Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 4: Habitual Nature

Emory S. Bogardus

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THROUGH interstimulation feeling, thinking, and learning become organized into habits. Habit-building modifies original human nature and gives acquired nature its characteristic forms and meanings. Since it amounts to the making and remaking of human nature, it is a chief product of interracial stimulation.[1]

Traditionally, habit has been viewed as a static affair; the newer emphasis is to think of habit in terms of the processes which make it: as such, it becomes vital and dynamic, a leading factor in personal growth, and the chief result of interstimulation.[2]

Habit is organized response to stimuli. As is one's environment, so is he, is probably as true as its counterpart, "as a man thinketh, so is he." In fact, the latter statement may be a corollary of the first, for the lines of one's thought are largely determined by his social stimuli. Environments are prime factors in manufacturing habits, and even give habits their patterns. It is possible to read a person's social contacts in his habits, for the different factors in one's environments tend to reproduce themselves in one's habits. We have not one social environment, but rather several, countless, social environments, and hence countless and often contradictory habits.

When stimuli change, a person may fail to meet the situation, and a crisis occurs.[3] Whenever an established way of doing fails to meet urgent stimuli, habits break down. At once attention is centered upon the new stimuli and a reorganization of human nature is effected.


The actions of the lower forms of animal life are chiefly tropistic, reflex, and impulsive. Within narrow limits, higher animals adapt their

( 35) impulsive reactions to peculiar and new circumstances, thus acquiring habits. Man organizes his reflex and impulsive tendencies so completely in response to the multifarious elements in complex and variegated social environments that his so-called "instinctive" nature is drawn out in countless directions. A pure "instinct," therefore, can hardly be said to exist in human life. It is more accurate to say that innate and instinctive activities sooner or later become organized into acquired or habitual mechanisms as a result largely of the stimuli arising from social environments.[4]

Habit is more important in a sense than instinctive dispositions, for habits can keep the organism alive longer and better than "instincts ;"[5] they serve as connecting mechanisms between native organisms and environment. They make adjustment substantial and dependable. They give meaning to instinctive tendencies by organizing them and building them into agencies of adjustment. Without these adjustment patterns native dispositions would be deprived of meaning. Man is thus closely identified with his habits as well as with his native dispositions. What he is depends as much on the nature of his habits as on his psychic inheritance as such.

Habits often conflict with inborn impulses. They are different in expression, being complex, organized, and dependable ; while impulses are more elemental, fitful, and less organized. The habits of mature individuals often conflict with the impulsive nature of youth. The chasm that separates parents and children, especially if the children are born late, is due to the parent's organized habit reactions being formed long before and in response to an environment which has undergone great changes and which now furnishes very different stimuli. The parent who wants to remain young with his children must companion with them and give attention to making over his habits in keeping with their needs.

There is a strong tendency for a person to build up habit responses to meet whatever is expected of him (the socially reflected personality), and

( 36) in so doing to camouflage his basic impulses.[6] If the gregarious impulses cause him to give his attention to only a few friends, he is dubbed cliquish, until he reforms his ways. If his sex nature leads him "to make love" in public, he at once becomes the victim of ridicule and practical jokes, and is constrained to conceal his deeper reactions behind conventional behavior. If he is frankly greedy, he is referred to as a "pig," and learns to put up a screen of unselfish behavior, behind which he may continue to practice avarice.

Habits are energy units. Being natural impulses they are replenished as needed by organic processes ; they are also subject to the laws of fatigue. When they are stimulated, there is a discharge of energy, and the whole person acts in a certain way. Habits thus are prepared will power. They are will units that can be depended on to produce action whenever specific stimuli operate, unless inhibited. Habits are organized responsiveness. They indicate the trend of one's personal development; they are sign-posts, revealing a person's general tendency of growth. Unconsciously to him they reveal what his attitudes are today and what they apt to be tomorrow; they denote what he may be expected to achieve.


