An Introduction to Social Psychology

  Chapter 1: Introduction

William McDougall

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AMONG students of the social sciences there has always been a certain number who have recognised the fact that some knowledge of the human mind and of its modes of operation is an essential part of their equipment, and that the successful development of the social sciences must be dependent upon the fullness and accuracy of such knowledge. These propositions are so obviously true that any formal attempt to demonstrate them is superfluous. Those who do not accept them as soon as they are made will not be convinced of their truth by any chain of formal reasoning. It is, then, -a remarkable fact that psychology, the science which claims to formulate the body of ascertained truths about the constitution and working of the mind, and which endeavours to refine and to add to this knowledge, has not been generally and practically recognised as the essential common foundation on which all the social sciences—ethics, economics, political science, philosophy of history, sociology, and cultural anthropology, and the more special social sciences, such as the sciences of religion, of law, of education, and of art—must be built up. Of the workers in these sciences, some, like Comte, and, at the present time, M. Durkheim, repudiate the

( 2) claim of psychology to such recognition. Some do lip service to psychology, but in practice ignore it, and will sit down to write a treatise on morals or economics, or any other of the social sciences, cheerfully confessing that they know nothing of psychology. A certain number, perhaps the majority, of recent writers on social topics recognise the true position of psychology, but in practice are content to take as their psychological foundations the vague and extremely misleading psychology embodied in common speech, with the addition of a few hasty assumptions about the mind made to suit their particular purposes. There are signs, however, that this regrettable state of affairs is about to pass away, that psychology will before long be accorded in universal practice the position at the base of the social sciences which the more clear-sighted have long seen that it ought to occupy.

Since this volume .is designed to promote this change of practice, it is fitting that it should open with a brief inquiry into the causes of the anomalous state of affairs at present obtaining and with some indication of the way in which it is hoped that the change may be brought about. For there can be no question that the lack of practical recognition of psychology by the workers in the social sciences has been in the main due to its deficiencies, and that the only way of establishing it in its true place is to make good these deficiencies. What, then, are these deficiencies, and why have they so long persisted? We may attempt very briefly to indicate the answers to these questions without presuming to apportion any blame for the long continuance of these deficiencies between the professed psychologists and the workers in the social sciences.

The department of psychology that is of primary im-

( 3) -portance for the social sciences is that which deals with the springs of human action, the impulses and motives that sustain mental and bodily activity and regulate conduct ; and this, of all the departments of psychology, is the one that has remained in the most backward state, in which the greatest obscurity, vagueness, and confusion still reign. The answers to such problems as the proper classification of conscious states, the analysis of them into their elements, the nature of these elements and the laws of the compounding of them, have but little bearing upon the social. sciences ; the same may be said of the range of problems connected with the relations of soul and body, of psychical and physical process, of consciousness and brain processes; and also of the discussion of the more purely intellectual processes, of the way we arrive at the perception of relations of time and place or of likeness and difference, of the classification and description of the intellectual process of ideation, conception, comparison, and abstraction, and of their relations to one another. Not these processes themselves, but only the results or products of these processes—the knowledge or system of ideas and beliefs achieved by them, and the way in which these ideas and beliefs regulate conduct and determine social institutions and the relations of men to one another in society are of immediate importance for the social sciences. It is the mental forces, the sources of energy, which set the ends and sustain the course of all human activity—of which forces the intellectual processes are but the servants, instruments, or means—that must be clearly de-fined, and whose history in the race and in the individual must be made clear, before the social sciences can build upon a firm psychological foundation. Now, it is with the questions of the former classes that psychologists have

( 4) chiefly concerned themselves and in regard to which they have made the most progress towards a consistent and generally acceptable body of doctrine: and they have unduly neglected these more socially important problems.

