The Group Fallacy in Relation to Culture

Floyd Henry Allport

Social psychologists who are laboring to assert the claims of the group as a fundamental condition of social behavior will welcome Mr. Bartlett's analysis of primitive culture and its application to the problem of modern society. No matter what may be the differing emotions, images, and motives underlying an individual's action in conforming to the group mode of behavior, the fact that he does so conform gives definite character to the group life in its cultural and institutional pattern, and renders it unnecessary for us to go behind the act, itself. Social psychology thus starts with certain individual traits interacting with "group difference tendencies". The latter are defined as the traits of behavior which distinguish different social groups, just as "individual difference tendencies" form the long recognized data of a study of the individual. No matter what may be the ultimate causation of social behavior in the individual, the fact of acting in a. fixed manner determined by social usage is the only starting point we require. The objective act is the basis of social psychology. This conclusion, though arrived at through an underestimation of the role of the individual, is nevertheless in accord with the behavioristic movement in social psychology. This is recognized by the author (p. 269). Instead, however, of profiting by this lesson, he is careful to wash his hands of behaviorism as a viewpoint in general psychology; the objection to it being as usual based upon the misconception that it is nothing more than neuromuscular and glandular physiology.

"Group difference tendencies" seem in Mr. Bartlett's usage to be equivalent to the institutions of the sociologists, the culture pattern of the anthropologists, and the "institutionalized reactions'' of Professor Kantor. It is shown that they interact with tendencies of the individual (for example, with ‘individual' and ‘social' instincts) to determine behavior. This statement is perhaps a more psychological formulation of Professor Ogburn's theory of cultural determination. It is incontestable, as Mr.

(186) Bartlett shows, that group ways impose themselves upon the individual, and determine the product of his action. This is illustrated in the dependence of the themes of folk-tales upon group difference tendencies combined with individual instincts (p. 95), in the influence upon modification of culture by contact and by borrowing, and in the elaboration of diffused culture. Broken. contracts are also explained by this phenomenon. The spokesmen who represent the respective groups unite in discussion, form a new group whose tendencies become their individual tendencies, and thus quite unwittingly obscure the issues existing between their respective factions, and betray the causes for which they originally stood.

All this is very important in a descriptive sense; but is it, after all, a true explanation? To say that group difference tendencies exert a control upon the individual is only to say in an inexact manner that other individuals, through mechanisms of learning and control (understood by the behavior psychologist, so stimulate the individual in question that his original responses become modified in conformity with behavior patterns common to the group. There are involved in this three questions: two of them are of an explanatory nature, and one is descriptive. To consider the explanatory questions first., we may ask (1) what were the origin and nature of development of the group difference tendencies (a common response pattern in others that stimulates and modifies the individual)--how, that is, can we explain institutional and cultural behavior; and (2) given such common behavior just how does it operate as a cause in helping to determine the conduct of the individual? The descriptive question (3), which may be stated rather as a viewpoint, is as follows : Disregarding process of cause and effect in the sense understood by natural science, we may trace, as it were, the ‘influence' of the culture of the group, the culture, that is, either of contemporary or ancestral group life, upon the mental content and behavior of the individuals. Group difference tendencies, institutions and the like thus flow on in a continuous stream, one portion showing its influence successively upon other portions through time. It must of course be understood that the word ‘influence' is here metaphorically used. It is a literary shortcut for the more cumbersome statement or cause and effect which was given in the two preceding questions, and which can be carried only in terms of the individual. If the purpose in view is merely to describe this continuity of culture and its modifica-

(187) -tion, such language will suffice; but if explanation he sought, the other terminology becomes essential.

