Social Psychology: An Analysis of Social Behavior

Chapter 1: The Social Antecedents of Human Behavior

Kimball Young

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

Social Psychology deals with the study of personality as it develops in relation to social environment. Social environment consists of groups of other personalities and the methods of living which they have evolved. The latter we call culture. From the angle of psychology, group life, including culture, furnishes the environment to which the human being must adjust himself if he is to survive. What the sociologists and anthropologists call culture patterns constitute for the individual the basis of his ideas, attitudes, and habits. The individual does not grow up in a vacuum. He is at all times reacting to a world around him, consisting of physical and organic objects, especially, of other human beings. It must have been thus from the beginning of social life.

Actually, of course, social origins are lost in mystery. However it was in the dim days of early paleolithic man or before, certainly both common sense and science teach us that the individual today is, willy nilly, born into various social groups. The hypothetical man growing up alone on a hypothetical island acquires, in the minds of most writers about him, purely hypothetical attributes. Such myth-making lends very little to the understanding of a person in either ancient or modern times. We may lay it down as a systematic postulate that, for purposes of social-psychological analysis, the group is antecedent to the individual. By group here is meant, not any mythical entity independent of individuals, but the congregations of persons into such associate forms as families, neighborhoods, communities, schools, churches, lodges, capital and labor groups. These groups begin at once to impinge upon the new-born individual, and before many years the growing boy or girl has taken on the characteristics of his family, his class, his race or nationality, and, in a minor degree, of the other groups to which he belongs.

There is no doubt that the individual brings with him, from his bio-

(4) logical background, potentialities for growth and modification. We do not deny the place of heredity or the significance of biological mechanisms; yet these alone, we hold, do not account for the human personality which we shall study. Truly there are marked differences in the capacity of the individual to learn of the social and physical world around him. There are variabilities in his reaction time, in his physical make-up, etc. As we shall see, these matters must be taken into account in any analysis. Still, what the individual becomes as an adult personality, what he does and thinks, is throughout determined very largely by the impress of other persons upon him.

The fallacy of an individualistic psychology is its failure to recognize the important place which social interaction plays in determining the life organization and development of the human being. What the child becomes is the product not alone of his organic make-up, but of his participation in the social milieu around him.

The description and analysis of the social behavior of the person really require a recognition of both the environment and the organism, if the matter is to be stated with any degree of completeness. Without attempting for the moment to evaluate in any way the relative weight of these factors,[1] we may say that there is, first, in point of time perspective, the biological organism which comes into the world from the previous generation, with its potentials for development, with the general predisposition for physical growth, with a set of characteristics which it has inherited from its ancestors. This physical organism, with its roots in the animal world, possesses the essential structures and functions from which eventuate the human personality. From this ancestry come the mechanisms which are the basis of living and the foundation of being. In describing and analyzing the organic basis of the personality we must rest our case upon the findings of bio-chemistry and psychology. These sciences point out to us the essential mechanics of behavior and indicate how behavior is modified by environmental stimulation.

The other factor to be taken into account in the social process is the environment with which the organism must come to terms if it is to survive at all. In our analysis we shall be concerned chiefly with the environment as it is made up of other human beings and the material world as men have

(5) modified it. This environment consists largely of groups or clusters of other persons, and we must differentiate between two sets of influences. The first of these may be called, for want of a better term, the personal-social or inter-individual influences. Here the stimuli are the natural and more or less spontaneous responses of other individuals of your own or near species whose responses constitute an environment toward which you react. It is evident, in turn, that the individual constitutes a stimulus for these others, and that his own reactions affect the stimuli which reach him from them. Personal-social influence here means the effect of another individual or group of individuals upon one, outside of codified forms of behavior. It is the person-to-person relationship, uninfluenced by standardized habits and ideas common to one's group and considered as right, proper, or fashionable. Some writers might prefer to describe this as personal influence. The present writer has no objection to their doing so, except that to him personal-social better expresses the interactional aspects of the situation. After all, the term "social" connotes person-to-person.[2]

