Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 17: Discussion

Emory S. Bogardus

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RATIONAL discussion is a culminating phase of intersocial stimulation, for it brings opposing attitudes, beliefs, and considerations into full comparison. It leads to mutuality, that is, to an understanding of the other fellow's attitudes before arriving at one's own. It surpasses all else in stimulating thought and mental growth ; it gives "a premium to intelligence ;" it affords a refined satisfaction to the desires for social response and achievement.

Discussion at its best is also the highest form of conflict. It takes into consideration all sides of the question under dispute; it is dispassionate; it is impersonal ; and it measures fact against fact. It reduces prejudice and mere opinion to a minimum and magnifies ascertainable truth. It furthers the settlement of conflicts on the basis of what the facts show, and of what fair-minded people can agree upon.[1]


The importance of discussion as a form of intersocial stimulation has not been appreciated, for discussion is so generally unscientific. Even today most discussion rests on hearsay evidence ; it involves opinion rather than fact. The tendency to communicate, to share with others what one hears, is so great that habits of speaking before investigating, even regarding fundamental matters, are the rule. Very few receive training, even in educational institutions, concerning the differences between fact and opinion. The law student is an exception, for he is not allowed to proceed far until he distinguishes between "what is" and what he "thinks is so." It is only by this method that discussion can attain its rightful place at the head of conflict processes.

Ignorance is often the cause of unscientific discussion, but ignorance which thinks itself enlightened is unusually dangerous. Moreover, a little learning, or just enough to give its possessor the feeling that he is fully competent, makes him dogmatic, and impossible to reason with.

The primary test of worthwhile discussion is the degree to which it

( 198) is free from prejudice and bias, for these factors easily lead to misrepresentation, and rush a mental conflict down hill into physical combat. Prejudice easily controls a person's thinking without his being aware at the time of its presence. Its major rôle was observed by Francis Bacon, whose dissertation on the idols of the tribe, the theater, the forum, and the cave has pointed the way whereby a person might be freed from control by dogma and superstition.[2] Bacon found the origins of prejudice partly in anthropomorphic judgments, i.e., in judgments which one makes because he looks upon life and the world through human eyes and is able to think of matters outside human life only in human terms. He found other sources of bias in traditional systems of thought, such as a religious system, agnosticism, Epicureanism, communism, Mormonism or any other system which may envelop a whole people and control all parental and educational training. Words and language are often capable of a varied interpretation. They are used habitually in one way by one person, but differently by another, and hence false interpretations with consequent prejudices are generated. Every person has peculiar experiences, in fact, he never experiences life just as other persons do, and thus he develops individualistic and exceptional reactions to and biases regarding life. Bacon's injunctions have been summarized as follows: Get as little of yourself and of other selves as possible in the way of the thing which you wish to see. In general it may be said that Bacon's analysis of human pre-dispositions is sound; the pre-judgments of life vitally color every discussion.

Prejudice is "a hasty judgment or an opinion formed without due examination."[3] In the absence of facts, our desires furnish substitute data. On this unscientific basis persons engage in daily discussion, being caught frequently in making "outlandish" statements.

The part that false assumptions play in discussion has nowhere been presented more effectively than in Frazer's Golden Bough,[4] wherein in volume after volume the author marshals innumerable illustrations so effectively that the reader soon begins to wonder whether primitive man was able to receive any sound beliefs from his contacts with his fellows. For the development of these false suppositions the religion of primitive man must bear much of the responsibility, although the medicine man, as distinguished from the priest, with his devotion to magic was a powerful

( 199) factor. Primitive superstitions still exist but the prevailing types of prejudice to-day are frequently as subtle to the educated person as early superstition was to the unlearned man of the wilds. Mythology passes away when civilization develops but is supplanted by logically organized systems of false beliefs.

Gossip is a prevailing type of intersocial stimulation; it is also one of the most dangerous types of discussion in its least worth while form, for it cares little for the truth. It delights in any "juicy bit" of news, and thrives on the pathological and spectacular in human interaction. It picks up a falsehood and without the slightest hesitation throws it out on the four winds, or as a Japanese proverb goes: "If one dog barks a falsehood, ten thousand others spread it as truth."

