The Observation of Societal Behaviors of Individuals

Floyd Henry Allport
Syracuse University

THE strictly experimental approach in the field of social psychology has in the past been limited to the condition of individuals reacting to other individuals who are physically present, or doing common tasks in the presence of others. This method of study is, of course, fundamental, and is one from which all empirical social psychology must begin. In recent years, however, there has been emerging a somewhat broader field of observational investigation extending the study of individuals from the strictly social stimulus-response

(485) condition to that of the societal situation. In this latter condition, a specific social stimulus may sometimes not be present at all, as, for example in the behavior of a motorist stopping for a red traffic signal at three o'clock in the morning in a deserted section of the city. Broadly viewed, though there is no social stimulus here present, there is a multi-individual situation; and the study of common behaviors in such situations offers a field of considerable interest and importance not only for social psychology but for the problems of social science.

In a word it may be said that this form of study deals both with culture and with institutions but deals with them in a manner contrasting to the approach of the sociologists. Culture complexes, social organization, and institutions are here regarded not as psychological realities to be considered apart from individuals, but as fields or situational relationships in which the true materials of our studies, namely the behaviors of individuals, are to be found. We attempt to see how people are acting when the institutions in which they are functioning are said to work. We describe these activities, moreover, not in the usual economic or administrative sense of their practical results, but in terms of the actual movements and behaviors of the individuals as organisms. For example, the behavior of a man running a machine would not be described as making shoes or printing a newspaper, but as variated or non-variated manipulation of levers or raw materials, or as walking, talking, thinking, aesthetically behaving, etc., according as these behaviors might be involved. In this fashion we hope to find out what portion of the natural action pattern of human beings is given a chance for expression in the societal activities through which their biological adjustment is secured. Without special techniques of study this is impossible in human society, because attention is always directed away from the activities themselves to the economic result of those activities in the societal economy of production. Our aim is to attain the same sort of description in this field as we now readily obtain when we try to observe the action pattern of, for example, a squirrel, where no such obscuring through division of labor, technology, and cultural overlay exists. In one experiment at Syracuse University we have had a considerable number of observers stationed at different points in the city where organized economic, commercial, and social pursuits are going on, noting in detail every act which they see an individual do over a period of half an hour. We have carefully defined what we mean by an act; and we believe that the data can be checked by the agreement of observers, and that it will yield classifications as to frequency, variety, number of activities represented, immediacy and other aspects revealing the possibilities of the human action pattern in modern civilization.

Institutional or societal behaviors may be analyzed into the following aspects. They are (a) co-acting (a number of people do the same sort of thing at the same time), (b) reciprocal (A does one type of thing and B another complementary to A's act, as illustrated, for example, by the hod carrier and brick layer), and (c) co-reciprocal (that is, one class of people do one thing and another class of people do a different thing of complementary character, as exemplified by merchants and customers, traffic policemen and motorists). Quantitative methods of study must be devised in some way to do justice to these various distributional aspects and to measure their uniformity and extent. An important problem in this field is the definition of units to be employed, and the development of the proper continua or scales upon

(486) which to measure. None of our familiar continua of time, space, degrees of qualities, etc., are adapted to the fields of reciprocal and co-reciprocal behaviors, since these phenomena represent not individual traits or physiological differences of individuals, but large scale modalities of behaviors. They represent the acts in which people tend to conform, rather than differ, usually as a result of the application of sanctions. They are a result of that common conditioning which produces the situation known as law, a custom, or a social norm. As a result of experimentation we have found that the continuum we need must be related to the purpose being carried out by the reciprocal and coreciprocal behaviors in question. Institutions are really methods of getting something done which individuals, in the aggregate, want done. The logical device for us to use, therefore, is one which we have called a telic continuum. Upon this we measure not the degree of affect, interest, or other physiological characteristics of individuals (except indirectly), but the extent to which the acts people do in a certain situation fulfill in approved form that which they are intended, by common agreement, to accomplish. For example, does a motorist stop completely before a red signal, does he stop only partially, that is, slow up, or does he drive through the signal with no reduction of speed? Does a Catholic upon entering church perform completely the sacrament of the holy water, or only partially; and, if the latter, in what degree? Does a workman coming to a factory come on time; does he come five minutes late, or ten minutes late? Does a student in the college library limit his conversations to only necessary questions so as to preserve quiet for others to study; does he carry on a slightly longer conversation, or does he indulge in protracted discussion? Experience has shown that this rating of the fulfillment of an accepted purpose is not too subjective or unreliable. It is subject to verification by observer agreement, and is capable of being made the basis of true scales through the use of psychophysical methods such as those devised by Professor Thurstone. These continua, when applied to fields of societal behavior, yield distributions which, in contrast with usual psychometric and biometric distributions, are characteristically not normal, but j shaped, or double j shaped. And it is in the discovery of these distributions, their measurement, and the analysis of their relation to individual differences and personalities, that we come to the very heart of our problem.[1]

Space does not permit a detailed explanation of these continua. It may be merely stated that it is possible to use them for two different purposes. The first use is for the purpose of measuring the degree of an individual's effort, that is, the degree in which he is trying to carry out the act and realize its complete purpose. For example, a man who removes his hat completely when meeting a female acquaintance is nearer to the extreme fulfillment on such a continuum than is the man who only touches the brim of his hat. The thoroughness with which the various phases of the holy water ceremony are performed (provided the act is not influenced by onlookers) is another example. The other use is the employment of the telic continuum for the measurement of effect. For example, if a man draws a check upon his bank payable to a creditor, we may consider not only the extent to which he is trying to pay his obligation, but also the degree of effectiveness of his behavior.

(487) This latter aspect results from the reciprocal activities of bank tellers, clearing house officials, and perhaps many others. It is at this point that the methodological contributions of the field-theorists may perhaps be enlisted in the future, in conjunction with our measurements of societal behaviors, to solve the problem of the relation of a single individual's action to the collective result of many individuals acting together. If this problem can be solved we shall have a truly scientific, behavioral reinterpretation of the social sciences, and perhaps a possibility of measuring the effects, and therefore the responsibility, of an individual's behavior in a collective action. These methods and the results thus far secured offer promise of a contribution of practical as well as theoretical value in human relationships.


  1. For a more extended discussion see: F. H. Allport, "The J-Curve Hypothesis of Conforming Behavior," Journal of Social Psychology, May, 1934, PP. 141-183.

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