An Introduction to Social Psychology

Supplementary Chapter 6: The Structure of Character

William McDougall

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RECENT years have brought great increase of interest in the study of character. In Germany recent books and articles on characterology are numerous. In America many efforts have been made to bring traits of character within the reach of laboratory methods and of mental tests. On all hands it is recognised that, during the period dominated by the development of laboratory experiment, the study of the personality as a whole has been unduly neglected, while psychologists have concentrated their attention on details abstracted from the concrete whole of mental life. A recently published bibliography of Character and Personality lists 3341 titles, a large proportion of which are of the last few years ; and a comprehensive review of the literature by the same learned and assiduous student[1] has shown how great is the confusion still prevailing in this field, how little progress we have made towards agreement as to what we mean by "character."

It is generally agreed that character is an important part of personality, and that the word stands in some sense for the organisation of the affective and conative constituents of personality. But the distinctions drawn in this volume between character, disposition, and temperament are by no means generally accepted or grasped ; while the factors of personality distinguished (in Supplementary Chapter III.) under the head of temper have been noticed by very few authors.

Although this book has now been before the public for nearly twenty years, and has been widely read and used, the fact that it contains a sketch of a complete

( 432)theory of character seems to have gone unnoticed until very recently. And when in a popular book [2] I used this theory as the basis of my discussion of the ways in which the growth of character may be promoted and guided, some of my critics, while admitting that I had said some-thing about character, complained that I had not analysed character. Yet lately there have been indications that these distinctions may prove acceptable, and that the theory of character outlined is obtaining some recognition and proving itself useful. The educational authorities of one State of the American Union (Nebraska) have given me much encouragement by " lifting " the whole theory (without public acknowledgment) and making of it a foundation stone of their educational system. My friend Dr. Roback has recognised, and, in part, has accepted the theory. Dr. R. G. Gordon in his recent book [3] has incorporated it in his exposition. Still more encouraging is the fact that the most influential group of academic psychologists in Germany (those of the Gestalt school) are now working actively in the laboratory along the general lines which I have long advocated, and that one of the most active of them[4] is arriving by way of laboratory studies at an account of the conative organisation of personality very similar to my own.

In view of this state of affairs it has seemed to me worth while to add to this volume a very bald and concise statement of what in my view character is, leaving unchanged in the text my account of the growth of character ; for, brief as that account is, it seems to me substantially correct, though in need of supplementation of the kind given in my new book just now mentioned. I have not found anything in the voluminous literature of recent date that impairs my confidence in that account. My studies in the field of abnormal psychology and of neurotic and mental disorder, made for the most part since

( 433) the publication of this volume, have shown me that the account of character contained in it, and arrived at by way of the study of normal personality, is borne out by such studies of the abnormal ; for, as I have shown in my Outline of Abnormal Psychology, the scheme suggests promising hypotheses for the interpretation of the facts of manic-deprensive insanity and of dementia praecox, as well as of some of the severer forms of neurotic disorder.

Well-developed character, I would say, is an integrated system of sentiments, a system that is a hierarchy dominated by a single master-sentiment and integrated by that dominance.

Before explicating this definition, let me say some-thing in defence and further clarification of the sentiment as I conceive it. I have found that many psychologists are extremely slow to grasp this conception and to realise its importance. Some of them, misinterpreting my account of it, have proceeded to criticise it adversely and to suggest improvements.

The first difficulty is part of the more general difficulty in persuading psychologists of the validity and usefulness of the distinction between mental process and mental structure. Objection to this distinction seems to be found by both the more physiologically and the more philosophically minded psychologists. The former are ready to dabble to any extent in extremely speculative physiology, and to describe purely hypothetical neural structure and mechanism underlying and expressing itself in our mental processes and our behaviour ; but they are slow to admit that, in the absence of all but the most uncertain guesses at the nature of the cerebral organisation underlying our mental life, we do better frankly to recognise our ignorance, and to build up our account of the structure which thus expresses itself by inference from the observed facts of mental life and of behaviour, guided by such indications as neurology affords, but not relying wholly or mainly on such guidance.