Now it is clear that Mr. Bartlett's aim is higher than mere description. Yet his insistence upon the unanalyzed group difference tendencies as causes both in primitive and modern life partakes of this fallacy of confusing description and explanation. The proposal is to take our second question, of an explanatory type, as the starting point. Given the necessary institutional and cultural life of the group, how does it combine with other causes in the control of the individual? No fault call be found with the thoroughness with which the author has sought to elucidate this question. Our only criticism lies in the fact that as tools of analysis he employs some very superficial concepts of human nature. Tendencies, for example, toward assertion, comradeship, conservation, constructiveness, and the like are adopted as basic. These with other previously alleged "instinctive" responses are now known to be highly variable habit systems dependent, largely upon social conditioning rather than acceptable as causes or partial determinants of such conditioning. True to his stated program, however, the author refuses to analyze these into ultimate sources; but maintains that it is enough to recognize them as "given" factors in the actual social situation we are considering. He therefore speaks of them as "tendencies'". That he, himself, feels some uneasiness regarding their basic significance is perhaps suggested by the fact that he gratuitously devotes several pages, toward the close of the volume, to a defense of the term "tendency" by analogy with a somewhat irrelevant experimental situation within the psychological laboratory (270-275). The arbitrary character of explanation into which instinct theories lead their supporters is illustrated by explaining social continuity by the "conservation tendency" and social organization, present in all societies, by the "social form of the instinct of construction" (pp. 43-44). Scarcely more illuminating is the manner in which these tendencies and the individual instincts (fear and pugnacity, for example) are said to interact under varying social conditions to give varied character to the formations resulting. Social phenomena must be explained nowadays in terms of specific responses to stimulating conditions, and not in general categories of "instinct," or "tendency".

Returning to the first of our explanatory questions, as to the origin of the group difference tendencies, culture, and institu-

(188) -tions, Mr. Bartlett does not deny the importance of this matter, but says that its treatment should be the last rather than the first step in the study of society (pp. 18, 288, par. 5, and elsewhere). This position, though in some respects defensible, is open to a very serious objection. It implies that the group responses are already given, and are more or less unchangeable throughout their determination of the individual's conduct. A brief consideration, however, will show that institutional and cultural life is being continually created (in the sense of renewal in the younger individuals) and continually modified by the very process of interstimulation and response between individuals. In determining the behavior of the individual it is itself being determined. It may be that the author would assent to this. But how can we reconcile the postponement and omission of this topic with its vital connection with the problem of present social behavior?

After all, institutional responses and culture habits are not so much controls as they are expressions of human activity. They spring, as the author correctly recognizes, ultimately from the psychology of the individual. But they spring from this source, not historically, but continuously. Objective group tendencies are merely expressions of individual life; they are the way the individual feels impelled to behave. The impulsion so to behave moreover comes only in appearance from the group itself, the real drive for adopting these ways is inherent in the individual. Social control operates, not externally like the control of billiard balls by the cue, 'but through the stimulation of mechanisms whose energy lies within the nervous system of the individual concerned. If, therefore, the group tendencies are real only as the manner in which the majority of individuals are disposed to react, there is a fallacy in the reasoning which would treat them as determining causes wholly distinct from the individual.

We thus return to the central theme of this discussion, which is that no causal factor in cultural development may truly be said to operate unless human behavior, which means, of course, the behavior of individuals, is called into play. Factors may he described in terms of the group life as a whole, but without giving them a place in the specific acts of individuals they cannot be used as causes in social explanation.

Two concrete illustrations may be given of the failure to see the ever present play of individual motives behind the institutional and cultural pattern. On pages 67 and 68 Mr. Bartlett

(199) develops the point that folk tales derive much of their appeal from existent group difference tendencies in the form of customs. After presenting a suitable illustration he proceeds as follows "Here, then, is a custom already grown up, complete and often in operation within a given community; and here is a story centered about this custom, and told to various auditors within the community. The atmosphere in which the story is told is one of excitement, emotional sympathy, and "primitive comradeship". The tale requires no explanation. It is immediately received. The tendencies which cluster about the institution are stirred again as the tale is told. No doubt the custom itself may haw, had its history. But the important point for us is that, now it is there. And it is partly owing to this fact that the story which is based thereon is precisely of the kind that can be most immediately received, and is most perfectly preserved within this community. The legend is the direct expression of various group difference tendencies." (Italics by the present writer.)