This has been the result of several conditions, a result which we, looking back upon the history of the sciences, can see to have been inevitable. It was inevitable that, when men began to reflect upon the complex phenomena of social life, they should have concentrated their attention upon the problems immediately presented, and should have sought to explain them deductively from more or less vaguely conceived principles that they entertained they knew not why or how, principles that were the formulations of popular conceptions, slowly grown up in the course of countless generations and rendered more explicit, but hardly less obscure, by the labours of theologians and metaphysicians. And when, in the eighteenth century and the early part of the nineteenth century, the modern principles of scientific method began to be generally accepted and to be applied to all or most objects of human speculation, and the various social sciences began to be marked off from one another along the modern lines, it was inevitable that the workers in each department of social science should have continued in the same way, attempting to explain social phenomena from proximate principles which they falsely conceived to be fundamental, rather than to obtain a deeper knowledge of the fundamental constitution of the human mind. It was not to be expected that generations of workers, whose primary interest it was to lay down general rules for the guidance of human activity in the great fields of legislation, of government, of private and public conduct, should have deliberately put aside the attempt to construct the sciences of these departments of life, leaving

( 5) them to the efforts of after-coming generations, while they devoted themselves to the preparatory work of investigating the individual mind, in order to secure the basis of psychological truth on which the labours of their successors might rear the social sciences. The problems confronting them were too urgent; customs, laws, and institutions demanded theoretical justification, and those who called out for social reform sought to strengthen their case with theoretical demonstrations of its justice and of its conformity with the accepted principles of human nature.

And even if these early workers in the social sciences had made this impossible self-denying ordinance, it would not have been possible for them to achieve the psychology that was needed. For a science still more fundamental, one whose connection with the social phenomena they sought to explain or justify was still more remote and obscure, had yet to be created—namely, the science of biology. It is only comparative and evolutionary psychology that can provide the needed basis; and this could not be created before the work of Dar-win had convinced men of the continuity of human with animal evolution as regards all bodily characters, and had prepared the way for the quickly following recognition of the similar continuity of man's mental evolution with that of the animal world.

Hence the workers in each of the social sciences, approaching their social problems in the absence of any established body of psychological truth and being compelled to make certain assumptions about the mind, made them ad hoc; and in this way they provided the indispensable minimum of psychological doctrine required by each of them. Many of these assumptions contained sufficient truth to give them a certain plausibility ; but

( 6) they were usually of such a sweeping character as to leave no room for, and to disguise the need for, more accurate and detailed psychological analysis. And not only were these assumptions made by those who had not prepared themselves for the task by long years of study of the mind in all its many aspects and by the many possible avenues of approach, but they were not made with the single-hearted aim of discovering the truth ; rather they were commonly made under the bias of an interest in establishing some normative doctrine ; the search for what is was clogged and misled at every step by the desire to establish some preconceived view as to what ought to be. When, then, psychology began very slowly and gradually to assert its status as an independent science, it found all that part of its province which has the most immediate and important bearing on the social sciences already occupied by the fragmentary and misleading psychological assumptions of the workers in these sciences ; and these workers naturally resented all attempts of psychology to encroach upon the territory they had learned to look upon as their own; for such attempts would have endangered their systems.

The psychologists, endeavouring to define their science and to mark it off from other sciences, were thus led to accept a too narrow view of its scope and methods and applications. They were content for the most part to define it as the science of consciousness, and to regard introspection as its only method; for the introspective analysis and description of conscious states was a part of the proper work of psychology that had not been undertaken by any other of the sciences. The insistence upon introspection as the one method of the science tended to prolong the predominance of this narrow and paralysing view of the scope of the science; for the life

( 7) of emotion and the play of motives is the part of our mental life which offers the least advantageous field for introspective observation and description. The cognitive or intellectual processes, on the other hand, present a rich and varied content of consciousness which lends itself well to introspective discrimination, analysis, and description; in comparison with it, the emotional and conative consciousness has but little variety of content, and that little is extremely obscure and elusive of introspection.

Then, shortly after the Darwinian ideas had revolutionised the biological sciences, and when it might have been hoped that psychologists would have been led to take a wider view of their science and to assert its rights to its whole field, the introduction of the experimental methods of introspection absorbed the energies of a large proportion of the workers in the re-survey, by the new and more accurate methods, of the ground already worked by the method of simple introspection.