The more philosophically minded seem to be under the spell of the long-standing but unfortunate identifica-

( 434) -tions of mind with consciousness. Though they are willing to discuss " the structure of consciousness," they seem to feel that to postulate or infer a mental structure that lies behind, and partially reveals its nature in, our conscious activities, is an act of disloyalty to. this traditionally accepted but misleading identification. Yet nothing is more certain than that we cannot hope to explain the flow of consciousness in terms only of consciousness, to formulate adequate laws of mental process in terms only of introspectively observable events, their concurrences and successions. The full richness of mental process is revealed only very partially to introspection ; much of it can be reached only by inference ; and by inference only can we achieve any useful account of the enduring conditions of our intellectual and affective' life, which we may properly call the structure of the intellect and of character respectively. Let me illustrate with a crude analogy. When a gramophone recites a poem, the sounds or the air-waves emitted reveal order and system ; but no amount of study of such air-waves" would enable us to explain their conjunctions and sequences in terms of air-waves alone. In order to understand or explain their occurrence we must learn to understand the structure of the gramophone and its recording disc. In similar fashion, when I silently recite a poem, the sequence of words and their meanings flows by as a stream of consciousness ; but no amount of study of such streams will enable us to understand and explain them in terms of conscious events alone. As the complex: sound-waves from the gramophone are conditioned only very partially by the interplay of the constituent waves, and chiefly by the structure of the gramophone and its disc, so the waves of consciousness are conditioned only partially by their interplay with one another, and chiefly by the underlying structure of the mind. In both cases the stream of events elapses, passes away, and is gone the structure endures and may, after intervals long or short, play the same essential part in the repetition o similar events.

In this connection I will venture a critical remark on

( 435) the admirable work of the Gestalt or Configuration school, that has excited so much attention in the last few years. They seem to me to err in that they attempt to describe the configuration of mental process in terms of introspectively observable facts whereas the complete con-figuration must in all cases be a field of energy whose complexity is only partially revealed in consciousness, and whose configuration is determined largely by the mental structure concerned. In other words, they seem to be repeating, in an improved form, the error of those who in the past have attempted to describe and explain the stream of consciousness in terms of consciousness alone.

Accepting, then, as valid and important the distinction between mental structures and mental process, we regard a sentiment as a fact of mental structure, an organisation that endures, though it is susceptible of growth, development, or decay, and, like any other living organisation, can hardly cease to undergo such changes so long as it lives. Emotions, on the other hand, are events or partial aspects of conscious events, and in very many instances our emotion is an event in the life-history of a sentiment ; that is to say, the nature of the emotion is conditioned by the nature of the sentiment from which it springs.

Two men may be closely alike in respect of the instinctive basis of their personalities—that is to say, in disposition—and alike in intellectual equipment, yet through differing circumstances they may have acquired very different sentiments for the same object : one may have learnt to love a person whom the other has learnt to hate. Thenceforward every event in the life of that person will evoke very different emotions in the two men. Where the one is tender and full of solicitude, the other is angered ; where the one hopes, the other despairs ; where the one sorrows, the other rejoices : all these and many other differences of their emotional reactions to the one object are to be understood only in terms of their diverse enduring sentiments. And either sentiment never displays its nature completely in any one emotional

( 436) event ; only by observing the various emotional re-actions to the loved or hated object on many successive occasions and under diverse circumstances are we able to infer the structure of the sentiment.

The sentiment and the emotion, thus, more clearly than any other constituents of personality and than any other experiences, illustrate the validity and necessity of the distinction between mental structure and mental process or activity. Let me say again, a sentiment is an enduring structure within the total structure of the mind or mental organisation, while emotion is a passing phase or, more strictly, an aspect of a phase of mental process.

