Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 32: Originality

Emory S. Bogardus

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ORIGINALITY refers to doing new things. Original ways of doing attract attention to themselves and to the doers, creating thus a leadership prestige. Originality gives a person a striking position in intersocial stimulation. In all interaction there is the impact of action against action or of idea against idea, with the result that leadership and followership phenomena occur and new currents of social reaction are set up.

In an examination of originality we may begin near at hand and ask parents to keep a record of their children's actions and sayings. The results at once begin to pour in, and include a variety of unique things, of new terms coined, new toys invented, new and unexpected reactions made to various stimuli. The investigation does not proceed far before we conclude that nearly every child, at least before he becomes standardized by convention and custom, possesses the priceless trait of originality. Where he does not have copies by which to be guided he often reacts "strangely," thereby demonstrating the universality of originality, of being different, of uniqueness. It is in the margins of uniqueness, i.e., those ways of doing or saying which are different from those of one's associates that originality is to be found.


While persons are far more alike than different, it is their differences which attract attention to them. It has been estimated that the population of the earth could be multiplied forty times before there would be a probability of the exact duplication of the fingerprints of any two persons —a testimony to the existence of physical uniqueness. Intelligence and similar human nature tests, although still in an imperfect and experimental stage, show that no two persons are alike mentally, that each is different in one or more particulars from everyone else and hence unique. The social reactions of human beings to similar stimuli are often diverse beyond measure, and specific conduct traits are so distinctive that while behavior of a mass or of large numbers of persons is predictable, the behavior of an

( 371) individual is not. Since these margins of uniqueness constitute originality, a more or less spectacular, amazing, and influential factor in all social interaction, let us analyze the origin of these margins.

The bases of uniqueness and originality are found in part in differences in heredity.[1] Because of the endless varieties of combinations possible in the unicellular origin of human life, it is almost certain that no two children will have exactly the same inheritance. Twins may vary widely in their hereditary manifestations, while even so-called identical twins sooner or later manifest inherited variations. The apparent impossibility of exactly the same cellular start in life explains certain hereditary differences and hence margins of uniqueness.[2]

The origins of uniqueness and originality are also found in the differences in human experiences and in the number, variety, and quality of social contacts.[3] It is impossible for two persons to have identical experiences, the same social contacts, and the same stimuli all the time or even most of the time, for the simple physical reason that two bodies cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Even in parental reactions to twins, for example, of the non-identical type, there are glaring differences. The sweet-tempered twin is at an advantage over the fretful one, especially when the parents are themselves tired and ill-humored. Neither are so-called identical twins treated alike by parents, despite the desire of the latter to do so. One of the two receives attention prior to the other and at least under slightly differing circumstances of sympathy, love, and fatigue. To the extent that the stimuli are different, the resultant reactions may be expected to be different, thus constituting uniqueness and even originality in conduct.

The mental reactions of parents to children of differing ages are diverse. When a child reaches the ten year age limit, his parents are older than when his older brother or sister was ten, and hence their viewpoints of life have changed in certain particulars, causing them unconsciously to respond differently to the needs of the younger child than to the same needs of the older one when he was at the ten year mark. Thus, variations in treatment produce variations in reactions on the par

( 373) of the two children, and figure in the uniqueness of the personality of each.

But if parental treatment of children varies greatly, how much different also is the play life and environment, the school life, and the other daily experiences of children—especially if they belong to different families, if they live in different parts of a city, or of the nation, or if they are members of different races with dissimilar traditions and cultures. In consequence, the environmental stimuli experienced by one person are in many ways unlike those of any other person. As contended by the present writer in another connection,[4] men's margins of uniqueness and the originalities in their behavior are thus partly the natural result of the wide range of possibilities in inheritance, in the unlimited variation in social stimuli, and in the incalculable interplay between all these factors.

Oftentimes the inscrutability, and hence uniqueness or even originality of personality is due to relatively simple processes. For example, in concentrating his attention painstakingly and persistently in a single direction, a person can master all that is known along that line and thus put himself in the position of being able to make a new contribution to civilization. To the extent that he thus focalizes his psychic energy [5] he may build up a genuine uniqueness and an effective originality.[6] If this focalization culminates in invention and leadership then the uniqueness of the individual may become a matter of public recognition and even of historical record.

He who does something that no one else has achieved, who builds a new university, writes a new piece of social legislation, creates a socially stimulating poem, or she who contributes her life to developing a new community spirit in her neighborhood, gives her days in self sacrifice to training her children into becoming useful citizens, has demonstrated uniqueness and may be credited with real originality. He who by concentrated effort reaches the point where he knows more about one thing than anyone else does or who has learned to do one thing better than any one else is unique, original, and ipso facto a potential leader. To the extent that one leads in defying a particular evil in politics, business, education, or religion he is thereby justly accounted original.

