which interest political leaders because they represent points of contact with thousands of separate individuals and therefore serve as means of acquiring widespread control. Thus 'collective opinion' exists only in the form of a class concept or symbol of thought.

Similarly, the General issues an order and all the men of the division or army obey as one man. Owing to disciplined and uniform response, he is able to handle this body of men as if it were one individual, but with a result a thousand-fold more potent. It is

(7) expedient, therefore, to speak of the entire body as a unit, and call it an army, a corps, or a division. We must not forget, however, that the 'one-ness' lies not in the army as an entity, but solely in the ability of its members to act uniformly and to be controlled as one man. It is in the General's attitude toward the aggregation rather than in the aggregation itself. The General issues his orders to the army; but it is always individual men who obey the orders.

Language makes it possible for us to speak conveniently about the collective exploits of a body of this sort. We say "the army captured the city" and are as correctly understood as though we had said "the individuals of the army captured the city." Similarly, we state that the 'crowd' stoned the martyr or stormed the Bastille. But language also has its disadvantages. So long as we speak of overt action there is no possibility of confusion —  we obviously mean that individuals performed the acts in all cases. When, however, we read in the words of the older social writers that the crowd 'feels' and 'wills,' or 'is emotional,' 'intolerant,' 'immoral,' and the like, we come perilously near to regarding the crowd as possessing a mind of its own, apart from the minds of its individual members. The very intangibility of these states, combined with the striking vehemence of their manifestation, aids language in establishing this illusion.

In cases, therefore, where psychological factors are involved, it is better to use the less facile but more exact phrase, "the individuals in the crowd are emotional, intolerant, immoral," and so on. This is no mere pedantry; for it lays the emphasis upon the true source to which we must look for an explanation of crowd phenomena. If we believe that it is the crowd mind rather than the individual's which exhibits the altered phases of consciousness, all explanation fades into mere description. Crowds, for example, are alleged to be irrational or suggestible merely because that is the nature of crowd mentality. Thus crowd behavior is explained in terms of what crowds generally do —  a circular explanation, indeed! There is, moreover, according to this view no reason for one crowd to exhibit different mental characteristics from another; all are subject to the same laws of emotionality, irrationality, simple-mindedness, and the like. Against these inadequacies and fallacies we must again

(8) urge the importance of going below group phenomena to a deeper level, the individual in the group. It is only through social psychology as a science of the individual that we can avoid the superficialities of the crowd mind and collective mind theories.

3. The 'Group Mind.' A third form of the group fallacy remains to be considered. This is the notion that a social mind exists, not in crowd consciousness nor mental collectivity, but in the sense of permanent organization. People are said to be closely united through attitudes of mutual respect and coöperation, and through adherence to a culture, a tradition, or a symbol of national life. Institutions fix these various forms of human association, and carry them into the very center of the individual's life. A university, for example, consists essentially, not of buildings, equipment, or even specific professors, but of a system of ideals and interrelations among human beings expressed in intangible, and, as some consider, mental form. The mind of this sort of group is therefore a kind of 'mental structure' of organization, distinguishable from the minds of the individual members. Individuals may come and go; but this organized mental life goes on indefinitely. The age-old solidarity of the Catholic Church, the Jewish race, or the English nation illustrates this form of social entity to which a mental existence is ascribed separate from the existence of the individuals composing it.

When closely examined this hypothesis appears to be a subtle variety of the collectivity and crowd theories. The organization of a university exists really in the attitudes which individual teachers and students have toward one another and toward the body of recorded and transmitted rules and traditions of the institution. We have here a collection of similar response tendencies. Each member also knows that the others respect and obey the standards which they all hold in common in the same way that he respects and obeys them; and this awareness seems to knit the group more firmly together. This again is simply a set of common ideals and feelings rendered more uniform by the conscious effects of one individual upon another. It is a type of uniformity differing only in complexity from the unified responses of the collectivity theory.

(9) In order to answer the question where this mental structure of the group exists, we must refer again to the individual. Nationality, Free-Masonry, Catholicism, and the like are not group minds expressed in the individual members of these bodies; they are sets of ideals, thoughts, and habits repeated in each individual mind and existing only in those minds.[3] They are not absorbed in some mysterious way from the group life, nor are they inherited. They are learned by each individual from the specific language and behavior of other individuals. Where such continuity of social contact ceases the organized life of the group disappears. Were all the individuals in a group to perish at one time, the so-called 'group mind' would be abolished forever. It is not necessary to have the same personnel for continuity of group structure; but there must be some personnel.