The influence of other individuals upon the new individual in this world is not merely that of one animal upon another. These influences are so profoundly affected by certain standardizations or universally accepted frames of behavior that a second set of environmental influences must be taken into account. These we shall denominate the cultural patterns of our group or groups. These are the universals of conduct which Sumner called the folkways, including the moral codes or mores and the non-moral manners, social techniques, and conventions as well. Once more let us not confuse ourselves by imagining that these cultural patterns affect us in the form of some social or collective mind or as some non-human entity. Both the cultural and the personal-social effects are made possible through interindividual stimulus and response. It is only that the two should be differentiated in analysis and description, in order the more clearly to uncover the process of living. In reality the two are intermixed, often to an extent which baffles the student of human relations. In fact, in the changing social codes of today we arc witnessing the interesting process of the death of some cultural patterns and the evolution of others. In more stabilized societies, perhaps, the individual variations through personal-social inter-

( 6) action are probably less evident, although the work of Radin and especially of Malinowski has demonstrated that even in primitive groups, which are so often thought to live completely under "the cake of custom," there is a wide latitude between the theoretical code and actual practice.

We may illustrate how the group influences the individual in two ways: by personal-social influences of various sorts, op the one hand, and by cultural pressures, on the other. We must not forget that both of these influences reach one person through other persons. The family, the neighborhood, the church group, the citizenship group, into which you are born, have certain more or less ideal or standardized codes of action into which you must fit if you are to get on. Actually, both the child and the adult may and do escape full participation in these patterns which the groups set down for them. For example, in many upper classes of Europe, it is customary to employ a wet-nurse for the new-born baby. It is against the convention for the natural mother to nurse her infant. To do so would cause her to lose caste. On the other hand, there may be no social convention as to the time intervals between nursings, and the indulgent nurse may let the baby have the breast at any time and at irregular periods whenever the baby fusses and cries. On the basis of psychiatric findings we have good reason to believe that irregular nursing often produces certain habits in the individual which may influence his attachments to his mother or to the wet-nurse. These attachments affect his later behavior in distinct ways; for example, the demand to have every whim satisfied often begins here. The custom of employing wet-nurses is in the folkways, in the social code of the upper classes; but that any particular wet-nurse indulged a fretful baby is not, and would be counted as a personal-social as over against a cultural influence.

We may mention another example, in which admittedly some cultural factors may also operate. The behavior of a man in a mob may be largely the result of- personal-social stimuli thrust upon him, in which the rawer and less cultivated emotions and feelings would be brought to the surface. In contrast, the behavior of a man in an army-corps under orders and under the impress of drill and military code would be behavior distinctly colored in every respect by the cultural patterns of war-making Still another contrast would be the actions and attitudes of a person going through an elaborate religious ritual handed down by dozens of generations, often without any realization of its historical setting and meaning, as compared

( 7) with the person's activities, say, under a great crisis like a famine, a flood, an earthquake, or other natural disaster for which there had been no cultural preparation. Actually, in the case of disasters we know that many persons disintegrate, as we say, and become almost animal-like in their behavior, in contrast with others who transfer or carry over their attitudes from other situations and remain as moral and as socialized in the face of crisis as at any other time.

Emotional appeals to friendship, to love, to fear and anger between person and person in many situations typify this, in contrast with the behavior of the group according to the code. Thomas describes such a situation in a narrative of a village decision regarding anti-social conduct in which personal appeal is offset by adherence to the code, even though family connections had to be sacrificed. The following excerpt gives the substance of the incident:

In front of the volost administration building there stands a crowd of some one hundred and fifty men. This means that a volost meeting has been called to consider the verdict of the Kusmin rural commune "regarding the handing over to the (state) authorities of the peasant Gregori Siedov, caught red-handed and convicted of horse-stealing." Siedov had already been held for judicial inquiry; the evidence against him was irrefutable and he would undoubtedly be sentenced to the penitentiary. In view of this I endeavor to explain that the verdict in regard to his exile is wholly superfluous and will only cause a deal of trouble; and that at the termination of the sentence of imprisonment of Siedov the commune will unfailingly be asked whether it wants him back or prefers that he be exiled. Then, I said, in any event it would be necessary to formulate a verdict in regard to the "non-reception" of Siedov, while at this stage all the trouble was premature and could lead to nothing. But the meeting did not believe my words, did not trust the court, and wanted to settle the matter right then and there; the general hatred of horse-thieves was too keen . . . .

