The Rôle of Individual Psychological Differences in Social Psychology

Catharine Cox Miles
Institute of Human Relations, Yale University

IN THE field of social psychology with its wide and sometimes vaguely defined area, individual differences have infrequently appeared as obvious features of the terrain. Perhaps from the point of view of present knowledge and present needs, this condition is not necessarily unsatisfactory. But in those parts of the total field which are of special interest to psychologists, certain regions may be recognized where individual differences are probably essential elements in the substructure. Not in every research in social psychology need study even in these certain regions be directed to many varieties, much less to every possible kind of individual measurement, but where it is more or less evident that individual differences account, even in part, for social behavior, research should, I believe, recognize the differences in question and a body of material be gathered that may enter into the foundations of further research. These psychological foundations may then be expected to serve more adequately as bases upon which in part the generalized social psychology of the sociologists will be built. This will be especially the case when 'the various elements involved, among them individual differences, have been fully enough explored so that assumptions regarding them and their place in the scheme may become essentially axiomatic. The responsibility on the part of experimental and clinical psychology for contributing basic factual material to social psychology is, I believe, an obligation

( 470) which these special disciplines cannot afford to shirk.

The problems of social psychology are the problems of human behavior. Whether we agree with Cowper that "Manner is all," or with Emerson that "There is nothing settled in manners,"---as observers and investigators of the phenomena of social psychology, we have to consider the individual differences which characterize the personalities who display these manners. The social psychology of man broadly defined is the science of the behavior of human beings in their reactions to other human beings. It is the science of manners, first, as the all-modifying factor in social behavior and, second, as themselves modified by society. Data for different social psychologies have been drawn forth at different points in the science hierarchy that extends from physiology to philosophy and more particularly from the region between psychology and sociology.

The need for a social psychology seems to have been first felt by the sociologists, as the need for a physiological psychology or a genetic psychology was first experienced by the psychologists. Characteristically, the adherents of the more generalized discipline first became explicitly aware of the lack in its systematic structure which the more particularized science might be expected to fill.

It is perhaps well to note this historical development and at least briefly to take cognizance of the various areas in the extensive territory from psychology to sociology which have been severally named social psychology. This seems desirable because individual differences do not play an equal part at all levels. Their rôle tends to diminish to the vanishing point as sociologists treat social psychology descriptively and in terms of generalized social laws. Anthropologists, too, generally view social psychology in a similar broad way. The significance and the explicit value of individual differences increase gradually from this vanishing point and the rôle enlarges progressively as the general field of psychology is approached and specifically as its centers of activity, experimental, clinical, genetic, abnormal, and others become the points of reference.

Perhaps it is not inappropriate to represent physiology, psychology and sociology as three neighboring mountain tops, from each of which we may have a unique view of life phenomena, with intermediate aspects accessible from the stretches of common high land between the eminences. Social psychology is still largely in a descriptive, interpretive stage in which many of its data are generalized rather than specifically meaningful. But even in this stage and perhaps also as one of the steps in emerging from it, it is, I think, highly important for specific and pertinent individual difference data to be injected into the general background of information.

Formerly experimental psychology stated its conclusions in terms of hypothetical types, utilizing more or less well-established modes or medians and formulating laws in terms of these. More recently some experimentalists have found it desirable to supplement by measures of dispersion these statements in terms of ''human responses" or assumed central tendencies. This same basic modification in point of view may now tend to clarify the data and conclusions of social psychology and so perhaps aid in making of it a more vital science.

We must not suffer ourselves to be deluded by what seem to be the more and the less evident in these fields. There arc probably at least as many kinds of individual differences as n(n-1) times the individuals studied. Certain of these differences are more clearly observable and

( 471) measurable, of interest to more investigators and seemingly of greater importance. Research should, however, theoretically never be limited to any one or even any group of these, but should proceed systematically from a consideration of the problem and the subjects to studies determined by the appropriate points of reference, axes or dimensions of measurement significant in a given situation. On the other hand there are no doubt some problems in social psychology in which individual differences seemingly play a minor part and where further detailed study may be postponed until the more pressing problems have been attacked. Ultimately this conclusion should not be assumed but should be tested rigorously lest an apparent condition hide a true one.

What are the axes of measurement along which individual psychological differences need especially to be reckoned in connection with studies in social psychology? It is obviously impossible more than briefly to enumerate a few.

At the fundamental level of social stimulation and response, differences are doubtless minimal. Here, universal human behavior is by definition the object of study. The psychologist is at this level concerned with the demonstration of the presence of stimulation and response as psychological phenomena and not with differences in them or in the human beings who display them.

Beyond this basic psycho-physiological stage comes what we may term the first level of organized behavior complexity where attitudes and imaginal factors enter and here individual differences become important. Professor F. H. Allport long ago pointed out the "group fallacy." The so-called "crowd mind" must have its locus in individuals. Work with children, carried on and summarized by the Murphys, Goodenough and others, illustrates the essential place of individual differences here as well as at higher levels of complexity and the more intelligently recognition is made of data like these the more hopeful will be the outlook for avoidance of the "organism error."

At the second level of complexity where social attitudes,. social consciousness, and social adjustments are themselves the subject of scrutiny, each problem really warrants special investigations of the particularly pertinent individual differences involved. Age, sex, education and occupation are among the essential axes of reference; most pertinent and also most amenable to measurement. Dashiell's researches and summaries have cleared the ground, laid out the territory, and structured the data. Other studies of special attitudes illustrate work in this region: Hartman's and Hildreth's investigations of attitudes toward occupations and Thurstone's studies of attitudes, Terman and Miles' masculinity-feminity researches, although not primarily designed as studies in social psychology, bring to light some of the axes along which measurement illuminates the factors contributing to culturally accepted attitudes and interests of educational and occupational as well as sex groups. Thorndike's studies and those of W. R. Miles on adults are also pertinent here.

At the third level of complexity in group studies of race and nationality types, of leadership, and of genius, basic studies of individual differences have been contributed among others by Strong in his investigations of the Japanese in California, by G. W. and F. H. Allport in their studies of ascendency and submission, and by Terman and his associates in the genetic studies of genius.

At the fourth level where social institutions are studied as complex psychological units individual differences are less obvi-

( 472) -ous. However, studies like Robinson's on political opinion show that they are present and may be fruitfully investigated.

Adequate study of any scientific problem demands that it be viewed from every angle from which new and pertinent characteristics may be seen. This really involves many viewings that contribute only negatively because they show neither new nor pertinent characteristics. Perhaps the investigator's prayer should be that he overlook none of these, as it is the prayer of his fellow investigators that he summarize the negative aspects briefly. Further adequacy is insured only if the problem be first of all analyzed in such a way that its elements can be referred to the appropriate points of reference and later synthesized so that its place may be determined in the total topography of the science.

In conclusion let me restate my thesis: The study of individual psychological differences is, I believe, essential to the development of a scientific social psychology. Careful measurement of the attributes of persons on as many axes as possible, although it may at first seem too greatly to emphasize analysis, may ultimately contribute to the better understanding of human beings as integrated organisms, and thus illuminate a scientific social psychology.


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