Conclusions regarding the Social Mind. At every point we are thus led back to the individual as the locus of all that we may call 'mind.' Alike in crowd excitements, collective uniformities, and organized groups, the only psychological elements discoverable are in the behavior and consciousness of the specific persons involved. All theories which partake of the group fallacy have the unfortunate consequence of diverting attention from the true locus of cause and effect, namely, the behavior mechanism of the individual. They place the group prior to this mechanism in order of study, and substitute description of social effects in place of true explanation. On the other hand, if we take care of the individuals, psychologically speaking, the groups will be found to take care of themselves. The reasons for our repeated insistence upon regarding social psychology as a phase of the psychology of the individual should now be fairly evident.

Biological Forms of the Group Fallacy. The psychological varieties of the social entity hypothesis have a curious parallel upon the biological side. Many analogies have been pointed out between the human organism and the organized group or society.

(10) Plato likened the three portions of the ideal state, the rulers, the warriors, and the workers, to the three corresponding portions of the body, the head, the breast, and the abdomen respectively. Spencer found the 'body politic' to resemble the human body in its distributing agencies (arteries) and its controlling and communicating functions (nerves), etc. Another theory assigns separate minds to (1) individual cells in the organism itself, (2) the organism as a collection of these cells, and hence (3) society as an aggregation of conscious organisms.[4] This last theory combines the notion of the social organism with that of the social mind. Where these biological formulations are advanced only as metaphors (as in the case of Plato and Spencer), they can scarcely be called fallacies. As analogies they are picturesque but exaggerated. Although we can readily agree that there is organization within social groups, it is difficult to speak seriously of these groups as organisms. In the first place, there is no continuity of tissue between the units of the group as there is between cells and organs of the body. Secondly, the organization of the individual's body is based upon integration, or the welfare of the entire individual; whereas, in the social body, the controlling principle of organization and function is the interest of the parts; that is, the separate individuals.[5]

The individual, then, is the true organism, as he is the psychological unit of society. The group merely furnishes him with a social environment in which he may react. And organized society is essentially a set of rules for guiding his reactions so that they do not trespass upon the life processes of his fellow organisms.

Social Psychology and Sociology. Behavior, consciousness, and organic life belong strictly to individuals; but there is surely occasion for speaking of the group as a whole so long as we do not regard it as an organism or a mental entity. The study of groups is, in fact, the province of the special science of sociology. While the social psychologist studies the individual in the group, the sociologist deals with the group as a whole. He discusses its formulation solidarity, continuity, and change. Psychological data, such

(11) as innate reactions and habitual and emotional tendencies of individuals, are explanatory principles upon which sociology builds in interpreting the life of groups. Other sciences also contribute to the same end. Certain sociologists speak of these universal human reactions as "social forces." For example, hatred of a common enemy may be designated as a social force in a country at war. The social psychologist's task is in this case the explanation of the causes and conditions of hatred in the individual, and the part played by his behavior in arousing this emotion in others. The sociologist is interested rather in the widespread effects of this reaction in unifying the group and producing concerted responses of great power in struggles between opposing groups.

Psychology in general, and social psychology in particular, are thus foundation sciences of sociology. Social psychology has in fact grown up largely through the labors of the sociologists. It is a mistake, however, to suppose, as some have done, that it is a branch of sociology rather than of psychology. Professor Ellwood, for example, prefers for social psychology the designation 'psychological sociology.' This seems to the present writer to minimize unjustly the claims of the psychologist. It is surely a legitimate interest to consider social behavior and consciousness merely as a phase of the psychology of the individual, in relation to a certain portion of his environment, without being concerned about the formation or character of groups resulting from these reactions. In spite of the good offices and interests of the sociologists the two sciences must remain separate branches of inquiry.

Behavior and Consciousness in Social Psychology. The influence of one individual upon another is always a matter of behavior. One person stimulates and the other reacts: in this process we have the essence of social psychology. The means, however, by which one person stimulates another is always some outward sign or action; it is never consciousness. Both the stimulating and. the reacting behavior may be at times accompanied by a social type of consciousness in the respective individuals; but there is, so far as we know, no immediate action of the consciousness of one individual upon the consciousness or behavior of another.[6] An attempt

(12) is current in certain quarters to limit the conception of society and the field of social psychology to types of social interaction where consciousness of others and of social relations exists. From the standpoint of the present work this limitation is both nonessential and narrow. Consciousness, as we have just intimated. exerts no influence, and therefore explains nothing in mutual reactions of human beings. In social psychology, as in non-social branches of the science, its rôle is descriptive rather than explanatory. Even in the most socialized and conscious of groups there are no forces holding the group together, and no means of arriving at community of thought or organized life except through the interstimulation of one individual by the behavior of another. It is, moreover, not a 'mental' interstimulation, if by this term is meant a type of stimulation different from the physiological, for no type of stimulation other than physiological exists. It would seem more suitable, therefore, to admit to the field we are considering all forms of animal life in which we find definite social behavior; that is, reactions of individuals to one another. The question whether social consciousness accompanies such social behavior in the lower forms of life, though of speculative interest, may be waived as nonessential in our present definition of social psychology.