Perhaps a main source of the difficulty in securing recognition of the distinction between emotions and sentiments is the ambiguous usage of the term " sentiment " in common speech, the usage of it to denote feelings or emotions as well as sentiments ; and, still more, the fact that in certain cases the same name may properly; and is perhaps inevitably, given to some particular kind of emotional experience or reaction, and also to some sentiment. For example, in common speech we speak of the emotion of hate or hatred, yet hatred is also the general name of all sentiments in the structure of which the affective dispositions of anger and of fear are incorporated. We speak of the emotion of love, meaning an emotion. in which is prominent the quality I have called in these pages " tender emotion " ; yet love is also the name of all sentiments in which the disposition of this tender emotion is incorporated. We speak of the emotion of admiration, meaning, as I have suggested (p. 111), an emotional experience in which the qualities of wonder and negative self-feeling or sub-mission are blended ; but we cannot refuse the same name to a sentiment in which the dispositions of these two. tendencies are principal constituents—disposing us to react with these emotions in the presence of the object of the sentiment.

These ambiguities of language we cannot hope to avoid or remove ; and yet they should not be, I suggest,

( 437) an insuperable bar to clear thinking, either for psychologists or for the plain man.

A few words now about the commonest misinterpretation of my view of the sentiment. On p. 105 a sentiment was described as " an organised system of emotional tendencies centred about some object." And on p. 106 occurs, " the system of emotional dispositions that constitutes the sentiment of love." I have to admit that this language gives scope for the misinterpretation of which I complain ; namely, that I am said to conceive the sentiment as consisting of emotional dispositions only, and as comprising no cognitive system. Now this, as I have pointed out,[5] is true of Mr. Shand's conception of the sentiment, but is not true of mine.. In saying that " a sentiment is an organised system of emotional tendencies centred about an object,"I used a loose expression in order to avoid disagreeable technicality of language. I should have written : " A sentiment is a system in which a cognitive disposition is linked with one or more emotional or affective conative dispositions to form a structural unit that functions as one whole system (or, in more recent terminology, as one configuration or Gestalt)." I trusted that the crude diagram on p. 108 would make clear that the system which is the sentiment, in my view, comprises (as its essential centre that links together the group of emotional dispositions) a cognitive disposition corresponding to the object of the sentiment. And, though in my diagram the cognitive disposition is indicated merely by a small circle, it was, I supposed, clear that such a cognitive disposition might be one of very great complexity. If a man has a sentiment of love for his country, it is surely clear that the cognitive disposition corresponding to or representing in the structure of his mind that object, his country, must be one of great extent and complexity, one built up by a multitude of experiences, perhaps by long and arduous study of the history of that country. And the same is true of any important sentiment ; for, just because

( 438) the possession of the sentiment gives the man a strong interest in its object, his mind can hardly fail to be much occupied with that object, and therefore to build up some rich system of knowledge about it—that is to say, a large differentiated cognitive system.

The relation between the cognitive disposition and the emotional dispositions comprised within a sentiment is that the latter remain the conative-affective root of the whole system, no matter how large its cognitive division may become, furnishing to it the energy, " drive," conative force or interest by which all thinking of the object is sustained, and yielding the wide range of primary, blended, and derived emotions that colour all such thinking.

Each sentiment may then be likened to a tree or bush which, springing from a few roots (among which a single tap-root often predominates in importance), may grow very large and complex, sending out many branches, twigs, and leaves. No matter how large and complex the stem and branches above ground may become, their life and activity continue to be dependent upon the hidden root ; as, in the sentiment, the many parts of the growing cognitive system remain dependent upon the conative-affective root buried deeply in the instinctive levels of the personality.

Another and less pardonable misinterpretation of my view, which I often find carelessly thrown out as a passing remark, consists in asserting that I ascribe every human action to some instinct, or regard it as the direct expression of some instinct. This is to ignore the whole scheme of sentiment and character for which my sketch of the instinctive nature of man furnishes merely the foundation, but a foundation that is in my opinion absolutely indispensable. It is for lack of such foundation that so much of present-day discussion of character remains sterile. In the man of developed character very few actions proceed directly from his instinctive foundations : perhaps an occasional start of fear or sudden gesture of anger ; but all others proceed from his sentiments, that is to say, from the complex interplay of the

