The Psychological Nature of Political Structure

Floyd Henry Allport

There is something in the trend of modern learning that impels scholars to look beyond the confines of their traditional subjects. Researches are discrediting the barriers of definition set up between classes of natural phenomena. Loss and error are seen to result from the attempt to formulate and pigeonhole the facts of nature in the specialized laboratories and archives created by man. For nature unfolds itself to the self-effacing inquirer, not as a series of 'orders,' 'realms,' or 'classes,' but as a continuum. There are no definite lines between the various natural sciences; and there is probably no break even between the natural and the social sciences.

In this general broadening movement the political scientist and the psychologist have learned much from each other. The psychologist has found that there are political concepts, movements, and institutions which throw light upon the behavior of man in his social group and reveal for investigation a large array of facts which within the walls of the psychological laboratory would have remained undiscovered. Conditions of environment which we call political develop and exhibit human nature in a light in which it could not otherwise be seen. The political scientist, in turn, has acquired a new insight into many of his problems. The intelligence and political capacity of the electorate, motive or lack of motivation in voting, stereotyped attitudes, biases, party leadership, election propaganda, and the measurement and control of public opinion ---all have received illumination from the viewpoint and technique of the psychologist.[1]

Helpful as these mutual contributions may be, they do not represent, in the writer's opinion, the ultimate rapprochement between psychology and political science. The psychologist has assumed the mold or structure of political institutions as a given condition. Into this configuration he has, through the study of individual capacity and motivation, injected a dynamic element which heretofore was lacking. But he has not yet turned his attention to the political framework itself. For, when closely considered, a constitution, a court, a parliament, or a cabinet are not merely descriptive categories to be personified, endowed with functions or powers, and used as classifications for the student of comparative

(612) government. Such a treatment of structure can be maintained only in the academic isolation of a rapidly passing era. If these structures are to be regarded as a part of the natural world, and amenable, like the rest of nature, to scientific study, they must be reinterpreted in terms of the concrete experiences with which natural science can deal. It is the purpose of this article to show that, in such a process of reinterpretation, psychology as a method and point of view can be distinctly helpful.

The social or political order rests fundamentally upon stable, common, and reciprocal ways of behaving in the stock situations and relationships of life. All citizens react in practically the same manner with reference to a policeman, a traffic signal, a tax collector, or the exchange in labor or commodities which they expect for a dollar bill. Not only does each respond in a regular and predictable manner toward such objects; but each knows that others may be depended upon to behave in the same way. Social organization, and the rise of political and economic institutions, are thus made possible. It might even be said that these common habits of response underlying ordered relationships, considered together with their appropriate stimuli, are the institutions of society. Political structure resolves itself psychologically into predictable political behavior.

But what, one may ask, do we mean by "political behavior"? Our first recourse is to fall back upon a more clearly defined concept, namely, "social behavior." The latter may be defined under two categories as (a) behavior through which one individual stimulates another (language, gesture, etc.), or (b) behavior which is a response to such stimulation from others. Political behavior would seem to represent a limited portion of the field of social behavior. It might be tentatively defined as the making of, and responding to, political stimuli, the latter being regarded as a special sub-class of social stimuli. This definition at once raises a question, the answer to which will throw the whole problem into the sharpest relief, namely, "What is a political stimulus? And how is it to be distinguished from social stimulation in general"?

The clearest method will be to start with an illustration. Let us take, for example, the promulgation of a law, or a command spoken by a constituted authority within his field of jurisdiction. In so far as this is simply a case of one man speaking, and others reacting to his words, it represents an instance of social stimulus. When, however, we add the notion that it is a "constituted authority speaking in the field of his jurisdiction", the situation represents what may be called, for practical purposes, a political stimulus. We may be challenged at this point,