Originality is the essence of individuality. If personality comprises reactions which are similar the world over, it also is characterized by re-

( 374) -actions which are new, unique, and original, that is by individuality. Uniqueness of inherited traits combined with uniqueness of experience are a double guarantee of individuality. Thus every person above the moron level may build up points of view which are distinctly his own, and which distinguish him from his fellow group members, and which constitute evidences of originality.

Vocational guidance depends in a way upon discovering an individual's variations or his originalities. When we describe a person as a round peg in a square hole, or as having missed his calling, we often mean that his margins of originality have been ignored. These margins give a person fields of activity and development in which no one can compete with him. A cross section of one's "margins" discloses what one can do that others cannot. In these noncompetitive, original phases of personality there is unlimited room for invention, leadership, and social achievement.

Since originality gives leadership advantages and since every person, of at least ordinary intelligence, possesses original traits, everyone thus may be considered as having potential leadership qualities. Moreover, the unique and original traits of persons interact as vigorous stimuli and consequently originality in the absence of repression is multiplied indefinitely.


Democracy stimulates originality. The hope of a dynamic democracy is found in uniqueness. The masses are often deemed a herd, all alike and drab in mental color; but as individuals they possess margins of originality with surprising possibilities of contributing to group advance. By educating all the people their margins of originality may function; social interactions will be characterized by countless new stimuli; and group life will become colorful with unnumbered hues of new activities. Education may easily give a premium value to the margins of originality of all persons and make democracy perhaps a thousandfold more dynamic than any other form of social control.

People do not stimulate each other by their likenesses so much as by their unlikenesses. Submerge the margins of originality and life will fail to rise above mediocrity, and progress will cease. Stimulate and expand and enrich originalities and human life will throb with new vigor and power. But this giant of power will need to be harnessed by socialization, or else it may turn against human welfare.

Migration and travel bring comparisons and lead to particularizations.

( 375) Migration indirectly brings about an adaptation of one culture to another with possible improvements upon one or both. Travel sets the comparing mental processes at work, new ideas "are brought home," and sooner or later improvements upon even these ideas may appear, for rarely does an importation take the place of an old technique.

Scientific education awakens originality. It develops the questioning method and draws personality out along new lines of thought and endeavor. It gives comparative bases for thinking and hence arouses new mental activity. It creates a sense of new needs and a dissatisfaction with previously accepted ideas. Consequently, the individual is thrust into a condition of mental unrest that may eventuate in new and distinctive social products.

Research naturally leads to original findings. When a trained person, who has mastered a given technique and a specific field of knowledge, devotes his abilities methodically to exploration and experimentation in that field, original discoveries or inventions are sooner or later almost certain to appear. Research brings established customs under criticism and challenges conventionalized beliefs with the result that new standards are called forth.

Individualization often liberates originalities. E. A. Ross explains individualization in terms of "the processes which pulverize social lumps and release the action of their members."[7] Crusts form over a group until individual initiation is crushed or smothered. Ideas and social techniques tend to become formalized and red tape multiplies until the individual loses much of his autonomy. A social procedure that redounds to the profit of a few individuals, of an "interest," or "clique," and is used by such a minority to further itself in power and to enrich its members is enforced with an iron hand by the minority while the "masses" are robbed of a chance to express their individualities and hence their originalities. A slave system punished severely any slave who showed a "will of his own ;" it required docility and uniformity. A large orphans' home gives to each child much less than a normal degree of development as persons. The conventional method of dealing with convicted persons has been to standardize the punishment according to the offense rather than to provide for varying treatment according to the offenders. An army officer gives an order and the men do not respond freely in individual ways but in one standardized and habitualized way. The tendency is to standardize individuals so completely that they become a "mass," with no chance for the expression of originality.


New experiences and new situations promote originality. A person finds that established ways of doing do not meet new situations and is forced to initiate. New experiences contain new stimuli which arouse latent originalities.

Revolutions stimulate originality in "beating the established game" or régime, in securing an opportunity to start and execute a successful overthrow. To the extent that a revolution destroys customary procedure for the common needs of life, originality is necessary in devising new techniques.

Faith in progress furnishes important stimuli to originality. New ideals are postulated and new methods for attaining ideals are invented. Faith in progress is the mental atmosphere in which originality in business, teaching, and so on is generated.

Discussion if well conducted creates originality. Ideas are brought together and pooled; in the pooling, new ideas are generated. Ideas are synthesized and new ones take form. The live discussion group arouses more originality in thinking perhaps than can be done by any other social means.