( 439) impulses and desires springing (as regards their energy) from the conative dispositions incorporated in his sentiments, and guided (as regards the lines of their expression and action in striving towards their goals) by the whole system of acquired knowledge both of the object of the sentiment and of its relation to the world in general. Thus the ardent patriot may sustain through fifty years an unceasing round of patriotic activities in war and peace, on the fields of battle and the halls of legislation, in the press and on the platform ; but when he dies at last, clasping in his arms his country's flag, and pressing its folds to his lips, he reveals in this moment the instinctive sources of the energy that he has poured out so freely in the service of his beloved country, in protecting it, in promoting its interests, in exalting it, in striving to render it nearer in reality to the ideal which he cherishes—an ideal which is perhaps more truly the object of his sentiment than the reality seen by any unimpassioned observer.

Returning now to the actual structure of character, I venture to submit a diagram which, although it inevitably must be a wooden and wholly inadequate re-presentation of the facts, may be of some service in making clear the nature of the complex whole as I conceive it.

In the diagram are represented four levels, corresponding roughly to the four main periods of development of character sketched on p. 156. The lowest level is the instinctive level, and the circles stand for the affective-conative dispositions or cores of the several instincts.

In the second level are represented the cognitive systems, corresponding to the objects of the leading concrete sentiments peculiar to the particular individual. Each is joined to one or more of the dispositions of the first level by lines the thickness of each of which indicates the strength or intimacy of the connection of the two dispositions thus joined.

In the third level are represented the cognitive dispositions corresponding to various moral qualities ; and the fact that each of these is the cognitive centre of a senti-

( 440) -ment is indicated by the lines joining it to the dispositions of the first level. They are arranged in two groups, representing the negative and the positive moral sentiments—sentiments of dislike, of hate, of contempt, and sentiments of liking, of love, and of admiration. Some of the latter are enclosed within a line to represent the fact that the qualities so indicated are those which the man has brought together to form his ideal of character, that group of qualities which the man desires to realise in his own life and person and in his own character.

The single circle of the fourth level stands for that complex disposition or system which is self-knowledge, active in all thinking of the self ; and that it is the centre of the sentiment of self-respect is indicated by the lines connecting it with the dispositions of self-assertion and submission—the two principal conative roots of the sentiment. Other lines join it to the qualities of the ideal, indicating the close functional connections between these dispositions, connections so intimate that these qualities may be said to be incorporated in the cognitive system of the self, and the sentiments of which they are the centres to be incorporated in the dominant sentiment of self-respect.

The four levels of the diagram represent the historical order of development of the structures and foundations ; they represent also the relations of dominance, each level dominating those below it. The fact of relative dominance thus symbolised in the diagram is of the first importance, though very difficult to understand. We may concentrate on the problem of the dominance of the sentiment of self-respect. No doubt the self-assertive impulse becomes very strong through much exercise ; but that is not, I think, the whole of the story. Dominance depends, in part at least, on the richness of development of the cognitive aspect of each sentiment and on the richness of its connections with other cognitive systems ; and in this respect the self-sentiment in a well-developed personality takes the lead, and to this owes in part its dominance.

The problem may be related to the parallel neuro-

Diagram to illustrate structure of character of John Doe

(441) logical problem. It is an established fact that the higher levels of the nervous system constantly exert inhibitory influences on the lower ; but physiologists have not been able to find any explanation of the fact. Now in, the interplay of impulses and desires that takes place within the system of the sentiments, the conflict between two incompatible or opposed tendencies is not merely a brute conflict, obeying some such principles as the parallelogram of forces ; the effective energy of action does not represent the mere surplus of the strength of the stronger impulse over that of the weaker. We see the same or an analogous principle exemplified at the lowest level in the play of the antagonistic muscles of our limbs. When the arm is bent, the flexor muscles do not merely overcome the pull of the extensor muscles by exerting a stronger pull : rather, at the moment of the innervation of the flexors, the extensors are relaxed by inhibition of the nerve currents flowing to them (according to the principle of reciprocal innervation so brilliantly revealed by Sir Charles Sherrington). And it would seem that a similar principle of reciprocal inhibition is constantly exhibited in the interplay of the sentiments and their impulses or desires. A stronger impulse (or a conjunction of concordant impulses) does not merely overcome an opposed impulse ; rather, it inhibits it. And there is ground for believing that, in inhibiting the opposing impulse, the inhibitor gains at the expense of the inhibited, takes over, absorbs into itself some at least of the energy of the other.[6] I suggest that this is the essential principle at work in the process of sublimation, the process now widely recognised (but obscure in its modus operandi) by which the energies of our instinctive nature are utilised on higher planes of action than the instinctive.