The decisive moment has arrive; the head-man "drives" all the judges-elect to one side; the crowd stands with a gloomy air, trying not to look at Siedov and his wife, who are crawling before the mir on their knees. "Old men, whoever pities Gregori, will remain in his place, and whoever does not forgive him will step to the right," cries the head-man. The crowd wavered and rocked, but remained dead still on the spot; no one dared to be first to take the fatal step. Grcgori feverishly ran over the faces of his judges with his eyes. trying to read in these faces pity for him. His wife wept bitterly, leer fare close to the ground; beside her, finger in mouth and on the point of screaming, stood a three-yearold youngster (at home Gregori had four more children) . . . . But straightway one peasant steps out of the crowd; two years before some one had stolen a

( 8) horse from him. "Why should we pity him? Did he pity us?" says the old man, and stopping goes over to the right side. "That is true; bad grass must be torn from the field," says another one from the crowd, and follows the old man. The beginning had been made; at first individually and then in whole groups the judges-elect proceeded to go over to the right. The man condemned by public opinion ran his head into the ground, beat his breast with his fists, seized those who passed him by their coat-tails, crying: "Ivan Timofeich! Uncle Leksander! Vasinka, dear kinsman! Wait, kinsman, let me say a word . . . Petrushenka." But, without stopping and with stern faces, the members of the mir dodged the unfortunates, who were crawling at their feet . . . . At last the wailing of Gregori stopped; around him for the space of three sazen the place was empty; there was no one to implore. All the judges-elect, with the exception of one, an uncle of the man to be exiled, had gone over to the right. The woman cried sorrowfully, while Gregori stood motionless on his knees, his head lowered, stupidly looking at the ground .[3]

Here we might say that cultural factors stand in opposition to social influences of person-to-person, outside the village code. Such contrasts are not infrequent. The notion of tempering justice with mercy is nothing else than this. Justice demands the penalty for infraction of the social code or the mores. .Mercy, an outgrowth of social sympathy —more definitely a product of personal—social experience-asks for extenuation.

Often, too, the social codes of various groups come into conflict with one another, producing other problems for social adjustment. For example, the code of the South Italian based on blood vengeance stands in clear opposition to the American code as typified in our law. Blackhand murder and gang warfare are difficult to handle in our cities, because the men involved in such crimes are attached to the European code more than to the American. Here as elsewhere well-meaning persons who attempt to explain the behavior of individuals on the basis of individual instincts, reflexes, or habits fail to recognize the tremendous force of these cultural patterns in molding human motives and actions.

At this point the reader may legitimately ask if social psychology really attempts to cover all three aspects of the social process-individual, social interaction, and cultural pressures. And if so, what place does psychology in the traditional sense, and what places do sociology and anthropology, occupy in the description and analysis of human behavior? Space does not permit elaboration, nor is this the place for a lengthy theoretical discus-

( 9) -sion of the interrelation of these fields and of the delimitation of social psychology. Without wishing to seem dogmatic, the writer may briefly state his standpoint.

To him there is no difference in point of view or in method between what is commonly called cultural anthropology and sociology. Any differences are in the objects of scientific attention rather than in fundamental points of view and method of approach to the data. These two sciences are concerned essentially with the cultural processes, the patterns and institutional precipitates of group life. These processes may be described entirely without recourse to psychology, as the brilliant work of the recent American ethnologists has demonstrated. Anthropology made its greatest strides as a social science when it gave up psychologizing the life of primitive peoples and began to study its data in the field in reference to historical antecedents and in terms of culture areas, cultural traits, cultural complexes, diffusion, and parallelism. Sociology, which is nothing if not the study of our own contemporary culture, is just now beginning to learn this important lesson. It is gradually giving up its interest in immediate social improvement as its first aim, and is abolishing its interpretative psychologizing by developing its own concepts from its study of group data. Small defines sociology as "that technique which approaches knowledge of human experience as a whole through investigation of the group-aspect of phenomena." In the words of Spencer, sociology and anthropology are concerned with the super-organic world .[4]

