Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 9: Stimulation

Emory S. Bogardus

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STIMULATION is the primary process in social psychology. It depends on social contacts.[1] In its simplest form contact is a physical matter; then, contact refers to mental proximity based on devices of communication; and finally, contact refers to that solidarity and interdependence which is produced by a common political, economic, and social life.[2] Contacts may be plotted, suggests Park and Burgess, in terms of social distance; the shorter the social distance the more attractive or the more repulsive may be the outcome.[3] The members of a group are in closer contact than is an outsider with the group members, but the result of this closer relationship may be either increasingly congenial or antagonistic. Contact means agreeable or disagreeable stimulation, an increase or decrease of desires, and the rise of favorable or unfavorable responses and attitudes.

Social stimulation creates the main problems of life. Stimulation that is only physical produces measurable, automatic, and definitely predictable responses, but stimulation of one social being by another may eventuate in any one of several possible reactions. Moreover, the response in turn may become a stimulus, producing other responses, and so behavior becomes variable and complicated.

Conflicts of stimuli produce endless problems. The number and quality of social contacts which an individual experiences is an index to the kind and quality of stimuli to which he is subject; these in turn are indicative of the individual's possibilities of personal growth. Interstimulating human organisms constitute the essence of a social situation, which is one of the most interesting phases of life. It is the stimulations of one person by another that furnish the dynamic elements in a social situation; it is these vibrant factors that produce mental and social changes.


The nature and quality of social stimulation are affected by countless factors ; five groups of these will be treated here. At birth the child seems

( 104) puny and helpless, but under good care and with environmental stimuli it develops along distinctive lines and ultimately may develop vast reservoirs of psychical power. The child which at first can do nothing but cry, may later by virtue of proper stimulation become a world benefactor.

1. Social stimulation depends on original human nature, with its inherited reflexes, its instinctive tendencies, its aptitudes, its temperament. Human nature is not only self-stimulative, but it is ready to respond to certain elemental types of stimuli. The child at birth will react to a very limited range of stimuli, chiefly to those of hunger that are set up at more or less regular intervals within him. As he develops he responds to greater and more complicated stimuli, so that apparently his original nature steadily differentiates into increasingly complicated conduct.[4]

The child's helplessness and his cries for aid are all-powerful stimuli to his mother, other mothers, women in general, and even stalwart men. Since social environments are made up of folks with responsive natures, the original nature of the infant, the child, or even the adult, constitutes the chief source of stimulation in our human world. Original nature thus not only determines the degree to which an individual may react to stimuli, but is is also the chief stimulative factor.

2. The number and quality of social stimuli which a person experiences depends partly on physical environment. In a desert, the Polar region, or a mountain fastness, social contacts are relatively few and simple. In a fertile river valley of the Temperate Zone contacts and resulting stimuli may become numerous and varied. By migration, one may deliberately escape from an area of sparse stimuli into one of many and rich stimuli, as when a farm youth goes to the city.

The physical resources of each region largely determine the occupational activities of the inhabitants, and to a degree the thought life also. In a new country where oil, coal, or gold abounds, the mining of them colors popular aspirations and stimuli; where there are no such resources and the soil is poor the marauding life or the contemplative life may prevail.

3. A given person's social stimuli may be determined in part by family and race connections. He has no choice in these matters and yet the resultant types of stimuli are fateful ; whole groups of social contacts are determined for him. Racial standards centuries old constitute his social atmosphere. The traditions of his family and his race become his in the childhood years ; it will be hard to escape these in later years even when life conditions have changed.

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4. Powerful stimuli, perhaps the most effective of all, come from play-mates, schoolfellows, friends of the family, religious associates. These stimuli originate with the child's first playmates who live on the same street with him. For the early play years many of the chief stimuli come from companions living within a short distance of his home. They exert an amazing influence over him—in his use of language, of his methods of play, his favorite games, and most of his attitudes. His companions often surpass his parents in furnishing influential social contacts.

A child's social contacts are largely determined for him by his parents in deciding to live or in being forced to live in a given neighborhood. Parents rarely realize the rôle they play in their children's development when they select or have selected for them by circumstances, a neighborhood in which to live.

5. Behind parental, racial, and associate contacts there are group heritages which perhaps excel all other factors in determining social stimuli. The attitudes of the family group, of play, school, racial, and other groups are largely determined by heritages. The particular language which a person speaks, his ethics, his religious views, his political beliefs, cannot be understood outside a knowledge of his group heritages.