The essential point here seems to be overlooked. The author states that the legend and the interest it arouses are the direct expression of the tendency or custom prevalent in the group. We should rather say that, both the interest in the legend and the custom go down to a deeper common cause in some unrecognized, and perhaps inhibited drive of the individuals of the group. Without stopping to analyze the custom cited, we can say in general that, since the advent of psychoanalysis, no one is justified in treating a custom as the ultimate cause. Instead, we must explain the custom. The source of explanation is not, however, as Mr. Bartlett wrongly conceives, to be found in the history of the group. The custom may have had a history, and the historical significance of it may have been different from its present meaning. It has, however, a present significance which is vital as an expression, perhaps unconscious, of powerful motives in the members of the group. And it is this significance which must be understood in order to explain the appeal of the group tendency (custom) and the folk tale alike.

This, of course, is not to say that the group difference tendency and therefore the interest in the story received no support from the fact that they are reflections of that which is customary. Attitudes of social conformity and facilitation through the behavior of others add greatly to the strength of the control through customs. Such social reinforcement, however, must not

(190) be mistaken for the deeper interest of the individual upon which it is based.

Our second illustration also is derived From the interpretation of folk stories. A theme universal in primitive folk narrative is that of the crafty small animal or spirit who, sometimes in league with others of his kind, succeeds by power or cunning in overcoming the greater animals or forces. The explanation of these tales given by the author rests upon group tendencies toward the expression of the instinct of comradeship, assertion, and submission. Flow much clearer a view can be obtained it, we seek again the origin of the popularity of these stories, and the custom tendencies as well, iii motivation of the individuals in the tribe. From this standpoint it, becomes clear that the struggle depicted is symbolic of the rebellion of the youth of the tribe (the brethren) against the paternal authority vested in the elders who were also the "fathers" of the tribe. Here we have the true understanding, at a deeper level, of the comradeship and the struggle for ascendance which are reflected in such stories, as well as of the interest in the story itself. Either Mr. Bartlett is ignorant of the researches of the psychoanalysts in primitive culture, or he shows by omission that he greatly underrates their significance.

Another point of interest lies in the mythological significance of folk tales as explanations of natural phenomena. It seems that these aspects are of secondary importance and perhaps of later derivation. Without making any pretense to explanation, they incidentally satisfy cosmological questions which, though scarcely formulated, have troubled the primitive mind. This point is well brought out on pages 100 and 101. Instead, however, of being content, with Mr. Bartlett, to explain the matter by reference to an instinct of curiosity, the present writer would suggest that the cause behind the "natural-science" aspects of folk tales is probably a combination of inarticulate desire for knowledge about the world, and the felt need for some socially acceptable reason for the elaboration of the tale--the motive of incest, parricide, or rebellion not being given conscious recognition. Psychoanalysts are familiar with that type of symbolic reaction in neurotics which both satisfies some unrecognized craving "at a higher level" and at the same time serves as a rationalization to disguise its full meaning. The cosmological reference thus gives the narrator and the audience an objective justification for rehearsing tone tale. The telling of well known

(191) stories over and over again, like tales told to children, can also lie understood when we consider the present and continual emotional value of the story in releasing attitudes which have been repressed.

The present writer desires it to be understood diet. the foregoing discussion is in no way a fair review or summary of Mr. Bartlett's work. Certain debatable portions have been selected for the purpose of orienting an analysis of the theory of social causation. Much that is original, stimulating, and valid has been passed by without mention. The book should he read by all who are interested in the psychology of culture whether primitive or civilized.

Floyd H. Allport


  1. Psychology and Primitive Culture. New York: Macmillan Co.., 1923. Mr. Bartlett is Reader in Experimental Psychology, and Director of the Psychological Laboratory in the University of Cambridge, England.

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