So important is the process of inhibition within the system of sentiments which is character that Dr. Roback

(442) in his recent volume proposes to regard it as the essential mark and work of character, and proposes to measure the degree of the development of character by the range and power of inhibition displayed. I cannot go so far in this direction as Dr. Roback. In my view, inhibition is always only a negative supplementary aspect of positive activity ; we inhibit our output of energy in one direction, along one line of action, by adopting another line of action (even though it have no explicit outcome in muscular innervation) and by concentrating our energies along that line, as when, under sudden pain, we grind our teeth and clench our fists in order to inhibit the impulse to cry out.

These inhibitory processes are possible only in so far as the whole personality is integrated. Integration and the inhibitions in which it manifests itself are functions of the relations between the cognitive (or higher cortical) dispositions of the various sentiments ; for it is only through their cognitive parts that unlike sentiments are functionally related. Thus, as regards their conative-affective dispositions, a sentiment of hatred and one of love have nothing in common ; but if you hate a certain man, and understand that he is dear to another whom you love, you may inhibit the impulse of your sentiment of hatred. And, on the higher plane, you may inhibit those impulses, if you understand that their free play is inconsistent with the ideal of conduct which, in the form of moral sentiments, you have incorporated in your character. And if you pursue this line of conduct consistently, constantly inhibiting the impulses of your sentiment of hatred, you drain it of its energies and reduce it in the end to a state of innocuous desuetude.

If, on the other hand, you fail or refuse to recognise your hatred for what it is, fail to establish adequate cognitive relations between its system and the rest of your personality, then you suffer from the state technically known as repression ; and the system of hatred works in relative detachment from the rest of your personality in obscure fashion, determining bizarre, uncontrolled phases of emotion and behaviour. You become the

(443) seat of a brute conflict of impulses, having no voluntary control of your repressed sentiment of hatred, the cognitive connections through which alone control might be exercised, not having been established.

Thus vaguely we may conceive of the way in which the cognitive system that grows up from instinctive roots serves to direct the energies that spring from those roots ; the way in which adequate conception of the relations of the self to other persons and objects enables the sentiment of self-respect, with its incorporated ideal, to integrate our whole personality, inhibiting and sublimating the tendencies that are inconsistent with its own tendencies and rendering these dominant in all processes of deliberation.

Dr. Kurt Lewin, in the very interesting work to which reference was made above, distinguishes between directive forces (Kräfte) and the fundamental energies of the mind, identifying the former with our cognitive systems, and insisting that the former must be regarded as very much smaller or slighter than the latter. I do not understand how we can validly distinguish between forces and energies in this way ; but I think we may validly regard our cognitive systems as directive agencies, though we must, I think, regard them all, higher and lower alike, as activated by the same fundamental-energies, namely, those which spring from the conative dispositions of our instincts, and are manifested most directly in crude displays of the primary emotions.


  1. The Psychology of Character, by A. A. Roback, London, 1927.
  2. Character and the Conduct of Life, London and New York, 1927.
  3. Personality, London, 1926.
  4. Dr. Kurt Lewin, in various articles, but especially in a most interesting booklet—Vorsatz, Wilts u. Bedürfnis, mit Vorbemerkungen fiber die psychischen Kräfte and Energien and die Struktur der Seek, Berlin, 1926.
  5. Cp. " Symposium on Instinct and Emotion," by Shand, Stout, and McDougall, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1915.
  6. I have reported experiments which seem to show that this is true of the reciprocal inhibitions that occur on the sensory levels, and have suggested that these give support to the hypothesis of inhibition of drainage

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