Habit means to have. Habit gives possession ; it offers permanency to experience. A city milkman who left his horse and wagon at the curb for a moment was surprised upon his return to see the horse, with the milk cans rolling from the wagon, pursuing on a gallop the fire department's wagon that had passed. Several years previously the horse had become a well-trained member of the fire department, and on this occasion his former habits had been immediately stimulated by the clanging gong of the fire department's wagon.

The adze is widely used by the Eskimo. Attempts have been made to teach the Eskimo the use of the axe, but he persists in returning to the adze with its blade attached at right angles to the handle. The adze habit holds him in spite of strenuous efforts to substitute a better tool. When the Indian first buys a steel plow and gets it to his farm "he will saw off the left handle because the plows of his ancestors were guided with but one hand."

In a certain junior high school of Los Angeles where the pupils are classified according to their intelligence quotients, and the B-seven pupils are divided into eight classes, the highest being composed only of those

( 37) boys and girls whose intelligence quotients are 120 or over, the supervisor reports that several of the members of this supernormal group have to be urged repeatedly to work. They require more encouragement than do the average members of the lower intelligence levels in the same grade. After trying out every possible explanation for this necessity, the supervisor reports that the cause is in the fact that these supernormals have been members for six successive grades of undivided classes where they acquired habits of doing only moderately well, where the pace of the average or mediocre had been an easy one for the brightest pupils, who had fallen into habits of work much below their best, and which, now that they are members of a supernormal group, they are able to overcome only with great difficulty.

Although I learned to ride a bicycle many years ago, and have not ridden for years, I would not hesitate today to try to ride ; within a few minutes I should expect to feel at home again upon a "wheel." The process of bicycle riding was many years ago reduced to a habitual mechanism that abides with me. How many persons learned in youth to spell and pronounce certain words incorrectly, and although later they have learned their error, still find the misspellings and mispronunciations troublesome. Habit is in a way like a safety deposit vault into which thieves cannot break through and steal.

Habits of life may become fixed. The farmer, the worker, the house-wife develop habits of thinking from which they cannot escape, particularly, when old age comes. Not being used to reading much or doing abstract thinking, and not being physically able to work at their lifelong tasks they spend their last years in restless idleness.

Habits not only persist, but often they persist too long. They maintain themselves after their usefulness has ended. A destructive habit persists until it exhausts the individual; a constructive habit saves life, enabling a person to meet the increasingly larger demands of new and expanding social environments. It is a difficult problem however to form habits well adapted to present situations and capable of meeting new stimuli.


Thinking comes to be habit ; thought habits predominate. They determine one's behavior and the direction of his activity. Since thinking turns into habit, knowledge becomes an organization of habits. It is only by repeatedly thinking an idea through that we come fully to under-

( 38) -stand it; and it is only by such repetition that it becomes a part of our mental store, and attains the status of a habit.

The process known as association of ideas is basically habit. When a new thought is associated with an old one, a new habit is added to an established one. A belief is clearly an habitual way of thinking; an ideal is a habitual thought goal. A judgment is a habitual phase of thinking, while even the desires have an unconscious habitual nature.

Habit gives a motor character to ideas; it organizes thought-activities which are often unconsciously released or discharged. Hence, secret thoughts crop out unexpectedly and unintentionally. A secret thought is bound sooner or later to disclose itself, often to the owner's chagrin. It is in the off guard moments that the innermost phases of personality are revealed through habit and impulse.

The "medium" utilizes the fact that thought, set in habit-molds, may be released, and recognized by the observer. The medium and palmist maintain a continuous conversation, apparently meaningless in part, which releases many of the sitter's habit mechanisms, and these at once find expression in muscle movements which the medium !"reads." Much of so-called mind reading is muscle reading of this character. The slightest changes in the facial expression of the sitter are noted—and good guesses are made regarding the sitter's thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

An idea often expressed develops a habit mechanism, which when released, makes the idea dynamic. If I have learned to know which direction is east and which is west and accordingly have "gone east," to the east side of the street, to the eastern part of the city, or looked to the east, and so on many times, then for "east" I shall have established a definite habit-mechanism. If you mention east to me, I shall lean east slightly, unless the movement is definitely inhibited, for your mention of east has served to release my "east" habit mechanism. It is upon this phenomenon that the principle of suggestion rests, as will be shown in a subsequent chapter.