Gossip is a social factor that gives prestige or destroys personal reputations ; it is not much concerned with general results or hypotheses. It is no respecter of personal sensitiveness, feelings, or of mitigating circumstances. It is ruthless ; by insinuation it may defeat the best of men. A current of gossip surreptitiously started by an unscrupulous politician can defeat a worthy candidate for office. In fact it is the venom of gossip which unfortunately prevents public-minded men from seeking public office. "The tongue," states another Japanese proverb, "is but three inches long, but it can kill a man six feet high."

Gossip assumes the air of secrecy. It delights in being "confidential," and thus succeeds in flattering the one who hears, and hence leads him to exaggerate the importance of what he has heard. With mystery and magical performance as chief aids, gossip rules the world of unthinking or careless thinking men and women.

Gossip is usually negative or damaging rather than constructive and helpful, being inspired by envy and jealousy; jealousy hinders the spreading of good tidings about persons, especially opponents, but gives a thousand wings to any injurious report. Newspapers of the "yellow" type especially are serious offenders, for they "play up" anything that smacks of scandal; they escape responsibility by saying, "it is alleged." The public not only fails usually to notice the "alleged" but is deluded by the indirect suggestion that an allegation carries.

Talk, or ordinary conversation, which is the common vehicle of discussion, is largely devoted to the trivial, the passing, the narrowly personal, and the insignificant. At times it reaches crescendoes of heated argument and then it may take the form of serious discussion about matters of life, death, and eternity. Of all forms of discussion, talk is the most important, because of its universality and the ease with which it occurs.

( 200) "We may rail at `mere talk' as much as we please, but the probability is that the affairs of nations and of men will be more and more regulated by talk."[5] It is estimated that at least one-half of all talk is wasted and yet, on the other hand, it is contended by Godkin that "no one ever talks freely about anything without contributing something, let it be ever so little, to the unseen forces which carry the race on to its final destiny,"[6] for one may counteract or modify some current belief or make a positive impression, setting in motion a train of ideas definitely contributing to human progress.


At a research society meeting a few evenings ago, a member reported on a paper advancing new ideas in social psychology. At the conclusion these were challenged by several members of the group and the leader defended his thesis. At the conclusion he admitted certain weaknesses in his position but declared that he had been stimulated in several new directions that all his previous research and study had not suggested. Here is a tangible and not uncommon result of secondary opposition. If the leader's thought is too far advanced or his point of view very much broader than that of his associates, he will make no impression on them, and they will not be able successfully to challenge him.


Discussion tends to be partisan. A person in conversation with another finds himself presenting or defending one side of a question. This partisanship is inevitable and good, providing the partisan continually keeps in mind and understands the attitudes and biases of his opponent. When he becomes partisan to the point of being unable to appreciate the attitudes of those who disagree, or when he assumes a narrowly emotional attitude, he is apt to do his cause more harm than good. It is our desires and wishes that are particularly responsible for leading us into partisanship of the worst sorts.[7]

Salesmanship is today a leading form of partisan discussion. The salesman, anxious to prosper, may resort to the subtlest form of suggestion in order to conceal the weaknesses of the product that he is handling and to make its strong points so attractive that he may clinch a sale at once

( 201) before the prospect's newly aroused and glowing interest has given away to a cool analysis.

Legal battles represent highly skilled partisan discussion. Lawyers trained in argument before a jury utilize all the arts of direct and indirect suggestion "to put up" a good case for the client, or to riddle an alleged good case of the opposition. Before these two sets of pyrotechnical argument, the sober elements of a thoughtful discussion often disappear entirely and the jury is left muddled and uncertain.

College debates are training courses in quick witted discussion. Arguments are built up to make the respective sides of the question appear as strong as possible, and then through the rebuttals, are quickly shattered. Opinion is met by retort and authorities are challenged until only experienced and capable "judges" can follow the real threads of discussion. The desire for victory easily paralyzes the desire to get at the truth of an important issue.