Psychology, on the other hand, is concerned with the individual organism, and particularly with the manner in which it works or behaves. This puts psychology distinctly on the borderline of physiology; but unlike physiology, psychology studies the organism as a whole in relation to its environment or the configuration of stimuli. The response of the total-going organism rather than the response of the isolated muscle or gland in the laboratory is the concern of the psychologist. Since, however, so much of the environment to which the organism reacts is made up of other individuals, since it is so largely social, may one not ask if psychology is not largely social psychology? This is a point which is debatable at least. Though the very mention of this idea often sets off the anger reaction of

( 10) the laboratory psychologist, Dewey, Mead, Balz, and others have raised this issue. It may be that in time, even in systematic psychology, the social factors in the range of stimuli will at least be more fully recognized than they were by the classical laboratory psychologists. However, Weiss in his Theoretical Basis of Behavior appreciates the importance of social-cultural stimuli.

The present writer is willing, if necessary, to grant to the psychologist the field of the study of the mechanisms of behavior and mind, no matter whether the stimuli be other individuals or the physical universe. The social psychologist will borrow from the laboratory psychologist whatever data and methods of analysis he needs. There is, however, a phase of behavior of the individual which can be stated in psychological terms and which the traditional psychologist has slighted. To the writer this seems, if not the essence of social psychology, certainly a very important part of it. This phase concerns the content of mind and behavior as contrasted with the forms or mere mechanics of stimulus and response. Strict psychology deals with the forms, with the mechanisms of mental processes and action, without regard to what it is in the way of concrete or abstract content which goes through the human machine. Social behavior is not understandable in these terms alone. If we are to describe and analyze the behavior of individuals in groups, we must know also what kinds of ideas, attitudes, and habits they have. In other words, we are concerned with the content of mind and behavior.

It must be evident at once that the source of the content of mind and behavior lies in the fields of personal-social and cultural experiences. For the sociologists these things may be described in sociological terminology, but for the social psychologist they may be stated as the content of ideas, attitudes, and habits. An illustration will help to make this clear. On some of the islands in the West Indies stones are placed upright along the native pathways. To the traveler they are merely stones somehow put upright in the ground, and he first supposes that they are road-markers or perhaps mile-stones. But they are so irregularly placed that they could hardly be used to indicate distances. He then notices that natives, as they pass these stones, go through some odd gestures; and every native who passes these stones repeats the same odd gestures. The traveler can soon learn that to the natives the stones are of a half-religious, half-magical character. To explain the actions of the natives in terms of mere stimulus alone omits

( 11) the most essential factors in their actions. To learn why the natives react so oddly toward some stones and not toward others, we are forced to take account of their ideas about the peculiar character of particular stones.

We wish to know how images and ideas get stereotyped in the mind, so that reactions to politics, economics, and religion may be predicted on the basis of mental habit. We also wish to know what the content of a man's mind is. If we do not know the ideas controlling a man's behavior, we cannot believe that we understand his behavior. After all, we cannot attempt to control or even alter another's mind until we know what he thinks as well as how he thinks. Frequently in the process of reëducation we cannot stop at an effort to change slightly the images in a man's mind; we must definitely substitute one image for another. For instance, days and nights of fear in the trenches have filled the minds of shell-shocked soldiers with images of terror and distress. The sight or even the image of four walls and a ceiling may recall these hours of terror spent in a dugout. The image may be so terrible that the patient must be forcibly restrained from breaking out of the house which reminded him of his ghastly experiences. By long training, we must bring new trains of imagery and new forms of emotion in this soldier, so that merely being in a closed room does not bring to his mind the visual image of his comrades buried in a dugout that has been struck by a high-explosive shell, or the kinesthetic (muscular) imagery of himself running down the trench away from the awful scene. Again, a person may be obsessed by a violent hatred of the Negro race. Here there is a specific mental set, with a definite, almost automatic reaction. Intimately connected with that is usually a series of emotions, mostly unpleasant, and visual images of a blackamoor attacking white women, or pushing white men off the sidewalk. If one has lived in the South and has heard tales of Reconstruction days, one may see images of drunken Negro legislators rolling whiskey barrels up and down the marble steps of the state capitol. In order to describe and to explain the attitudes and behavior of this type of person, it is quite as essential to know the content of his images and his feeling-tones as it is to know the psychological mechanism of habit formation and habit breakdown. In brief, to understand any social behavior it is necessary to know what lies in the mind as well as how the brain, the muscles, and the glands operate.