(613) however, with lack of precision in our use of the word "stimulus." Properly defined, this term means an energy-source producing changes in sense organs, which, in turn, through conduction, initiate a motor response. But in this case the energy-source (i.e., movement of the vocal organs of the ruler) is of exactly the same character whether we regard his command as the words of one man to another or as those of a "constituted authority in his field of jurisdiction." The actual words of the command do not constitute a political stimulus, since if spoken by another person they might evoke an entirely different response, or, indeed, no response at all. Nothing which could be called "political" would result from such a situation. On the other hand, it is not the person, the speaker himself, who is the political stimulus; for if he uttered other commands, for example, in the realm of religion or private individual liberties, the response would again be different or totally lacking. It is not even the combination of the person of the ruler and these particular words; because in order to be effective the words must be spoken at the proper time and place, with the proper surroundings, and to his own subjects rather than those of another ruler.[2] This whole set of conditions may be summed up under the original phrase, "a constituted authority speaking within his field of jurisdiction." But this phrase represents a situation involving not only the stimulus but the individual who reacts. It is a total situation and not a stimulus. As indicated above, the meaning of "stimulus" is wholly objective, and apart from those mechanisms of the individual which respond to it; whereas, in the present example, the facts of "authority" and "field of jurisdiction" are not objective and in the ruler himself. They are to be found, rather, in the submissive attitudes of individual citizens whereby they accept a written statement (constitution) that a stated official (the ruler in question) is to be obeyed in certain matters (field of jurisdiction). "Constituted authority" is an attribute, not of the stimulus, but of the reactors. A king, in brief, is only a man. His kingship lies in the attitudes of individuals who respect and obey him.

The same analysis applies to certain stimuli which are, properly speaking, non-social, yet which evoke behavior commonly called political. The "stars and stripes" carried in a parade is a stimulus which causes

(614) the average male American spectator to remove his hat. The same flag and procession would probably evoke from an Australian Bushman only the response of staring. For the American it is a political stimulus; for the aborigine it is not. The word political thus applies properly, not to the stimulus, but to the character of the response.

We dwell upon this distinction because it is in sharp contrast with the customary view. By many persons, scholars as well as laymen, the "law," the "state," and the "nation" have been treated as objectively existing groups or structures which are thought somehow to control and direct the actions of individuals. They are, in other words, conceived as stimuli. To regard them as such, however, in the light of the preceding discussion, is a fallacy. A citizen does not react to the law as a stimulus, nor is he controlled by the law, in any behavioristic sense. He reacts rather to the verbal stimulus (the so-called "legal code") in such a way that his overt behavior conforms with those verbal specifications. But the words of the legal code are not "the law" in any institutional sense. If every resident of a city who owned an automobile were suddenly to adopt the practice of parking his car at any point, in complete disregard of city regulations, the parking law would at that moment cease to exist except as mere phrases printed in municipal records. Apart, therefore, from printed copies of statute books and the tools of enforcement, "the law" really exists, so far as a scientific view is concerned, only in the attitudes of the individuals who accept it. Their habits of conformity to verbal code constitute the law. Individuals react, therefore, not so much to the law, as with the law.[3] Similarly, citizens do not react toward the welfare or honor of their nation, but with those nationalistic attitudes in terms of which alone the reality of the nation is to be scientifically conceived.

The psychologist thus reverses the telescope of the social scientist. Instead of standing at the center and looking outward upon the social cosmos as a great super-individual entity, he stands upon the periphery and, looking inward, sees nothing but individuals. He sees them, of course, behaving in many regularized and predictable ways, each seeming, moreover, to be conscious of his fellows and anticipating that they also will act in certain definite ways. These regular and mutually expected ways of behaving represent to the behaviorist that which the sociologist and political scientist speak of as "institutions." Sociologists consider institutions as having a structure; and the inter-relations or

(615) pattern of institutions is said to make up the structure of society. The notion of social structure is, however, from the psychological standpoint, reducible to common and reciprocating attitudes of individuals and variations in such attitudes as to both content and degree of generality. Political psychology, therefore, implies the reformulation in terms of natural science of the very framework of earlier social thinking and investigation.

