Social Psychology

Chapter 10: Response to Social Stimulation: Elementary Forms

Floyd Henry Allport

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Types of Reactions to Social Objects. Social behavior, as previously stated, falls into two classes: the acts by which one individual stimulates another, and the characteristic responses which are made to these acts. The former class, namely the social stimuli, have been discussed in the two preceding chapters. We shall consider now the various ways in which the individual reacts to these stimulations. Not all such reactions are equally important from the present viewpoint; for many of them do not differ materially from the responses made to non-social objects. The motorist reacts to the sign `Road Closed' in the same way that he would to a permanent obstruction placed across the highway. The fact that some human being has written the sign has no special significance. He responds to the behavior of the traffic policeman as he would to the arms of a wooden semaphore. When we follow oral directions, make use of the knowledge gained in a lecture, or obey the social stimuli implicit in the law, we are reacting a little more to the specific social element of the stimulus; but even here our behavior does not differ in kind from control and learning through contact with non-social objects. When, on the other hand, we sympathize with our friend's grief, converse with him, smile in answer to his smile, yield submissively to his suggestion, work more rapidly because he is working with us, or feel hurt or angry at his neglect, our response is uniquely a response to social stimulation.

On the side, therefore, of response, behavior shades off from types which are distinctly characteristic of the social and only the social situation, to forms which are exhibited in any kind of environment. Social psychology is concerned only with the former variety, that is, with reactions which follow exclusively or at least mainly from social stimulation. Elementary forms of such response, including sympathy, imitation, suggestion, and laughter will be discussed in this chapter.



The Mechanism of Sympathy. Sympathy is usually defined as ‘feeling with' an individual, or sharing his emotions. It is thus no emotion in particular, but a mechanism whereby any emotion or feeling in another comes to arouse the same state in us. Since the principle of sympathy is fundamental in social life, it is necessary to get as clear a notion as possible of the process it involves. Professor McDougall has advanced a theory of sympathy which has been the center of much controversy. For each emotion, according to his view, there are two classes of stimuli which have the innate capacity for evoking it. One of these is the actual object, such as thwarting agencies for anger and dangerous stimuli for fear. The other comprises the perception of the emotion in question as expressed in the behavior of another. Thus the facial expression, cries, and movements of fear directly arouse fear in a person witnessing them, and arouse it, moreover, as an instinctive response. This alleged process is known as the ‘sympathetic induction of emotions.’

This theory has the advantage of simplicity of statement. Deeper consideration, however, reveals certain fundamental objections to it. First, it presupposes the maturation of complex innate `perceptual dispositions,' and thus incurs the objections to the general instinct theory raised in Chapter III. Secondly, it is seriously at odds with the experimental findings, related in Chapter IX, bearing upon the response to facial expressions in emotion. The general accuracy of individuals in identifying such expressions is less than fifty per cent. If the expression tended instinctively to evoke the corresponding emotion in the spectator, it seems certain that the ability to select the correct name for it would have been much higher and more universal. It is clear also from the experiments that the proficiency of different individuals in this regard is due not to innate reaction to expression, but to the amount of training or effort at learning which they have experienced. Again, most persons strive to recognize the expression by recalling specific situations in which such a facial response would be fitting. This last point affords us an important clue: it is not the direct

(235) emotional behavior of the person, so much as the knowledge of the conditions affecting him that makes it possible for its to understand (and indeed to sympathize) with his state of mind. Thirdly, the facts not only of experiment but of real life are against the theory. If we witness the anger of two men who are fighting, our anger is not necessarily aroused. We may instead be amused, frightened, or interested, according to the circumstances. If one of the combatants is our dearest friend, we feel anger and participate in the conflict. But our anger is not a `sympathetic anger' aroused by the sight of our friend's angry behavior. It is aroused by the enemy who is injuring our friend, and thereby thwarting certain of our own affections and interests. Here again it is the whole situation rather than the perception of an emotion in another which arouses the emotion in us.