Let us take still another instance: the psychologist has taught us a good deal about the fallibility of memory and the manner in which recalled

( 12) memories are modified by imagination and associated experiences. The mechanisms of this process have been exposed in numerous studies. In the description and analysis of the patriotic person, for example, it is not only important to know the mental mechanisms of learning and recall, but for social psychology it is even more important to know where he got the "pictures in his head" about Washington or Lincoln or Lee which are the roots of his ardent patriotism. Another striking example of the influence of ideology on behavior occurs in the political-economic field. The Marxian socialist has an image of the class struggle very different from that of the capitalist employer. The recognition of the power of image content is seen over and over again in the education and propaganda carried on by these two groups. Sometimes we wonder if the two factions are describing the same phenomena.

The social psychologist, then, must take into account the pictures or images in people's heads, the kinds of slogans, words, and stories or legends which lie at the foundation of their emotional beliefs. These are the roots of their behavior. Merely to know the mechanism of the conditioned response and the whole psychology of associationism upon which it rests, will never give us the full knowledge of the behavior of the individual in the social group which we desire for scientific analysis and for ultimate prediction and control.

Thus social psychology borrows from physiology and experimental psychology the description of the mechanisms of behavior. From sociology and anthropology it derives the patterns which produce in the individual the content of his mind and behavior. Its own function is to trace the development of attitude, idea, and habit in the human individual on the side of both mechanism and content, always with reference to the attitudes, ideas, and habits which rest upon inter-individual stimulus and response. The sociologist and anthropologist may-and should--describe his data without any reference whatsoever to psychological concepts. The experimental psychologist may describe his data in terms of reflexes, habits, and mental mechanisms without reference to content of these or to the sociological formulations. The social psychologist, while he borrows from the latter the mechanisms, must also be concerned with tracing the content of the individual mind and behavior as it is affected by his social and his cultural stimulation. In describing the stimuli he may use sociological concepts, but in treating the personality he must, in the strict sense, employ psychological

( 13) terms. For instance, he must treat the content of ideas, attitudes, and habits as individual counterparts of the social world outside.[5]

In concrete detail, therefore, social psychology must take into account the individual as a person. On the side of development this must include reference to innate mechanisms: reflexes, instinctive trends and emotions, and the potential capacities for growth and modification of these in terms of habit, attitude, and the power of controlling future action through thought or deliberation. From this matrix we hope to trace the motives for human action and the factors which produce the various facets of human life.

On the one hand, social psychology is based firmly on individual mechanisms; on the other, it reaches up into personal-social and cultural phases, since the content of reaction and mental processes arises from these influences. It is not a question of segregating the individual from the group. It is rather a problem of how persons act and interact under social stimulation. This must then involve three phases: (a) other persons, as they stimulate the person or are stimulated by the person, (b) the person's own social reaction (that is, in relation to the others), (c) the institutions to which the individual responds or which he in turn modifies. The latter is, as we have indicated, simply a cultural phase of the first two.