That which becomes habitual sinks below the threshold of consciousness, and since so much of life is reduced to the habitual, there is a sense in which the subconscious becomes the major portion of personality. Dreams are partly to be explained as segments of habitual activity coming to the foreground in one's sleep, and the ludicrousness of dreams is often found in the fact that these segments are reproduced outside their original and natural setting. The relinquishment of attentive con-

( 39) -trol which occurs in sleep frees these habit segments so that they may appear in peculiar and sometimes startling fashion. Habits therefore may safely be viewed as primary factors not only in conscious life but also in one's subconscious nature.


Habits stabilize. A person with strength of character possesses a large number of well-organized habits. One is reliable when he has habits and hence acts with a certain uniformity in given situations. He who is trusted is ordinarily the person who is honest by habit. According to his habits, a person is entirely dependable—dependable to vote for alcoholic liquor or for prohibition; dependable to seek the easy task, or to tackle the difficult enterprise ; dependable to beg or to give ; dependable to steal or to serve; dependable to vote for child welfare measures or for legislation favoring greed at the expense of little children; dependable to accept bribes or to render public service at the expense of his own occupation. The highest type of habits is socialized, whereby the individual habitually responds first to public welfare or to individual needs in line with public welfare, and only secondarily to egoistic impulses.

Habit enables one to do a large amount of work with a relatively small degree of fatigue. The first hundred miles that one drives an automobile in learning is more wearing upon him than the second thousand miles. In any field the learning processes are usually very fatiguing.

Habit increases accuracy. Note the difference between driving a nail the first time and the twentieth. Compare the accuracy of a piano novice and a Paderewski. Observe the difference in movements and despatch of a group of recruits and a trained regiment. It is strangely true that nothing is well done until it is done by habit.

Habit is a time saver. Suppose that the grocer had to learn to read every time he filled an order for a customer, that an engineer had to learn to manipulate an engine whenever he started upon his regular run, or that a banker had to learn the numerical system whenever he transacted business for a patron—these suppositions indicate the almost inconceivable dependence of modern social processes upon established habits.

Habit releases the mind from the necessity of paying attention to the details of the successive steps of an act; it frees the mind for new tasks.

( 40) He who has a large number of well established habits is free to devote his whole attention to the best advantage on the problem of the moment. If it is true that the man who is in the grip of habit is a slave, it may be also true that he has freedom.

An individual is a slave when habit is destructive ; he whose habits are all constructive is a free man. The question may well be raised: What is the difference in nature between a destructive habit and a constructive one? We may answer by pointing out that some habits use up energy to secure a present good, but conserve nothing for a future good; some use energy to promote the place of self at the expense of the welfare of others.

Destructive habits are often acquired as a result of unconscious adaptation. Unless children are taught to build constructive habits only, unconscious and passive adaptation to social environments will likely bring about unwholesome habits. The ordinary person at maturity finds himself with some harmful habits unwittingly acquired in childhood and youth. As one's social environments change, habits persist and become unwholesome under the new conditions Apart of the moral struggle which every person carries on is found in this conflict between habit and current needs. If a person does not continually revise his habits, they will carry him out of line with his changing environment, and ultimately drive him to defeat.

Popular opinion has emphasized the evil of "bad habits" so much that the value of good habits and even of habituation itself as a psycho-social process has not been appreciated. Selfish habitual response deserves all the opprobrium which has ever been heaped upon it, but socialized habitual responses have been neglected in popular thought, while the fundamental rôle of habit mechanism in directing impulses, in meeting environmental stimuli, in the formation of personal character, and in the maintenance of social customs has rarely been understood. The degree to which man is a creature of habit, even more perhaps than of thought (for thinking could not take place without habit mechanism) is startling.

Habit is the core of social custom. The customs of parents, teachers, and leaders set most of the pattern-habits of individuals. Customs, social atmosphere, and other conditions under which individuals grow up constitute the social environments which determine the set or pattern of personal habits.