We cannot here attempt this reformulation in any detail. It must suffice merely to mention as examples a few of the more essential problems. The following groups of questions might be fruitfully investigated by studies among widespread samples of the population: (a) What is the nature of "the state" in terms of the behavior attitudes, both as to the content of these attitudes and their distribution and significance in the life of the individual? How can we measure, in terms both of extensity and intensity of obedience, the political "power of an office," and the power of an office-holder as distinct from the power of his office? (b) Can we secure a quantitative psychological index of obedience to laws, and to "the law" in general? Can we discover the extent to which disobedience to one law becomes transferred to other laws? (c) In what sense does representative government really represent individuals? If it can represent only one common segment (or alignment) of behavior, what particular segment should be selected (geographical allegiance, trade guild interest, economic status, etc.)? Is it possible to adjust such segmental representation to the needs of the human organism as a whole? (d) What is a party machine? Into what psychological components can it be analyzed (e.g., loyalty, identification and self-elation through belief in the "group reality," control by leaders through symbols and institutional habits)? (e) What is the nature of social control? Who or what controls individuals, and how are they controlled? What do we mean by the supreme control, or sovereignty, said to be vested in the state? (f) What do we mean by a conflict between groups or institutions; for example, between capital and labor, federal government and "states' rights," the church and the state? How do the attitudinal factors in these cases really operate; and how can they be measured, predicted, or controlled? Investigations of this character, though necessitating a new approach and a new technique, will materially assist in developing a natural science of political phenomena.

One of the most promising directions of inquiry should be the study of the origin and development of political structures. Our search should be directed, not to earlier social institutions, but to individual behavior

(616) in fields in which such structures either are absent or appear in an inchoate form. Such fields are the social adaptations of the lower animals, the human infant and child, and primitive peoples. We may view governmental organization behavioristically as a set of habits (common segments) which individuals have acquired in the process of living together (that is, trying to live in an environment where one individual satisfies his life needs largely through contacts with other individuals). Such political habits were probably improved slowly through trial and chance success and inculcated in succeeding generations for a very long time before law-making became consciously deliberate or verbalized. Many pertinent and careful observations already exist concerning the institutional behavior of animals and groups of children at various ages. The collection and study of these should be helpful to the student of political behavior.

Not only the origin of institutional attitudes, but their transmission to younger generations, constitutes a theme for psychological study. Insufficient attention has been given by educational psychologists and sociologists to the stages through which children learn to behave after the manner of their group. What does a policeman, a senator, a warship, or the American flag mean to children at different age-levels? To what extent do attitudes toward parents become transferred as political behavior to the mayor, the public judge, and the president? What integration takes place between the pattern of personality in each individual and the political habits which he must learn? What, in other words, does politics mean to individuals who are developing different means of self-expression? The study of these questions would teach us much concerning the institutionalized attitudes of adults and the possibilities and limitations of citizens in regard to public affairs. Since institutional habits are learned and become automatic very early in life, they are given little or no thought by the adult. He is no more conscious of his deeper political attitudes (i.e., the state) than he is of his habits of dressing and undressing; yet both are truly a part of his organism. Our behavior toward government thus becomes passive, not participant; we accept the state as a thing existing independently of and above the heads of all the citizens. A genetic study of government as a part of the behavior of specific individuals would help to dispel this fallacy.

Finally, we may mention the value of the psychological interpretation of structure with reference to future adaptations. Cultural conflict and assimilation can be illuminated by considering cultures, not as objective patterns, but as different sets of habits (ways) for doing, in general, the

(617) same sort of things. Habit interference and transfer of learning thus emerge as concepts useful for an experimental approach. A similar treatment applies to nationalism and to international conflicts. A number of writers have found that the most universally valid criteria of nationality are psychological. In order to distinguish one nation from another we must look at (or within) the behavior of individuals. Speaking scientifically, the reality of the nation is a matter of the habits and attitudes (common behavior segments) of individuals living within certain boundaries, as evoked by certain common stimuli. Such stimuli are commonly called "national symbols;" but the meaning "national" lies, as previously shown, in the response rather than in the stimulus. If "the nation" is a term used to denote a certain common segment of the behavior of individuals within a designated area, then the relations between nations must be the relations between individuals possessing one type of nationalistic segment and the individuals living in a different region and having another national segment.