The driving potency of the group heritage in controlling stimuli are made vivid in the following hypothetical situation :

If the earth were struck by one of Mr. Wells's comets, and if, in consequence, every human being now alive were to lose all the knowledge and habits which he had acquired from preceding generations (though retaining unchanged all his own powers of invention, and memory, and habituation) nine-tenths of the inhabitants of London or New York would be dead in a month, and 99 per cent of the remaining tenth would be dead in six months. They would have no language to express their thoughts, and no thoughts but vague reverie. They could not read notices, or drive motors or horses. They would wander about led by the inarticulate cries of a few naturally dominant individuals, drowning themselves, as thirst came on, in hundreds at the river-side landing places, looting those shops where the smell of decaying food attracted them, and perhaps at the end stumbling on the expedient of cannibalism.[5]

A large body of materials which reveal the stimulation that comes through group heritage is found in the history of religion. Among primitive peoples an infant is born into an atmosphere of animal-worship. In a Homeric age, the child is stimulated to worship gods with the fitful human traits of character. Still later, the religious conception of God is that of a king, an autocratic monarch ; and the child's religious contacts and stimuli are determined in this wise.

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Even the intellectual contacts and stimuli of scholars are predominantly those of group heritages. The most unbiased contributions to knowledge cannot escape them. In an introductory page to his chief work, Lester F. Ward, the eminent American sociologist and modest seeker after truth announces : "That my own contribution was simply a product of the Zeitgeist I have never pretended to question."[6]


It is in crises that social stimuli function most vigorously. Catastrophes, wars, personal crises create new and unanticipated stimuli. Families of wealth may suddenly find themselves bankrupt, or persons struggling below the subsistence level may unexpectedly fall heir to a fortune. A flood, tornado, earthquake, reduce an entire population to the same level of human need, and the high and low alike experience entirely new social contacts. In modern warfare the soldier experiences one crisis after another; he finds himself billeted in the home of a people speaking a strange tongue. Moreover, he marches and shares trench life with men from the ends of the earth.

Inventions, discoveries, travel, although not so spectacular bring on crises of a milder nature but which lead to deep and abiding change. An invention creates new occupational groupings, and may completely reorganize the contacts and stimuli of many persons, of families, or even communities. Travel unfolds new situations, and brings strangers together in a never-ending chain of newly stimulating friendships. A crisis is a disturbance of habit.[7] The disturbance may have been caused by a new and forceful stimulus. Moreover, after a habit has been upset, the reorganization of one's activities will depend largely on the prevailing stimuli at the time.


The person is the chief generating center of social stimuli. The self-assertive child becomes leader of his group, and by his original suggestions may stimulate its members to mischief and destruction or to a crusade of mercy and good will. As a man grows older, opportunities of choosing his associates and therewith the types of social contacts by which

( 107) he will be stimulated multiply. In this revaluing of his associates and revising of associations lies perhaps more secrets of personal growth or decay than in any other phase of social interaction. As one after another of the propinquity playmates drifts away, the proportion of chosen associates increases.

A person as he matures also experiences changes in the personnel of his associates. The significant factor in this process is that the social stimuli to which a person will be subject undergo change. In the business and professional fields particularly the question of social contacts and stimuli is preeminent. The merchant through salesmen and advertisements makes a business of seeking new contacts, although of course there are customers who do not actually influence him. The young lawyer and physician seeks new social contacts, for out of these will come new clients and patients. The college president in quest of endowments makes as many contacts as possible with moneyed people. In all this, however, persons are influenced more than they may suspect, for they are thus indirectly determining the nature of new stimuli to which they may respond. No choices in life are so potent in influencing a person and determining his character as choices of associates, for these largely furnish one's social stimuli.


Teaching is a stimulation process. It is the main business of the teacher to stimulate the pupil to think for himself rather than to think the teacher's thoughts after him. Even in the elementary grades the teacher's function is not to teach reading, arithmetic, and writing, but to stimulate the pupil to think about people, their ways, and their problems. In so doing the pupil will learn reading, arithmetic, and writing, partly through self-stimulation as a result of his growing interest in people.

In college work the function of the instructor is clearly that of getting students to think for themselves. He frequently meets with the traditional attitude that the instructor is to "lecture" and the pupil to memorize. According to this plan, students are helpless. Note this dilemma of a student

Professor X in an education course made statements which were directly opposite to those made on the subject by Professor Y in a psychology class. Now which am I to believe? I'm all muddled. I came to college to learn the truth, and now I don't know what I know.