Let us note some instances of the unfortunate results of this premature annexation of the most important and obscure region of psychology by the sciences which should, in the logical order of things, have found the fundamental psychological truths ready to their hands as a firm basis for their constructions.

Ethics affords perhaps the most striking example ; for any writer on this subject necessarily encounters psychological problems on every hand, and treatises on ethics are apt to consist very largely of amateur psychologising. Among the earlier moralists the lack of psychological insight led to such doctrines as that of certain Stoics, to the effect that the wise and good man should seek to eradicate the emotions from his bosom; or that of Kant, to the effect that the wise and good man

( 8) should be free from desire. Putting aside, however, these quaint notions of the earlier writers, we may note that in modern times three false and hasty assumptions of the kind stigmatised above have played leading roles and have furnished a large part of the matter with which ethical controversy has been busied during the nineteenth century. First in importance perhaps as a topic for controversy was the doctrine known as psychological hedonism, the doctrine that the motives of all human activity are the desire of pleasure and the aversion to pain. Hand in hand with this went the false assumption that happiness and pleasure are synonymous terms. These two false assumptions were adopted as the psychological foundation of utilitarianism; they rendered that doctrine repugnant to many of the best minds and drove them to fall back upon vague and mystical conceptions. Of these the old conception of a special faculty of moral intuition, a conscience, a moral sense or instinct, was the most important; and this was the third of the trio of false psychological assumptions on which ethical systems were based. Many of those who adopted some form of this last assumption were in the habit of supplementing it by similar assumptions hastily made to afford explanations of any tendencies they noted in human conduct which their master principle was inadequate to meet; they postulated strange instincts of all kinds as lightly and easily as a conjurer produces eggs from a hat or a phrenologist discovers bumps on a head.

It is instructive to note that as recently as the year 1893 the late Professor H. Sidgwick, one of the leaders of the ethical thought of his time, still inverted the problem; like his predecessors he assumed that moral or reasonable action is normal and natural to man in virtue of some vaguely conceived principle, and in all serious-

( 9) -ness wrote an article[1] to prove that "unreasonable action" is possible and is actually achieved occasionally, and to explain if possible this strange anomalous fact. He quotes Bentham's dictum that "on the occasion of every act he exercises every human being is led to pursue that line of conduct which, according to his view of the case, taken by him at the moment, will be in the highest degree contributory to his own greatest happiness." He points out that, although J. S. Mill admitted certain exceptions to this principle, his general view was that "to desire anything, except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical impossibility." So that, according to this school, any action of an individual that does not tend to produce for him the maxi-mum of pleasure can only arise from an error of judgment as to the relative quantities of pleasure that will be secured by different lines of action. And, since, according to this school, all actions ought to be directed to se-curing a maximum of pleasure, action of any other kind is not only unreasonable action, but also immoral action ;for it is action in a way other than the way in which the individual knows he ought to act. Sidgwick then goes on to show that the doctrine that unreasonable action (or wilful action not in accordance with what the individual knows that he ought to do) is exceptional, paradoxical, or abnormal is not peculiar to the utilitarians, but is common also to their opponents ; he takes as an example T. H. Green, who "still lays down as broadly as Bentham that every person in every moral action, virtuous or vicious, presents to himself some possible state or achievement of his own as for the time his greatest good, and acts for the sake of that good, and that this is how he ought to act." So that Green only

(10) differs from Bentham and Mill in putting good in the place of pleasure, and for the rest makes the same grotesquely false assumption as they do. Sidgwick then, instead of attacking and rejecting as radically false the conception of human motives common to both classes of his predecessors, goes on in all seriousness to offer a psychological explanation of the paradox that men do sometimes act unreasonably and otherwise than they ought to act. That is to say, Sidgwick, like those whom he criticises, accepts the doctrine that men normally and in the vast majority of cases act reasonably and as they ought to act, in virtue of some unexplained principle of their constitution, and defines as a problem for solution the fact that they sometimes act otherwise. But the truth is that men are moved by a variety of impulses whose nature has been determined through long ages of the evolutionary process without reference to the life of men in civilised societies; and the psychological problem we have to solve, and with which this book is mainly concerned, is—How can we account for the fact that men so moved ever come to act as they ought, or morally and reasonably?