Ever since the rise of nationalism these fundamental relationships have been obscured by the attempt to formulate them as relations, not between individuals, but between nations or states. The notion of the individual has been used merely as a personification of the alleged entity, the nation or state. This metaphor gives the appearance of verbal precision, but it is often dangerously misleading. Where it is used to indicate that an act is being carried out by a group as such, in contradistinction to individuals-that is, where the institutional attitudes of individuals are abstracted from the organism and set up as entities in themselves-we may speak of it as the institutional fallacy. It is an error which not only has long confused social thinking, but through maintaining nationalistic formulae in human minds, has played a part in the causation of wars.[4] Nationalistic attitudes prevent a realistic orientation to delegates upon a league of nations, and distort the proper conception of the function of such league-members. These delegates should be thought of as representing, not a nation, but individuals living within a recognized boundary, and having a common segment of nationalistic behavior. They are to be regarded, not as exponents of national ideals or national sovereignty playing for international recognition, but as expressing the actual attitude of their constituents. Their work should be to discuss, in a face-to-face manner, the adjustment of disputes and problems arising between

(618) individuals of one area and nation-symbol and those of another. They should comprise, properly speaking, not a league of nations, but a "league of nationals."

If the preceding observations are well founded, the psychological approach will provide a deeper understanding of the very mold in which political action is cast. Leadership, social movements, public opinion, discussion, legislation, foreign diplomacy---all activities through which government is conducted---are phases of human behavior. But more than that, government itself is behavior. As the substance of social structures or institutions, it is a behavior of a different sort from those more sweeping and spectacular processes mentioned above: it consists of older, subtler, stabler, and more generalized attitudes. But it is, none the less, behavior. The recognition of this fact, moreover, has important implications both for social theory and for social experiment.

The detailed methods which may be used for the investigation of this field the writer cannot at the present demonstrate. The future may hold in store the development of a psychological technique for revealing the nature, strength, and distribution of institutional attitudes upon samples of the population at large. There is nothing inherently impossible in this problem. Attitudes, both as affective beliefs and motor sets, have long been studied in the laboratory. The major needs of methodology are a set of criteria for sampling, more precise systems for the quantification of attitudes, a means of gauging their relative strengths or action-tendencies, and some statistical device for the treatment of distributions of a non-probability type. Beginnings have been made in all these lines of research; but the true test of their ultimate limitations and possibilities lies wholly within the future.

Our present purpose has been merely to call attention to the essential identity in which are embraced the facts of psychology and of political science. We have sought to show that social data can be perceived in their full reality only if viewed as part of the larger scheme which effaces the barriers between natural and social science. Many will continue to believe in the existence of political facts per se and in an order cast entirely in terms of political and social entities. Perhaps they are right. Others, however, may choose to abandon the structural view as descriptively possible but barren of promise for deeper understanding, prediction, or control. It is to these that the reformulation of political structure here described may carry the suggestion of a method for future research.

Syracuse University.


  1. A more comprehensive outline of the relation between psychology and political science will be presented by the writer as a chapter in "The Inter-relations of the Social Sciences," edited by W. F. Ogburn and A. Goldenweiser.
  2. The entire situation necessary to render this act a "political" stimulus might be regarded, in terms of the modern Gestaltpsychologie as a "pattern" or "structure" which is necessary before any of its parts can have significance, and which is therefore in a sense more real than any of its parts. The behavioristic analysis which follows shows another way out of the difficulty.
  3. The word "with" is here used in the sense with which we say a man lifts a stone "with" his hand.
  4. The militaristic consequences of this fallacy have been discussed by the writer in an article entitled "The Psychology of Nationalism," Harper's Magazine, August, 1927.

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