Originality is clearly related to the first half of life, when energies abound and are freely expressed in new, unanticipated, and original directions. Youth is ambitious and dares to do that which has never been achieved and hence what is often original. The desire for personal advancement, to outdo a competitor, or to receive public acclaim sometimes leads to surprising exhibitions of prowess in novel and original ways. Youth with its limited experiences and its ambitious fervor creates illusions for itself. It rushes in where wiser heads would be cautious; it often plunges against unexpected obstacles, but occasionally, to the amazement of mature counselors, it achieves the "impossible," and in so doing manifests original traits that otherwise would not have been called into being. Oftentimes the choicest exhibitions of originality are displayed in childhood, before behavior has become standardized in accordance with customs and conventions.

As the years of maturity come and middle life is passed, originality in behavior decreases.[8] Reactions to life, even to the new problems of life, "harden into habits ;" old ways of meeting new problems prevail. The increasing conservatism of age, based on habitual ways of meeting life's obstacles, is fatal to originality. When one has thought a problem

( 377) through once and come to a decision, and has resorted to that decision repeatedly, habit rules and originality is at an end. Then there is ultimately a decline of the mental powers of the individual which sets in, and paralyzes what originality may exist. Originality, therefore, we may expect to find expressed in the early years of life, certainly before the age of 45, but in later years also in those persons who maintain a physical and mental exuberance and at the same time habits of honest inquiry with reference to every phase of life.


It has been customary to rate man the more original of the sexes. As evidence man's superior achievements and his predominance in the field of inventions have been repeatedly cited. On the other hand man's wider and more numerous social contacts have been conceded as accounting for nearly all of his superior achievements ; and woman's limitation, educationally, industrially, and in every other way, has been offered as explaining her relatively poor showing.

To the extent that woman matures earlier than man, her powers have less chance of development.[9] Her development is functional, relating to her traits as a woman and a mother. Nature and custom seem to have circumscribed and standardized woman's sphere, at least historically, until surplus energies had no outlet except in gossiping, in giving recurring attention to dress, or in other limiting ways.

The relative brain power and originality possibilities of the two sexes are unknown, for the achievements of men may be accounted for by a larger range of activities and more varied stimuli. Woman's "flashes of insight," or her intuition, to use a popular term, may give her a superior claim to originality, although the significance of this intuitiveness is often exaggerated. Intuition may be nature's defence for woman against the handicaps of a circumscribed sphere and the consequent limitation of technique and knowledge which man has had a better opportunity to acquire.

Love awakens original effort. While much of this product is "mush," the evidences of worthwhile originality are not missing. As the mocking bird strikes new notes and "outdoes himself" in singing to his mate at some midnight hour, so the spirit of love has prompted the writing of poetry, the composition of librettos, the painting of masterpieces, and perhaps original achievements in the scientific laboratory, as well as unlimited routine tasks by earth's millions. It would be surprising indeed

( 378) if out of this vast volume of achievement made up of "millions of small increments in all lands and all shades and grades of life, building ever higher and broader the coral reef of civilization,"[10] there did not appear many evidences of originality.


The field of inspiration as a phase of originality is scientifically unexplored. Inspiration, as such, has usually been berated by science, and yet it persists in its claims. One of the difficulties is that of measuring it or of referring to it objectively. It is so highly subjective and elusive that it has been greatly underrated by science.

Another disadvantage is that inspiration often violates all known social laws. The vagaries of the artistic temperament are well known. Inspiration reacts against law, especially of the conventional and customary types as well as law in its legal forms. It is constantly thus receiving the disapproval if not the scorn of conservative people.

Inspiration waits on mood, whereas the scientific procedure is to work and to keep on working. Inspiration knows no ten-hour day; it revolts against any standardization of work. It works when it feels like it, and insists on long siestas. It does not know its own nature and its coming cannot be forecasted or courted to any extent. At the middle of the night or in the early morning hours or at whatever unexpected hours it comes, it must be caught and promptly put into objective form of verse, musical composition, or of other expression that best suits its delicate and highly attuned nature.[11]

Even the scientific man finds his best work being done rhythmically. A university president reports :

All my books and even more serious articles have been written with a certain fervor which I am very prone to overwork and, as the task proceeds, I am pushed by an interest that takes possession of me and which I have to restrain. And after each one is done there is always a feeling of impotence and exhaustion in which I lie fallow and abandon myself to the luxury of reading, which at first tends to be desultory until slowly another center of interest is constellated which may culminate in an urge to write in order to express my personal reaction upon the material that has been accumulated.[12]

Inspiration is related to genius. It is generally accredited with constituting genius. It undoubtedly possesses strong hereditary lines of

( 379) descent. It defies scientific cultivation, seeming to operate according to laws of its own. Its unheralded appearance and its startling manifestations align it with many of the chief characteristics of genius.

The connection between the subconscious and inspiration is by no means clear, but since inspiration is beyond conscious control it is to be identified in part with the subconscious. Inspiration springs from the nonconscious levels into original products without much relation, often-times, to objective stimuli. The hereditary phases of originality seem to remain hidden in the mysteries of the unconscious except as now and then, at "inspired moments" originality is manifested in overt action.