One is driven to suppose that the minds of the moral philosophers who maintain these curious views as to the sources and nature of human conduct are either constitutionally devoid of the powerful impulses that so often move ordinary men to actions which they know to be morally wrong and against their true interests and destructive of their happiness, or so completely moralised by strict self-discipline that these powerful impulses are completely subordinated and hardly make themselves felt. But, if either alternative is true, it is unfortunate that their peculiar constitutions should have led these philoso-

( 11) -phers to base the social sciences on profoundly fallacious psychological doctrines.

Political economy suffered hardly less from the crude nature of the psychological assumptions from which it professed to deduce the explanations of its facts and its prescriptions for economic legislation. It would be a libel, not altogether devoid of truth, to say that the classical political economy was a tissue of false conclusions drawn from false psychological assumptions. Aril certainly the recent progress in economic doctrine has largely consisted in, or resulted from, the recognition of the need for a less inadequate psychological basis. An example illustrating these two facts will be not out of place. The great assumption of the classical political economy was that man is a reasonable being who al-ways intelligently seeks his own good or is guided in all his activities by enlightened self-interest; and this was usually combined with the psychological hedonism which played so large a part in degrading utilitarian ethics; that is to say, good was identified with pleasure. From these assumptions, which contained sufficient truth to be plausible, it was deduced, logically enough, that free competition in an open market will secure a supply of goods at the lowest possible rate. But mankind is only a little bit reasonable and to a great extent very unintelligently moved in quite unreasonable ways. The economists had neglected to take account of the suggestibility of men which renders the arts of the advertiser, of the "pushing" of goods generally, so profitable and effective. Only on taking this character of men into ac-count can we understand such facts as that sewing machines, which might be sold at a fair profit for £5, find a large sale at £12, while equally good ones are sold in the same market at less than half the price. The same

(12) deduction as to competition and prices has been signally falsified by those cases in which the establishment by trusts or corporations of virtual monopolies in articles of universal consumption has led to a reduction of the market prices of those commodities; or again, by the fact that so enormous a proportion of the price paid for goods goes into the pockets of small shopkeepers and other economically pernicious middlemen.

As an example of the happy effect of the recent introduction of less crude psychology into economic discussions, it will suffice to mention Mrs. Bosanquet's work on "The Standard of Life."

In political science no less striking illustrations may be found. What other than an error due to false psychological assumptions was the cosmopolitanism of the Manchester school, with its confident prophecy of the universal brotherhood of man brought about by en-lightened self-interest assigning to each region and people the work for which it was best suited? This prophecy has been notoriously falsified by a great outburst of national spirit, which has played the chief part in shaping European history during the last half-century.

Again, in the philosophy of history we have the same method of deduction from hasty, incomplete, and misleading, if not absolutely false, assumptions as to the human mind. We may take as a fair example the assumptions that V. Cousin made the foundation of his philosophy of history. Cousin, after insisting strongly upon the fundamental importance of psychological analysis for the interpretation of history, proceeds as follows :[2] "The various manifestations and phases of social life are all traced back to tendencies of human nature

( 13) from which they spring, from five fundamental wants each of which has corresponding to it a general idea. The idea of the useful gives rise to mathematical and physical science, industry, and political economy ; the idea of .the just to civil society, the State, and jurisprudence; the idea of the beautiful to art; the idea of God to religion and worship; and the idea of truth in itself, in its highest degree and under its purest form, to philosophy. These ideas are argued to be simple and indecomposable, to coexist in every mind, to constitute the whole foundation of humanity, and to follow in the order mentioned." No better illustration of the truth of the foregoing remarks could be found. We have here the spectacle of a philosopher, who exerted a great influence on the thought of his own country, and who rightly conceived the relation of psychology to the social sciences, but who, in the absence of any adequate psychology, contents himself with concocting on the spur of the moment the most flimsy substitute for it in the form of these five assumptions.