In political campaigning the most vehement forms of partisan discussion find expression. All the wiles of clever public speakers with their uses of indirect suggestion and appeals to crowd psychology are called into action. Partisan speakers address partisan audiences with the result that real discussion is submerged beneath a flood of oratorical appeal to political party prejudices. At a recent political meeting held in Los Angeles the three thousand "vice-presidents" present shouted themselves hoarse in behalf of the favorite candidate. At a political meeting in Kansas City recently four bands bellowed forth and a thousand flags were waved frantically at a climatic point of the speech that was being made by the "orator" of the occasion. Systematic "heckling" and other negative devices also impede the operation of free discussion methods.

Theological discussion often becomes a pitting of dogmatic statement against dogmatic statement. When scientific truth is advanced, acrimoniousness increases and sometimes ends in heresy trials and bitter persecution. The debates which have raged about evolution and religion, the Virgin Birth, the liberal interpretation of the Bible, baptism, hell-fire doctrines, and so forth, are among the least fruitful forms of discussion. Nowhere have feelings and prejudice so balked the quest for truth.


Two ideas, or institutions, or systems of technique may, in Tarde's words, engage in a mental duel, for example, the duels between Christianity and heathenism, and between Protestant Christianity and Catholic

(202) Christianity, between aristocracy and democracy, between steamships and sailing vessels, between high tariff and low tariff, or between though and tho, and between the Victrola and the Edison talking machines.

The mental duel ends in one of two ways.[8] One idea meets another and annihilates it. In the minds of thinking people, the idea of a round earth has completely superseded the idea of a flat earth. The annihilation may take place slowly, through discussion, or suddenly by resort to arbitrary means, such as war, governmental edict, or personal fiat. The tractor is slowly triumphing over the farm horse, while for those who understand, the discovery of the tubercle bacillus ended suddenly all previous conceptions of the cause of tuberculosis. The contest between voluntary and compulsory military service was settled suddenly in the United States in 1917 by Congressional action.

(2) The mental duel may end in compromise. The stronger elements on both sides may combine to form a new combination. The languages of the Saxons and the Angles came into contact with the languages of the Celts, Latins, and Greeks, and the result was a new, composite vehicle of speech. Words themselves are often combinations of inherently antagonistic roots, or of roots from different languages. Coal miners compete for earnings with coal barons, and the result is generally a compromise. As the orbit of the earth represents an equilibrium between centripetal and centrifugal forces, so our democracy is a compromise in the duel between anarchism and communism. A business college is a compromise between actual business experience and a liberal arts education. The covenant for a League or an Association of Nations is normally a series of compromises between conflicting national interests.

In both types of duels the conflicts are between new inventions and a series of old, established ones. If the differences are very great, the impact is likely to be catastrophic to one or the other or to both contestants ; but if the differences are not basic the conflict may be expected to end in compromise adjustments. The first is known as primary and the other as secondary.


Losing or weak causes oppose discussion,[9] for if they did not do so their tenure would be doomed. Intimidation and calumny are used to head off discussion; weak causes at bay will resort to any vicious action

( 203) in order to forestall discussion. Leaders who insist on stirring up embarrassing discussion are mobbed, exiled, or even killed.

Custom control often precludes discussion. Autocracy cuts off discussion, for it does not want its weak points brought to light. The disclosure of weaknesses by discussion brings about a damaging loss in prestige. Custom pronounces some subjects too "sacred" for discussion and thus maintains its control.

The history of the human race could be written in terms of the struggles to secure freedom of discussion. Public speech and the press are results of gains made against the silence imposed by autocratic custom. Political democracy has been won against powerful odds which have been enthroned in custom control. Political, religious, and industrial autocrats in the name of "God," "patriotism," "sacredness of social institutions," still throttle freedom of discussion wherever possible as a means of maintaining their own forms of customary control. Conscientious objectors are kept in prisons long after the procedure against which they "objected" has ceased to exist. Custom fears discussion lest its weaknesses be disclosed and its standing undermined. When discussion prevails customs must submit to surgery and rejuvenation in order to meet new social conditions. Discussion thus is a major factor in securing change and progress.