W. H. R. Rivers cites two examples of the antagonism of persons, even mature persons, to being stimulated to think for themselves :

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Not long ago at a meeting of the Psychological Society my friend Dr. Myers read a paper, one part of which I criticised. There was present a well-known medical teacher, so distinguished that he had been knighted, who got up and said that he had come to the meeting expecting to be instructed by two such eminent authorities as Myers and myself, and that he had been horrified at finding that instead of being told by us what was the truth he had found us disagreeing with one another.[8]

The other example is that of a distinguished university teacher whom Dr. Rivers heard objecting to Well's Outline of History "because he gave footnotes which disagreed with the text." "How disturbing," he said, "it must be to the student's mind !" In each of these instances teaching as a stimulating process is ignored. If teachers disagree then the student has a chance to weigh the evidence and come to an independent conclusion.


Groups, like persons, stimulate one another. The competition between football teams is mutually stimulative; debating squads spur one another to their greatest efforts. Business houses stimulate each other to salesmanship feats. Rival cities are interstimulative. Nations continually electrify one another by diplomatic moves, military preparations, economic schemes.


Life is a maze of social stimuli and continuous interstimulation. Social stimuli function all the time and everywhere—while persons are engaged in securing sustenance and shelter, in struggling for personal success, in performing social service. All conversation is interstimulation. Newspapers daily flood communities with destructive or constructive stimuli. Prayer is social contact and stimulation. Opposition, conflict, crisis are stimulative. Rewards, success, achievement are vibrant. Interstimulation is almost synonymous with the theme to be considered next, namely, communication.


1. Stimulation is the chief result of social contacts.

2. Stimulation of one human being by another is the fundamental element in all mental and social growth.

3, Interstimulating organisms constitute a social situation.


4. Stimulation is naturally followed by response, affirming or disapproving.

5. Physical environments determine many social stimuli.

6. Primary groups furnish the most significant social stimuli.

7. Group heritage yields a far-reaching power over stimuli.

8. The nature of social stimuli often changes sharply in times of crises.

9. Within limits, self control and trained judgment enable a person to determine the stimuli to which he will respond.

10. Groups like persons stimulate each other.


1. What is stimulation?

2. What is the relation of stimulation to social contacts?

3. How is stimulation and original human nature connected?

4. How does physical environment influence social stimulation?

5. Illustrate the influence of family on stimulation.

6. Illustrate how race affects social stimuli.

7. Why are one's personal associates so effective in furnishing stimuli?

8. Explain the connection between group heritages and stimulation.

9. What is Graham Wallas' illustration of the potency of social heritage?

10. What is the connection between crises and stimulation?

11. How may a person best change his ruling social stimuli?

12. Illustrate intergroup stimulation.


1. Explain the terms, contact, stimuli, response.

2. What are the differences between internal and external stimuli?

3. Which furnish greater stimuli, friends or opponents?

4. Why is association such an influential phase of stimulation?

5. Why is communication so vital to stimulation?

6. From which have you received the most helpful stimuli, your father or your mother?

7. In what ways does punishment act as a helpful stimulant?

8. Why are rewards effective as stimuli?

9. Illustrate fear as a stimulus.

10. Compare fear and love as stimuli.

11. In what ways may a person best determine the nature of the social stimuli to which he will respond?

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Bristol, L. M., Social Adaptation (Harvard University Press, 1915), Part V.

Park and Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (University of Chicago Press, 1921), Ch. V.

Ross, E. A., Principles of Sociology (Century, 1921), Ch. XIV.

Wallas, Graham, Our Social Heritage (Yale University Press, 1921), Ch. II.

Watson, J. B., Psychology (Lippincott, 1919), Ch. III.

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

———,    Dynamic Sociology (Columbia University Press, 1918), Chs. VII, VIII.

Yerkes, R. M., Introduction to Psychology (Holt, 1911), Ch. XXVII.


  1. A splendid discussion of social contacts is given by Park and Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1921), Ch. V.
  2. Ibid., p. 282.
  3. Ibid., p. 283.
  4. E. L. Thorndike, The Original Nature of Man, Vol. I of Educational Psychology (Teachers College, Columbia University, 1913).
  5. Graham Wallas, Our Social Heritage (Yale Univ. Press, 1921), p. 16.
  6. Dynamic Sociology (Appleton, 1915), p. vii.
  7. W. I. Thomas, Source Book for Social Origins (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1909), p. 18.
  8. Psychology and Politics (Harcourt, Brace: 1923), p. 105.

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