As for the philosophies of history that make no pretence of a psychological foundation, they are sufficiently characterised by M. Fouillée who, when writing of the development of sociology, says : "Elle est née en effet d'une étude en grande partie mythique ou poetique: je veux parler de la philosophie de 1'histoire telle que les metaphysiciens ou les théologiens l'ont d'abord concue, et qui est à la sociologie positive ce que l'alchimie fut a la chimie, l'astrologie a l'astronomie."[3]

From the science of jurisprudence we may take, as a last illustration, the retributive doctrine of punishment, which is still held by a considerable number of writers. This barbarous conception of the grounds on which

( 14) punishment is justified arises naturally from the doctrine of free-will; to any one who holds this doctrine in any thorough-going form there can be no other rational view of punishment than the retributive; for since, according to this assumption, where human action is concerned, the future course of events is not determined by the present, punishment cannot be administered in the forward-looking attitude with a view to deterrence or to moral improvement, but only in the backward-looking vengeful attitude of retribution. The fuller becomes our insight into the springs of human conduct, the more impossible does it become to maintain this antiquated doctrine ; so that here, too, progress depends upon the improvement of psychology.

One might take each of the social sciences in turn and illustrate in each case the great need for a true doctrine of human motives. But, instead of doing that, I will merely sum up on the issue of the work of the nineteenth century as follows :—During the last century most of the workers in the social sciences were of two parties—those on the one hand who with the ultilitarians reduced all motives to the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain, and those on the other hand who, re-coiling from this hedonistic doctrine, sought the main-spring of conduct in some vaguely conceived intuitive faculty variously named the conscience, the moral faculty, instinct, or sense. Before the close of the century the doctrines of both of these parties were generally seen to be fallacious; but no satisfactory substitute for them was generally accepted, and by the majority of psychologists nothing better was offered to fill the gap than a mere word, "the will," or some such phrase as "the tendency of ideas to self-realisation." On the other hand, Dar-win, in the "Descent of Man"(1871) first enunciated the

( 15) true doctrine of human motives, and showed how we must proceed, relying chiefly upon the comparative and natural history method, if we would arrive at a fuller understanding of them. But Darwin's own account suffered from the deference he paid, under protest, to the doctrine of psychological hedonism, still dominant at that time; and his lead has been followed by comparatively few psychologists, and but little has yet been done to carry forward the work he began and to refine upon his first rough sketch of the history of human motives.

Enough has been said to illustrate the point of view from which, this volume has been written, and to en-force the theme of this introductory chapter, namely, that psychologists must cease to be content with the sterile and narrow conception of their science as the science of consciousness, and must boldly assert its claim to be the positive science of the mind in all its aspects and modes of functioning, or, as I would prefer to say, the positive science of conduct or behaviour.[4] Psychology must not regard the introspective description of the stream of consciousness as its whole task, but only as a preliminary part of its work. Such introspective description, such "pure psychology," can never constitute a science, or at least can never rise to the level of an explanatory science; and it can never in itself be of any great value to the social sciences. The basis required by all of them is a comparative and physiological psychology relying largely on objective methods, the observation of the behaviour of men and of animals of all varieties under all possible conditions of health and disease. It must take the largest possible view of its scope and functions, and must be an evolutionary

(16) natural history of mind. Above all, it must aim at providing a full and accurate account of those most fundamental elements of our constitution, the innate tendencies to thought and action that constitute the native basis of the mind.

Happily this more generous conception of psychology is beginning to prevail. The mind is no longer regarded as a mere tabula rasa or magic mirror whose function it is passively to receive impressions from the outer world or to throw imperfect reflections of its objects—"a row of moving shadow-shapes that come and go." Nor are we any longer content to supplement this Lockian conception of mind with only two principles of intrinsic activity, that of the association and reproduction of ideas, and that of the tendency to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. The discovery is being made that the old psychologising was like the playing of "Hamlet" with the Prince of Denmark left out, or like describing steam-engines while ignoring the fact of the, presence and fundamental role of the fire or other source of heat. On every hand we hear it said that the static, descriptive, purely analytic psychology must give place to a dynamic, functional, voluntaristic view of mind.