The number of "open subjects" with which discussion began historically must have been small. The fight against discussion still continues, for nothing equals it in dispelling the mystery and autocracy of customary control. Deliberation is at first "profane," for it seems to be ruthless in its inroads upon privileged beliefs. It is permitted first with reference to the most visible and tangible matters, for these by their nature cannot be kept under customary control after people begin to think for themselves. Discussion then spreads to the less observable phases of life, and then beneficiaries of special customary privilege resort to misrepresentation and intimidation.

Under autocracy no political parties and no public discussion of the government is permitted ; under democracy discussion of governmental policies is free, and political parties develop as important factors in government. In international affairs President Wilson was sneered at, and finally overcome in the making of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, when he pled for "open agreements openly arrived at." His hands at Paris were tied because the United States had entered the war in 1917, subject to all the secret treaties and agreements which had been made.

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Platform and pulpit discourses provide bases for discussion ; they are effective in arousing the feelings and in stimulating people to the need of social change. The audience must be addressed with images, that is, with appeals to the imagination, rather than with too many facts and with reasoning based on these facts. The greatest truths of science and religion can be put into popular language and brought to the attention of the masses in groups, although the discussion is often wanting, for the responses may be confined to applause, hisses, or personal comments. The assembly as distinguished from the crowd gives more thoughtful attention to the speaker as he leads in a serious discussion.[10]

The classroom group and the discussion group are among the most important discussion agencies. In them there is democratic participation under the guidance of thoughtful, sympathetic, and patient leadership. By the question and answer method mind clashes with mind to the stimulation of both, and in the socialized classroom [11] there is afforded the maximum amount of discussion with a maximum amount of leadership training. The open forum is a successful attempt to utilize the discussion group principle in assembly and other large-scale meetings. Only questions are entertained from the floor and these are repeated distinctly before being answered by the leader.[12]

Law courts, boards of arbitration, wage boards, and similar groups are among the most practical illustrations of how discussion may supplant physical conflict. In good faith the representatives of opposing interests may speak face to face, questioning one another, and obtaining each other's points of view and the reasons therefor; they may have experts present facts for their joint consideration, and so may come to agreement by peaceful means. Sometimes neither side is "won over," and the chairman is obliged to cast the deciding vote, but at other times the presentation of incontrovertible facts may result in a unanimous agreement,[13] thus transforming mental conflict into progress.

In the press discussion is extensively carried on, but usually from the standpoint of special interests, such as those of the newspaper owner and of large-scale advertisers. The owner's bias usually takes a partisan

( 205) form, although at heart it is economic, i. e., a catering to advertisers. Occasionally in parallel columns [14] or in successive issues we find the opposing sides of a live subject being presented to the public for evaluation. The Literary Digest has long followed the method of presenting editorial opinions on both sides of the main topics that engage the public's attention. For sampling opinions this method is good, although as a survey of the facts regarding the problems involved its weakness is apparent.

In magazines of the semi-scientific nature and the journals of the scientific type are found the best printed vehicles of discussion. In books also the various phases of a given theme are presented so that the reader may in effect carry on a discussion with the author and arrive at a new and better judgment. Discussion in other words need not be vocal and between persons in the presence of each other. Discussion is being greatly promoted by the rapid development in means of communication.

The shift from oral discussion to "discussion conducted in print" or by radio represents expansion, but also a certain loss in sharp, intensive stimulation. The modern neglect of the dialectic art which is deplored by Graham Wallas [15] is partly due to an increased speeding up of the life-pace, partly to the emphasis on material gain, and partly to the increased size and complexity of modern society. One of the leading ways to discover new truth is in discussion with a few kindred spirits where one's mind leaps and mounts high.[16] Equal even to the class lectures which I attended as a graduate student were those hour discussions held daily by a small group of students who were doing graduate work in different social science fields. It was there that the strong and weak points of the lectures that had been attended were brought out and our own thinking greatly stimulated and clarified.