The element of social consciousness, however, will be by no means neglected in the following chapters. It will be recognized wherever it is significant in the whole situation or helpful in evaluating the principles of behavior. A special chapter also will deal with social consciousness as an interest in itself. We shall seek a just proportion between the two phases of the social life of the individual.

A Working Definition of Social Psychology. Plan of its Treatment in this Book. Defining a science is of value only for the purpose of concentrating attention upon a group of allied problems. With this practical rather than dogmatic aim in view, the following definition of our field is proposed: Social psychology is the science which studies the behavior of the individual in so for as his behavior stimulates other individuals, or is itself a reaction to their behavior; and which describes the consciousness of the individual in so far as it is a consciousness of social objects arid social reactions. More briefly stated, social psychology is the study of the social behavior and the social consciousness of the individual.


Inasmuch as we have found the explanatory principles of social psychology to center in the individual himself, our first concern will be with the individual in his social aspects. It is largely through the profound effects of social influences in infancy, childhood, and youth that the habits, abilities, and personality of the adult are developed. The individual must be considered both as a product of social influences and as a potential unit in social interaction. The second portion of the book will proceed with the actual process of interstimulation and reaction between individuals as units of society. Our main theme, the social behavior of the individual, will be here developed. In particular, behavior will be discussed both as affording stimulation to others and as reaction to such stimulation from others. Finally, some attempt will be made to bring the laws of social behavior into the province of the sociologist, and to apply them to the theoretical and practical problems of modern society.


Ellwood, C. A., Introduction to Social Psychology, ch. 1.

Cooley, C. H., Human Nature and the Social Order, ch. 1.

Münsterberg, H., Psychology, General and Applied, chs. 2-4, 16 (pp. 224-27),19.

Ross, E. A., Social Psychology, ch. 1.

Perry, R. B., "Is there a Social Mind?" American Journal of Sociology, 1922, XXVII, 561-72; 721-36.

Ginsberg, M., The Psychology of Society, chs. 4, 5.

McDougall, Wm., The Group Mind, chs. 1, 2 (pp. 41-55).

Bentley, M., "A Preface to Social Psychology," Psychological Monographs, 1916, XXI, 1-25.

MacIver, R. M., Community.

Boodin, J. E., "The Existence of Social Minds," American Journal of Sociology, 1913, XIX, 1-47.

Leuba, J. H., "Methods and Principles in Social Psychology" (a review), Psychological Bulletin, 1917, XIV, 367-78.

Allport, F. H., "Social Psychology" (a review), Psychological Bulletin, 1920, XVII, 85-94.

Watson, J. B., Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, chs. 1, 2.

Sageret. J., Remarques sur la psychologie collective," Revue Philosophique, 1919; LXXXVII, 455-74.

Mead, G. H., "Social Psychology as Counterpart to Physiological Psychology," Psychological Bulletin, 1909, vi, 401-08.

Williams, J. M., The Foundations of Social Science, Books III, IV.

Gault, R. H., Social Psychology: The Bases of Behavior Called Social, ch. 1.

Dunlap, K., "The Foundations of Social Psychology," Psychological Review, 1923, XXX, 81-102.


  1. To illustrate, let us consider the act of satisfying hunger. When a man goes to dinner the combined stimulation from the sound of the bell and his restless stomach enters his nervous system and goes out to the muscles of walking to the dining-room sitting, and eating. The man himself experiences hunger Pangs, and considers these sufficient reason for his eating. Actually, however, "hunger sensations" are only a description of the consciousness accompanying the behavior. The cause of going to the table lies in the sequence stomach-stimulation —  nerve transmission — reaction. The act could be equally well explained if the subject had no consciousness whatsoever.
  2. An interesting point of difference, however, exists in the social as distinguished from other environmental relations. In the social sphere the environment not only stimulates the individual, but is stimulated by him. Other persons not only cause us to react; they also react in turn to stimulations produced by us. A circular character is thus present in social behavior which is wanting in the simpler nonsocial adjustments.
  3. Many of the supporters of the belief in a mind of the group independent of the nervous systems of individuals belong to the philosophical school known as objective idealists. Mind, in the larger and impersonal sense, is for them the true reality; hence they find no difficulty in conceiving of an objective group mind over and above the minds of the individuals, or comprising the minds of the individuals.
  4. Espinas: Les Sociétés animales. Paris, 1877.
  5. For an elaborate and ingenious social organism metaphor see Munstererg Psychology, General and Applied, pp. 265-69.
  6. The hypothesis of telepathy is not sufficiently established to be admitted as a possibility in the present issue.

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