A second very important advance of psychology to-wards usefulness is due to the increasing recognition of the extent to which the adult human mind is the product of the moulding influence exerted by the social environment, and of the fact that the strictly individual human mind, with which alone the older introspective and descriptive psychology concerned itself, is an abstraction merely and has no real existence.

It is needless to attempt to describe the many and complex influences through which these changes are being effected. It suffices to note the happy fact and briefly

( 17) to indicate the way in which this book aims to contribute its mite t wards the building up of a psychology that will at last furnish the much needed basis of the social sciences and of the comprehensive science of sociology. The first section begins with the elucidation of that part of the native basis of the mind which is the source of all our bodily and mental activity. In Chapter II. I have attempted to render as clear and definite as possible the conception of an instinct, and to make clear the relation of instinct to mental process and the fundamental importance of the instincts ; in the third chapter I have sought to enumerate and briefly to define the principal human instincts; and in the fourth I have defined certain general functional tendencies which, though they are sometimes classed with the instincts, are of a different nature. I have not thought it necessary to make any elaborate criticism of psychological hedonism, as that doctrine is now sufficiently exploded. In the following chapters of this section I have attempted to describe in general terms the way in which these native tendencies of our constitution co-operate to determine the course of the life of emotion and action; to show how, under the influence of the social environment, they become gradually organised in systems of increasing complexity, while they remain unchanged as regards their most essential attributes ; to show that, although it is no longer easy to trace to their source the complex manifestations of human character and will, it is nevertheless possible to sketch in rough outline the course of this development and to exhibit human volition of the highest moral type as but a more complex conjunction of the mental forces which we may trace in the evolutionary scale far back into the animal kingdom.

This first section of the book deals, then, with the

( 18) characters of the individual mind that are of prime importance for the social life of man. Of this section it might be said that it is not properly a part of a social psychology. Nevertheless it is an indispensable preliminary of all social psychology, and, since no consistent and generally acceptable scheme of this kind has hitherto been furnished, it was necessary to attempt it. It may even be contended that it deals with the fundamental problem of social psychology. For social psychology has to show how, given the native propensities and capacities of the individual human mind, all the complex mental life of societies is shaped by them and in turn reacts upon the course of their development and operation in the individual. And of this task the primary and most essential part is the showing how the life of highly organised societies, involving as it does high moral qualities of character and conduct on the part of the great mass of men, is at all possible to creatures' that have been evolved from the animal world, whose nature bears so many of the marks of this animal origin, and whose principal springs of activity are essentially similar to those of the higher animals. For, as Dr. Rashdall well says, "the raw material, so to speak, of Virtue and Vice is the same—i.e., desires which in themselves, abstracted from their relation to the higher self, are not either moral or immoral but simply non-moral."[5] That is to say, the fundamental problem of social psychology is the moralisation of the individual by the society into which he is born as a creature in which the non-moral and purely egoistic tendencies are so much stronger than any altruistic tendencies. This moralisation or socialisa-

( 19) -tion of the individual is, then, the essential theme of this section.

In Section II. I have briefly indicated some of the ways in which the principal instincts and primary tendencies of the human mind play their parts in the lives of human societies; my object being to bring home to the reader the truth that the understanding of the life of society in any or all of its phases presupposes a knowledge of the constitution of the human mind, a truth which, though occasionally acknowledged in principle, is in practice so frequently ignored.


  1. "Unreasonable Action," Mind, N.S., vol. iii.
  2. I quote from Professor Flint's "History of the Philosophy of History," p. 456.
  3. "La Science Sociale Contemporaine," p. 380. Paris, 1904.
  4. This definition of psychology was proposed in my "Primer of Physiological Psychology." London, 1905.
  5. "The Theory of Good and Evil," vol. ii., p. 73. Oxford, 1907,


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