The relation of inspiration and originality to the feelings is another puzzling question. Inspiration is often exaltation of feeling, but in this form it quickly effervesces without producing original results. When a large feeling element is combined with the sturdier qualities of intelligence, as in the case of wit, or of writing an original poem, inspiration is at its best. Originality reaches its highest levels when its hereditary qualities find expression in the exaltation of emotion tempered and made rational by intelligent guidance.


1. New types of behavior are the chief evidences of originality.

2. Originality, other conditions being favorable, produces leadership.

3. It is in a person's margins of uniqueness that his originality is expressed.

4. Originality consists in inherited qualities that are developed by social contacts.

5. Since each person's social contacts, and hence his social stimuli, are widely different in many aspects from any other person's contacts, he would develop unique traits even though his hereditary traits were not unique.

6. The merit of vocational guidance is to be found in part in diagnosing a child's originality traits, which, however, do not all reach fruition until maturity.

7. To stimulate originality is one of the main functions of democracy.

8. Education and individualism liberate originality.

9. Originality culminates in the first half of life.

10. Originality is distributed more or less evenly between the sexes.

11. Inspiration, although intangible and elusive, is an important phase of originality.

( 380)


1. What is originality?

2. How common is originality?

3. What is the relation of originality to leadership?

4. What is meant by "margins of uniqueness"?

5.What are the three main sources of marginal uniqueness?

6. What is the relation of social contacts to originality?

7. How may one obtain originality? By deliberately seeking it?

8. In what ways does originality enrich democracy?

9. What is individuation?

10. Why does originality flourish in the days of one's youth and early maturity?

11.Why have men made more inventions than women?

12. How is inspiration and originality related?


1. What is the derivation of the term, originality?

2. When does originality fail of producing leadership?

3. Why is vocational guidance especially difficult when viewed social-psychologically ?

4. Give a new illustration of creative synthesis among mental phenomena.

5. Can you postulate a law showing the correlation between individuality and originality?

6. Why does autocracy cherish a theory of mental mediocrity or inferiority concerning the masses of the people?

7. Why should the later years of life be the most original rather than the least?

8. What is intuition?

9. What is inspiration?

10. Can you name any scientific basis of inspiration?

I l. What method of conducting a class calls forth most originality in the student?

12. What might parents do in the home to stimulate originality in their children?

13. How do the best factory managers encourage originality in their workmen?

( 381)

14. Compare in detail the type of education which aims to stimulate originality with that which aims to produce acquiescence and obedience.


Dewey, John, Human Nature and Conduct (Holt, 1922), pp. 95-105.

Edman, Irwin, Human Traits and their Significance (Houghton Mifflin, 1920), Ch. IX.

Follett, M. P., The New State (Longmans, Green: 1918), Chs. VII-IV.

Knowlson, T. S., Originality (Laurie, London, 1918).

Ribot, T., The Creative Imagination (Falcan, Paris, 1921).

Ross, E. A., Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), Ch. I-VI.

Ward, L. F., The Psychic Factors of Civilization (Ginn, 1906), Chs. XXI-XXVI.


  1. See S. J. Holmes, The Trend of the Race (Harcourt, Brace: 1921), Ch. V; H. E. Walter, Genetics (Macmillan, 1921), Ch. III; Popenoe and Johnson, Applied Eugenics (Macmillan, 1920), Chs. II-V.
  2. For a further discussion of the original human nature factors, see E. L. Thorn-dike, The Original Nature of Man (Teachers College, Columbia Univ.; 1920), Chs. I-III; J. B. Watson, Psychology (Lippincott, 1919), Chs. I-VII;and W. B. Pillsbury, Fundamentals of Psychology (Macmillan, 1922), Chs. VI, VII.
  3. See Park and Burgess, Introduction to the Science of Sociology (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1921), Ch. V; I. Edman, Human Traits and their Significance (Houghton Mifflin, 1918), Ch. IX.
  4. '"Man's Margin of Uniqueness," Jour. of Applied Sociology, VII:207-211.
  5. For an elaboration of the stirring concept of "focalizing" one's psychic energy, see L. F. Ward, Pure Sociology (Macmillan, 1914), p. 36.
  6. For an explanation of the relation of the born genius to the hard-work genius, see the following chapter on "Genius and Talent."
  7. Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), p. 439.
  8. T. S. Knowlson, Originality (Laurie, London, 1918), p. 133.
  9. Knowlson, Originality, pp. 138 ff.
  10. L. F. Ward, Pure Sociology, p. 403.
  11. Ibid., pp. 77-86.
  12. G. Stanley Hall, Life and Confessions of a Psychologist (Appleton, 1923), P. 573.

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