The importance of these custom-patterns as a controlling factor in a child's life is seen in the wholesale way in which the child adopts the language of his parents. He may contribute only a few new word forms

( 41) to the mother tongue of several thousand word-habits. In the same way other customs exercise powerful control over him.

Education is habit formation. It is drawing out one's impulsive nature repeatedly in given thought and behavior directions, that is, it is habit-forming. The truly educated person is he who has a wide variety of definitely organized data about many phases of life which by habit he brings to bear on problems as they arise. Education, viewed objectively, is the process of helping other individuals, noticeably children, to form habits such as the teacher or leader believe that they should establish.

Habituation is the essence of the learning process. To learn is to reduce an idea or an action to a habitual form of expression. Often-times an idea may be acquired best by analyzing it and connecting or associating it with habitual responses that are already established. An idea, to be learned, must be not only perceived, but be given motor expression repeatedly.[7] I can listen to excellent lectures on democracy but I am not likely to understand fully until I do democracy. Then I get the feel of it as well as a picture of it.


A safe procedure is the formation of general habits, such as industry, reliability, thoroughness, that is, habits which may be kept permanently, but which may be modified as new stimuli require. A person needs to watch diligently his habit-forming tendencies, to seek the counsel repeatedly of elders with broad vision and experience, to scrutinize his incipient habits, and, most important of all, to establish the habit of forming new mental habits.

To control habit is the strategy of life. Since habit is organized psychical energy and its organization is under the control of attention, it is possible to order one's life by regulating habit, especially the formation of habit. The establishing of habitual mechanisms are more largely under a person's control than any other phase of his personality. A person may modify old habits and build new ones in any direction that his environments permit. It is a fortunate child who has teachers and parents who impress him with the fact that he can plan his habits and who can deliberately set out to build up habits in increasingly social ways. He who teaches a child narrowing, selfish habits is anti-social,

( 42) while he who trains a child to build socially useful habitual responses is one of the greatest benefactors of both the child and the race. An ideal habit is that of maintaining a democratic survey of social situations and of reacting in harmony with the results of this evaluation.[8] It is surpassed in importance only by such a habit as that of judging one's own habits impersonally as possible and of acting accordingly. It is evident that a fundamental habit to establish in early life is that of criticizing one's own habit-forming processes, and one's own habits. The universal tendency is that of criticizing the habits, particularly the "bad habits" of other persons, while looking with an indulgent eye upon one's own habits, even the harmful ones. A scientific attitude is that of making the habit-examining habit supreme.

Social progress rests upon individuals developing the general habit of reacting to every stimulus first from the standpoint of the welfare of others and then from the standpoint of one's self. This is one of the most difficult habits to form; it is the essence of socialized behavior. It is the most fundamental phase of the habit-examining and habit-forming processes.


1. Habits are impulses organized in standard ways in response to needs.

2. Habits originate in crises, caused by new stimuli.

3. Habit means to have.

4. Thinking is habit.

5. Habits (a) stabilize, (b) decrease fatigue, (c) increase accuracy, (d) save time, (e) enslave or free, and (f) furnish the core of custom.

6. Education is habit formation.

7. To control habit is the strategy of life.


1. What is habit?

2. When is a new habit most apt to be formed?

3. When do habits conflict with inborn impulses?

4 What is the derivation of the term, habit?

( 43)

5. Explain : Thinking is habit.

6. Illustrate : Habit gives a motor character to ideas.

7. Distinguish between the enslaving and freeing traits of habit.

8. Explain the relation of personal habit to social custom.

9. Why are habits so commonly deprecated?

10. In what ways is habit-formation the essence of education?

11. Why is the control of habit the strategy of life?


I. Criticize the statement, "he instinctively closed the door"?

2. How do you explain that speed which is habitual is never hurried?

3. Why is it ordinarily true that whatever is worth doing at all is worth doing well?

4. Give a new illustration of each of the following statements :

(a)     Habit is a time saver. 
(b)     Habit increases accuracy. 
(c)     Habit gives permanency to experiences. 
(d)     Habit gives strength of character. 