An unfortunate but inevitable tendency against which every discussion must guard itself is to allow one person to dominate, with the others nodding assent rather than a free exchange of ideas being evoked.[17] It is a similar tendency which Mr. Wallas describes when he states that of three thousand committee meetings which he had attended "at least half of the men and women with whom I sat were entirely unaware that any conscious mental effort on their part was called for."[18] One of the best

( 206) methods to make a discussion group efficient is to have its work planned beforehand by the chairman in the sense of asking each member to be responsible for ascertaining and presenting facts relative to some phase of the subject to be discussed. The chairman thus has a large responsibility not in doing all the work but in getting the group members to assume responsibility before the group meets, in stimulating their desires to achieve.


Discussion is democratizing, for it brings out all points of view and secures extended participation. In a labor union meeting, men learn to speak for or against a proposition, vote on it, and to abide by the results, thus giving them about the only first hand lessons in democracy which they receive. In a socialized recitation, some member of the class leads the discussion, and not the teacher, who takes part only to correct errors or make new suggestions. In a community council meeting the people, the ordinary neighborhood folk, participate in and direct the discussions. and thus experience a new sense of community and democratic consciousness. These examples of securing progress by democratic discussion rather than by the dicta of leaders illustrate a great difficulty, namely, that time is often wasted. In hours of group crisis discussion is often too slow a method, but in ordinary times the loss of time is more than offset by the "we" feeling engendered. Everyone who in good faith participates in a discussion feels the results obtained to be his and develops a sense of group responsibility.

Discussion "prevents hasty action," and secures thoughtful consideration on the part of a large percentage of the group. W. R. George tells how the boys at the "Republic" in Freeville, New York, while under the impulses of the moment once passed an eight-hour-day law and went fishing, but upon return found that the girls at the Republic had taken advantage of the new law, locked the kitchen, and gone on a picnic. But the boys, however, before going to bed hungry and supperless that night rescinded the eight hour law and passed another to the effect that there-after no bill would be voted upon until it had been posted and discussed for three days. In this way discussion was provided for as a protection against both impulsive leadership and crowd emotion.[19]

Fashion control opens all the doors of discussion. Anything that is new is entitled to a hearing. If the flood gates are suddenly lowered then a surplus of talk is registered. E. A. Ross tells how he found the

(207) Russians in 1917 after the overthrow of the repression policy gathering everywhere and all talking at once. "At the height of some ardent discussion the din becomes deafening, several pouring forth a torrent of argument, expostulation, or remonstrance, and no one able to follow the speech of any other."[20]

Under a fashion régime there is much idle talk, many useless "gabfests," and widespread airing of personal whims. As a rule it is better to allow a disgruntled member of society to hold a meeting and talk himself out. Such procedure will do no harm if the conditions railed against are in reality sound. If social conditions are deplorable then the unchecked agitator may stir up a movement which will destroy the good along with the bad. Too much talk hinders progress. A campaign, said Macaulay, cannot be directed by a debating society.

The only way to secure democratic and scientific discussion is to train people from childhood to discriminate between fact, opinion, and prejudice. The only way to determine facts is not through the experiences of one person, but of several, and by the observations and analyses of trained thinkers. Every person of course may make limited investigations of his own, and become an authority in at least one or more circumscribed fields, although for the most part he will need to rely on authorities and his ability to discriminate between authorities and pretenders.

By developing social responsibility in persons discussion is vital to socialization. It secures an exchange of views, melts prejudices, and leads to tolerance, compromise, and accommodation. By the communication of truth, mutual understanding is achieved, common feeling is engendered, similarities in mental reactions are created, and wholesome co-operation is insured. It is only by democratic and socio-rational discussion that destructive conflicts may be avoided and socialization made possible.


