An Introduction to Social Psychology

Chapter 12: The Gregarious Instinct

William McDougall

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IT was pointed out in Chapter III that the gregarious instinct plays a great part in determining the forms of our recreations; and in Chapter VI. it was shown how, in co-operation with the primitive sympathetic tendency, it leads men to seek to share their emotions with the largest possible number of their fellows. Besides determining the forms of recreations, this instinct plays a much more serious part in the life of civilised societies. It is sometimes assumed that the monstrous and disastrous growth of London and of other large towns is the result of some obscure economic necessity. But, as a matter of fact, London and many other large towns have for a long time past far exceeded the proportions that conduce to economic efficiency and healthy social life, just as the vast herds of bison, or other animals, referred to in Chapter III., greatly exceed the size necessary for mutual defence. We are often told that the dulness of the country drives the people to the towns. But that statement inverts the truth. It is the crowd in the towns, the vast human herd, that exerts a baneful attraction on those outside it. People have lived in the country for hundreds of generations without finding it dull. It is only the existence of the crowded towns that creates by contrast the dulness of the country. As in the case of the animals, the larger the aggregation the greater is its power of attraction; hence, in spite of high rents, high

(304) rates, dirt, disease, congestion of traffic, ugliness, squalor, and sooty air, the large towns continue to grow at an increasing rate, while the small towns diminish and the country villages are threatened with extinction.

That this herding in the towns is not due to any economic necessities of our industrial organisation, is shown by the fact that it takes place to an equally great and regrettable extent in countries where the industrial conditions are very different. In Australia, where everything favours an agricultural or pastoral mode of life, half the population of a continent is crowded into a few towns on the coast. In China, where industry persists almost entirely in the form of handicrafts and where economic conditions are extremely different from our own, we find towns like Canton containing three million inhabitants crowded together even more densely than in London and under conditions no less repulsive.

In England we must attribute this tendency chiefly to the fact that the spread of elementary education and the freer intercourse between the people of the different parts of the country have broken down the bonds of custom which formerly kept each man to the place and calling of his forefathers; for custom, the great conservative force of society, the great controller of the individual impulses, being weakened, the deep-seated instincts, especially the gregarious instinct, have found their opportunity to determine the choices of men. Other causes have, of course, co-operated and have facilitated the aggregations of population; but without the instinctive basis they would probably have produced only slight effects of this kind.

The administrative authorities have shown of late years a disposition to encourage in every possible way this gregarious tendency. On the slightest occasion they

( 305) organise some show which shall draw huge crowds to gape, until now a new street cannot be opened without the expenditure of thousands of pounds in tawdry deco-rations, and a foreign prince cannot drive to a railway station without drawing many thousands of people from their work to spend the day in worse than useless idleness, confirming their already over-developed gregarious instincts. There can be no doubt that the excessive indulgence of this impulse is one of the greatest demoralising factors of the present time in this country, just as it was in Rome in the days of her declining power and glory.

In this connection we may briefly consider the views of Professor Giddings [1] on "the consciousness of kind," which he would have us regard as the basic principle of social organisation. He writes, "In its widest extension the consciousness of kind marks off the animate from the inanimate. Within the wide class of the animals it marks off species and races. Within racial lines the consciousness of kind underlies the more definite ethnical and political groupings, it is the basis of class distinctions, of innumerable forms of alliance, of rules of inter-course, and of peculiarities of policy. Our conduct to-wards those whom we feel to be most like ourselves is instinctively and rationally different from our conduct towards others, whom we believe to be less like ourselves. Again, it is the consciousness of kind, and nothing else, which distinguishes social conduct, as such, from purely economic, purely political, or purely religious conduct; for in actual life it constantly interferes with the theoretically perfect operation of the economic, political, or religious motive. The working man joins a strike of which he does not approve rather than cut himself off

(306) from his fellows. For a similar reason the manufacturer who questions the value of protection to his own industry yet pays his contribution to the protectionist campaign fund. The Southern gentleman, who believed in the cause of the Union, none the less threw in his for-tunes with the Confederacy, if he felt himself to be one of the Southern people and a stranger to the people of the North. The liberalising of creeds is accomplished by the efforts of men who are no longer able to accept the traditional dogma, but who desire to maintain associations which it would be painful to sever. In a word, it is about the consciousness of kind that all other motives organise themselves in the evolution of social choice, social volition, or social policy."

All that attraction of like to like, which Giddings here attributes to the "consciousness of kind" is, I think, to be regarded as the work of the gregarious impulse, operating at a high level of mental life in conjunction with other impulses. That "consciousness of kind," the recognition of degrees of likeness of others to one's self, underlies all such cases as Professor Giddings mentions, and is presupposed by all social life, is true only if we use the words in a very loose sense. If we would state more accurately the facts vaguely implied by this phrase, we must say that the gregarious impulse of any animal receives satisfaction only through the presence of animals similar to itself, and the closer the similarity the greater is the satisfaction. The impulse of this instinct will bring and keep together in one herd animals of different species, as when we see horses and bullocks grazing together, or birds of several species in one flock; but it brings and keeps together much more powerfully animals of one species. Just so, in any human being the instinct operates most powerfully in relation to, and


receives the highest degree of satisfaction from the presence of, the human beings who most closely resemble that individual, those who behave in like manner and respond to the same situations with similar emotions. An explicit "consciousness of kind" in any literal sense of the words implies a relatively high level of mental development and a developed self-consciousness, and this is by no means necessary to the operation of the gregarious instinct. And such "consciousness of kind" can of itself do nothing, it is not a social force, is not a motive, can of itself generate no impulse or desire. It is merely one of the most highly developed of the cognitive processes through which the gregarious instinct may be brought into play. If this instinct were lacking to men, the most accurate recognition of personal likenesses and differences would fail to produce the effects attributed to "consciousness of kind."

It is because we are not equally attracted by all social aggregations, but find the greatest satisfaction of the gregarious impulse in the society of those most like ourselves, that a segregation of like elements occurs in all communities. Among uncivilised people we usually find communities of the same tribe, and tribes closely allied by blood, occupying contiguous areas; and the effects of this tendency persist in the civilised countries of the present day in the form of local differences of physical and mental characters of the populations of the various counties or other large areas.

The same tendency is illustrated by the formation in the United States of America of large, locally circumscribed communities of various European extractions; and in our large towns it manifests itself in the segregation of people of similar race and occupation and social status, a process which results in striking differences

( 308) between the various districts or quarters of the town, and striking uniformities within the limits of any one such quarter. In this tendency we may find also an explanation of the curious fact that the traders dealing in each kind of object are commonly found closely grouped in one street or in neighbouring streets—the coach-builders in Long Acre, the newsvendors in Fleet Street, the doctors in Harley Street, the shipping offices in Leadenhall Street, and so on. This segregation of like trades, which might seem to be a curious economic anomaly under our competitive system, is not peculiar to European towns. It forced itself upon my attention in the streets of Canton, where it obtains in a striking degree, and also in several Indian towns.

We may briefly sum up the social operation of the gregarious instinct by saying that, in early times when population was scanty, it must have played an important part in social evolution by keeping men together and thereby occasioning the need for social laws and institutions; as well as by providing the conditions of aggregation in which alone the higher evolution of the social attributes was possible ; but that in highly civilised societies its functions are less important, because the density of population ensures a sufficient aggregation of the people; and that, facilities for aggregation being so greatly increased among modern nations, its direct operation is apt to produce anomalous and even injurious social results.


  1. 'Principles of Sociology," p. 18 (my quotation is abridged).

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