5. Explain Wallas' statement that the population of London would be starved in a week if the flywheel of habit were released.

6. How might you proceed psychologically to break a habit?

7. Which would represent a greater loss to a person, the loss of his habits or the loss of his inherited impulses? Why?

8. Explain : "There is no more miserable person than the one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision."

9. Which will be used primarily in the following cases, habit or native impulse?
(a)     By an untrained puppy when his mistress appears with a plate of scraps. 
(b)    By a trained puppy under similar circumstances. 
(c)    By a salmon in a whirling current of a river. 
(d)     By a fireman who sees a house on fire. 
(e)     By a mother whose child is in imminent danger. 

10. Compare the evils of occasional lying with those of habitual lying.

11. Name one constructive or good habit that you have formed during the past year.

12. What do you think is the habit of greatest importance that an individual can form, and why?

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Angell, J. R., An Introduction to Psychology (Holt, 1918), Ch. V.

Baldwin, J. M., Mental Development (Macmillan, 1906), Ch. XVI.

Dewey, John, Human Nature and Conduct (Holt, 1922).

Edman, Irwin, Human Traits (Houghton Mifflin, 1920), Ch. II.

Goddard, H. H., Psychology of the Normal and Subnormal (Dodd, Mead : 1918), Ch. XII.

Holmes, A., Principles of Character Making (Lippincott, 1913).

James, William, Psychology (briefer course), (Holt, 1907), Ch. X.

———,    Talks to Teachers (Holt, 1904), Ch. VIII.

Judd, C. H., Psychology (Ginn, .1917), Ch. IX.

Morgan, Lloyd, Habit and Instinct (Methuen, 1913).

Paton, Stewart, Human Behavior (Scribners, 1921), Ch. IX.

Platt, Charles, The Psychology of Social Life (Dodd, Mead: 1922), Ch. IV.

Rowe, S. H., Habit Formation and the Science of Teaching (Longmans, Green: 1916).

Scott, Walter D., The Psychology of Advertising (Small, Maynard : 1912), Ch. IX.

Wallas, Graham, The Great Society (Macmillan, 1914), Ch. V.

Watson, John B., Psychology (Lippincott, 1919), Ch. VIII.

Williams, J. M., Principles of Social Psychology (Knopf, 1922), Ch. I.

Woodworth, R. S., Psychology (Holt, 1921), Ch. XIII.


  1. The chapters on habit by William James in his Psychology and Talks to Teachers called attention to the practical importance of the theme and opened the field to scientific study.
  2. Splendid chapters on the psychology of habit formation from current scientific points of view are found in Watson, Psychology (Lippincott, 1919), Ch. VIII; Woodworth, Psychology (Holt, 1921), Ch. XIII; Judd, Psychology (Ginn, 1917), Ch. IX.
  3. Referred to in the chapter on "Stimulation." Cf. W. I. Thomas, Source Book for Social Origins (University of Chicago Press, 1909), pp. 18 ff.
  4. Because of the individualistic trend that psychology followed until recent years, habit has been erroneously viewed apart from social stimuli. An outcropping of this conception is found in a recent work by Charles Platt, The Psychology of Social Life (Dodd, Mead: 1922), p. 59, where it is declared: "The formation of habit is a purely individual phenomenon."
  5. Dewey contends that there are no separate "instincts," pointing out by analogy that science and invention did not succeed so long as men indulged in the notion of special forces to account for physical phenomena, such as suction, thunder, lightning, and rusting of metals. See Human Nature and Conduct (Holt, 1922), Ch. VI.
  6. See Chapter VI for a discussion of socially reflected behavior.
  7. The nature of this process has been elaborated at length by R. S. Woodworth in his Psychology, Ch. XIII.
  8. An excellent social theory of "harmony" has been developed by L. T. Hobhouse, in his Elements of Social Justice (Holt, 1922), which gives a philosophical background to the psychological point that is here noted.

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