The Need and Opportunity for Experimental Social Psychology

John Frederick Dashiell
University of North Carolina

IT WOULD seem that the handwriting on the wall has been read especially by the psychologists of Russia and of Germany. In Russia, in addition to the already existing universities and technical schools, there have been established over eight hundred institutes to investigate the basic psychological problems of human behavior in society. In Germany, the majority of original papers presented now at sessions of psychological societies have been devoted to analyses of social psychological problems. It is true that in both cases the investigators are not motivated purely by interest in knowledge per se but are working in behalf of the political aims of the Soviet and of der Führer; yet the fact remains that they are at work. In America, too, some beginnings have been made.

Now, what kinds of approaches can be made to the study of society that can possibly be scientific and experimental! We may remind ourselves that, after all, man-in-the-mass is really men-in-the-mass, and that the behavior of each of these men is a matter of his situation and his response.

The general method of experimentation in this field is to compare the individual's measured achievements when under influences from other persons present, with his measured achievements when he is working alone.

Suppose we consider the Effect of Spectators or Auditors. Experimental studies on this problem take the form of testing a given individual's ability when he is working alone and comparing it with his ability when working before others who are watching and listening. Unfortunately, such studies have not produced consistent results. In one where each subject worked on paper-and-pencil tests, the presence of spectators had the effect of reducing the accuracy of his work while increasing his speed; and this is probably the type of result to be most generally expected. However, there are studies in which the opposite effects seem to appear.

Another problem is that of the Effect of Co-workers. Allport's study is the classic here. With a distinct majority of his subjects he found a speeding-up under the co-working conditions, generally accompanied by decrease in quality. He made a qualitative analysis of probable factors that were operative-facilitation by perception of others at work, some rivalry, and on the other hand, distraction and excitement.

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It must be added that other investigators following his same plan of work have failed to obtain these findings consistently. And it turns out that social facilitation fails to appear at all with tasks of unskilled heavy muscular type. We conclude then that whether the presence of co-workers facilitates or inhibits one's own work depends in very large part upon the precise character of the task-and of course this points one avenue of research.

One substantial discovery is to be noted, because found by several investigators. Working together seems to affect favorably the poorer individuals much more than the better. An important levelling influence, then.

There is the problem of Rivalry. In a follow-up of Allport's study the introduction of the rivalry motive made for further increase of speed and further decrease of quality.

There is the problem of Encouragement-Discouragement. Studies on adults suffer on either of two points. Some are based upon the memories of the subjects covering episodes in earlier years. The others are at variance as showing whether or not there is a facilitative effect of encouragement. The field is wide open.

Consider the problem of Group Discussion. Here is a head under which an assortment of studies have been prosecuted. But what is meant by "discussion?" As in the case of Bekhterev's researches, we arc usually given no very definite statement nor description of how the discussing went on.

Yet this is an exceedingly important field. The relationship between the individual person and his group is a more complicated one now. His own contribution in discussion is actively or tacitly solicited, a matter of weighty import when we regard the unusual individual, who with his original ideas may make opportunity for the whole assemblage to consider and adopt plans and procedures that would never have occurred to the prosaic average man.

In a discussion group is more advance made by the mere presentation of different viewpoints or by the pro and con arguments about them? Some pretty good evidence points to the importance of the former. But repetition of the work is needed, also of the studies of the efficiency of different-sized groups.

In Moore's study published in 1921 it was indicated that the effect on the individual of knowing the majority opinion is greater in some lines of opinion than in others (musical taste). This point has received only one working-out in the 15 years since-which is symptomatic of how the whole field of experimental social psychology has been lying fallow.

The Influence of Suggestion. Underlying all the phenomena I have mentioned is the fundamental fact that one person can be influenced by another or others in nonlogical ways, i.e., he is suggestible.

As a scientific topic, "suggestion" has been revived recently as a result of investigations of Hull and his co-workers.

He has studied the influence of this suggestion phenomenon exerted by drugs, sex, age, intelligence, and the like.

To summarize: The researches in experimental social psychology have been few, scattered, for the most part inconclusive, and without verification by others. This cannot be interpreted as due to the inherent difficulty of experimental work here, for some fairly clean cut studies point otherwise. It must be due to a failure to appreciate the opportunities for research. And they are really astonishing in their number and their variety.

Now it seems to me that the call for further work in this field, besides being insistent and imperative, is a simple one.

( 492) It is a demand, I believe, not so much for the discovering of new concepts and points of view nor for the devising of radically novel experimental modi operandi. It is a demand for more and ever more repetition and checking of the pioneer studies that have been made, and the introduction of experimental manipulation of the many variables involved in all such work. There is nothing very dramatic about this. It is simply a call and an opportunity for spade work.

What about different sizes of groups? Groups of different kinds of personal composition? Different kinds of tasks? Individual differences in the subjects themselves?—These are but a few.

I make a bolder suggestion. This field of work is so extensive-there arc so many types of problems large and small, and so many variables crying for analysis and partialling out—that its development ought not to be left to the sporadic and occasional investigations of men who, here and there, chance to be interested in this detail or in that. The development of the research ought to be undertaken by an institute or station, well located with reference to school and other types of population. I submit that such an establishment would easily justify itself in the character of the output and in its relevance to, fundamental problems in our national life.


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