1. Discussion is the most important form of intersocial stimulation.

2. The chief enemies of discussion are prejudice, ignorance, and dogmatic authority.

3. Gossip as a common form of discussion covets secrecy and repeats the cheapest hearsay.

4. The discussion group where each comes prepared to contribute new ideas is a superior agency of intersocial stimulation.


5. With growth in communication, discussion extends its scope but diminishes its intensity.

6. Partisan discussions include such forms of intersocial stimulation as salesmanship, legal battles, college debates, political campaigns, theological polemics.

7, Weak or losing causes shun discussion.

8. The rise of democracy involves a struggle for freedom of discussion.

9. Discussion deepens a person's sense of ethical responsibility and furthers socialization.


1. Why is discussion the highest expression of intersocial stimulation?

2. In what way is discussion the worthiest form of conflict?

3. Why does prejudice cut down the efficiency of discussion?

4. What types of prejudice did Bacon warn against?

5. When is discussion unscientific?

6. Why is legal training valuable as a basis for sound discussion?

7. What is gossip?

8. What are the weaknesses of gossip?

9. What do people talk about most of the time?

10. What are the weaknesses of partisan discussion?

11. Under what circumstances is discussion shut off ?

12. What is the relation of discussion to democracy?

13. How does discussion prevent hasty action?

14. What is the connection between discussion and socialization?


1. Why is discussion able "to hurry conflicts to a conclusion"?

2. What are the leading foes of new ideas?

3. Under what conditions is discussion profitless?

4. Why is truth or wisdom often lacking in the assertions of either extremist in a given discussion?

5. Why did Bacon dwell so extensively on "idols"?

6. Why is there so much gossip?

7. Why does gossip usually center on personalities rather than on principles?

8. Why does gossip generally assume an air of secrecy?

9. How is talk an aid to progress?

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10. Why are several discussion groups apt to be more effective than a mass meeting?

11. When is discussion most opposed?

12. Why has mankind had to fight so continually for freedom of discussion?


Bagehot, W., Physics and Politics (Appleton, 1873), Ch. V.

Carver, T. N., Sociology and Social Progress (Ginn, 1906), Chs. XXI, XXXII.

Ross, E. A., Social Psychology (Macmillan, 1908), Ch. XVIII.

———, Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), pp. 288-299.

Tarde, Gabriel, Social Laws (Macmillan, 1907), pp. 125-132.

Wallas, Graham, The Great Society (Macmillan, 1914), pp. 243-286.


  1. One of the best chapters on "Discussion" is by E. A. Ross, Social Psychology (Macmillan, 1908), Ch. XVIII.
  2. A. K. Rogers, A Student's History of Philosophy (Macmillan, 1908) p. 238.
  3. W.F. Ogburn, "Bias, Psychoanalysis, and the Subjective in Relation to the Social Sciences," Proceedings of the American Sociological Society, XVII: 62-74.
  4. For convenience the reader may consult the single volume edition (Macmillan, 1922).
  5. E. L. Godkin, Problems of Modern Democracy (Scribners, 1896), p. 221.
  6. Ibid., p. 224.
  7. W.F. Ogburn, op. cit., p. 66.
  8. Tarde gives a three-fold classification.
  9. E. A. Ross, Social Psychology, p. 307.
  10. See the Chapter on "Crowds and Mobs."
  11. F. S.. Chapin, "The Socialized Classroom," Jour. of Applied Sociology, February, 1922, pp. 1-13.
  12. Cf. G. W. Coleman, Democracy in the Making (1915).
  13. It is this type of discussion procedure that Miss Follett emphasizes strongly in The New State (Longmans, Green: 1918).
  14. As in the municipal newspaper that was attempted in Los Angeles some years ago.
  15. The Great Society (Macmillan, 1914), p. 243.
  16. E. A. Ross, Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), p. 290.
  17. See the section on "Conservation" in Chapter V.
  18. The Great Society, p. 276.
  19. Junior Republic (Appleton, 1909), p. 229.
  20. Russian Upheaval (Century, 1918), p. 189.

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