It remains to dispose of the concept of the "group mind," "collective consciousness," "mob mind," "folk mind," and such terms as the subject-matter of social psychology. It is unnecessary, however, to go over this ground in critical detail, since this has been done so well already.[6] The

( 14) essential criticism to be leveled against the whole "group mind" thesis is the questionable use of psychological terminology and concepts to describe and analyze what essentially belongs to sociology and anthropology, that is, to group phenomena. Tarde, Durkheim, Le Bon, McDougall, and in part such American sociologists as Ward, Giddings, Small, and Ross, have discussed group phenomena in psychological terms. This has resulted, especially in the European writers mentioned, in much loose psychologizing about "mob mind," "group consciousness," "folk soul," and the like. The whole problem is resolved into its proper perspective if we understand that the phenomena described by these writers in psychological terms may more adequately be treated in concepts of sociology and anthropology, that is, as group or cultural data.

To conclude, then, social psychology deals with the personality as it is affected by other persons and as it, in turn, influences them. The personality, first, is an outgrowth of the personal-social and cultural stimuli which impinge upon the individual from his first appearance in this world. Secondly, it is also a product of the responses of the individual to this personal-social world which is made up of other persons and of the precipitates of earlier social life which we call culture.


A. Further Reading: Young, Source Book for Social Psychology, Chapters I, pp. 3-6; III, pp. 30-53.

B. Questions and Exercises.

  1. Discuss questions and exercises in assignment in Source Book, Chapters I, p. 6; III, pp. 53-54
  2. Distinguish between personal-social and cultural stimuli. Illustrate from your own experience and observation.
  3. Distinguish between mechanism and content of behavior.
  4. Criticize the concept of "group" and of "collective consciousness."
C. Topics for Class Reports and Longer Written Papers.
  1. See assignments for reports and longer papers in Source Book, Chapters I, p. 6; III, p. 54.
  2. Review critically J. W. Sprowls, Social Psychology Interpreted, especially Chapter V, on the group mind theories in social psychology.
  3. Review critically Allport's discussion of group mind, culture patterns, etc. in his articles.


  1. The writer doubts that this could be done, since they are not comparable and exist in different dimensions.
  2. The word personal alone is objectionable chiefly because it often connotes private or even non-social effects. What we need to emphasize is the social, not the private, aspects of the interaction of individuals.
  3. W. I. Thomas, The Unadjusted Girl, 1923, pp. 47-48. Copyrighted by Little, Brown and Company.
  4. Cf. A. W. Small's article "Sociology," Encyclopedia Americana, vol. XXV, p. 208. Also see A. L. Kroeber "The Possibility of a Social Psychology," American Journal of Sociology, 1918: vol. XXIII: 633-50, and W. P. Ogburn, Social Change, 1919, for discussion of the super-organic or culture.
  5. The writer is aware that he has sketchily touched on fundamental problems here. Allport doubts the reality of the group; would deny to sociology and anthropology any substance except as merely descriptive sciences. There is, of course, nothing new in Allport's denial of the reality of the group. It seems necessary to point out that in entropy even physics employs a definite concept of the group. Cf. e.g., A. S. Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, pp. 103-107.
    This whole question goes back to the age-long controversy of nominalism and realism. Furthermore, the social psychologist of the present time may see no point in the emphasis upon mental content, so long as we have a thorough-going sociology which describes fully the cultural patterns which correspond more or less to this content. The writer would say that not all the content of mind and behavior is determined by cultural patterns. Much of it arises from what he defines narrowly as personal-social experience. Moreover, the personality is the particular concern of the social psychologist. Personality is really the product of the individual organism, with its mechanisms, plus the effects of personal-social and cultural pressures. The content of mind and behavior may be stated in terms of the psychology of personality. Without this material at hand the study of personality seems to be incomplete. The present day psychiatrist is beginning to realize this in part, although usually his descriptions are misty or so involved as to seem incomprehensible to the uninterested .Cf. for example, T. Burrow, The Social Basis of Consciousness.
  6. Cf. J. W. Sprowls Social Psychology Interpreted, 1927, especially Chapter V; The History and Prospects of the Social Sciences, 1925, Chapter IV, pp, 158-16.1, and F. H. Allport, Social Psychology, 1924, Chapter I, pp. 4-10.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2