A theory far more plausible than that of instinctive induction of emotion may now be considered. This is the principle of conditioned emotional response. It may be illustrated by the panic which seizes all the persons in a throng when a few of them show signs of terror. Granting that the true cause for alarm has been seen by only the original few, we have here a case of fear aroused by a process of sympathy. The explanation, according to the present theory, is as follows: We have been previously terrified in company with others and so have had our fear emotion transferred to characteristic attendant stimuli, such as the cries and visible expressions of the emotion in those about us. We now react at once to the sight of fear in others by a fear response of our own. Here the conception of sympathetic induction loses its force. We fear not merely because we see the expression of fear in others; but because we have learned to read these expressions as signs that there really is something to be afraid of. It is not fear induced from others that we experience, but our own fear of dangerous situations which has been conditioned by social stimuli.

The tender emotions of love and grief are more popularly identified with the sympathetic reaction than anger and fear. The following example is a familiar instance explained by the conditioned response theory. I receive a letter from my friend announcing the death of his wife. Suppose I have previously lost my own

(236) wife. The words serve to recall (by conditioning) many feelings of grief and thwarted love I have formerly experienced, and I may be said to sympathize fully with my friend.[1] Let us suppose I have never experienced such bereavement. My reaction is different only in degree. I have imagined and worried about such a misfortune occurring (or I can easily imagine it), and have thus carried out thought reactions tinged with emotion similar to the grief of my friend. The letter announcing the sad news draws upon this stock of my experience, and I thus sympathize, though to a less degree than in the former case. If we suppose that I am not even married, my sympathetic reaction, though present, is much less still.

There is then a law that the closer the situation arousing sympathy to the past experience of the individual, the greater will be his sympathy with the person involved. This fact is the fourth and most telling argument in favor of the conditioned response theory as against the theory of sympathetically induced emotion. For according to the latter view, provided the expression of feeling were always of the same intensity, it would make no difference in the sympathetic response whether the situation were familiar or unfamiliar to the sympathizer; whereas, following the conditioned response theory, we should expect the arousal of the `sympathetic' emotion to be directly proportional to the number and strength of its previous arousals in the situation in question.

Conditions Favoring the Sympathetic Response. In addition to the degree of familiarity with the situation there are several other factors which favor the conditioned release of emotional reactions by like emotional expressions in others. They have the common effect of rendering the organism more receptive to the stimulus. Love, in particular, involves an attitude of constant readiness to 'react to the behavior of the loved one. This openness to stimulation is probably a part of that general desire for contact with the

(237) loved object. The mother therefore feels keenly the physical pains, and the dangers, discomforts, and disappointments of her child, because her own emotional responses are open to arousal through conditioning elements witnessed in the situation of the child. Submissive attitudes are similar in their susceptibility to emotional stimuli from those toward whom one is submissive. Prestige is the common basis of this relation. We know that the doctor understands the condition of our sick friend far better than we do; hence our emotional reactions are in a condition of readiness to be aroused by any evidence of emotion from this person of prestige. If his manner is confident, we are calm and reassured; if he seems apprehensive, we take alarm at once. In the late war the writer felt a distinct wave of terror upon seeing some French troops look up into the sky and run for cover. The new American troops were always in readiness to react to the signs afforded by the soldiers of armies which had had long experience in the trenches. The quick, emotional response of the child to the emotion shown by the parent is based on this same submissiveness to prestige. One other condition favoring sympathy may be mentioned; namely, the nearness and vividness of the emotional expression and situation. We are thus inclined to feel deeper sympathy for the cry of a hungry child on the street than for the starving thousands which we read of in newspaper accounts of famines.

The Social Significance of Sympathy. Sympathy, though important in enabling human beings to understand one another and so live together, is not in itself an altruistic response. The emotion sympathetically aroused leads us primarily to the removal of the unpleasant state in ourselves rather than in those whose suffering aroused it in us. Thus when we feel sympathetic fear we get ourselves out of danger, often with little regard for the safety of others. When we are unpleasantly affected by the sight of suffering, we pass and forgot it, or else close our eyes to it. By the admixture of pity in our response we are sometimes led to remove our unpleasant states by alleviating the suffering of the persons who arouse such states in us. But this type of reaction goes further than mere sympathy itself.[2]


There are some sentimental individuals who derive a mawkish satisfaction from sympathizing with every form of misfortune, whether it be real want and suffering or the fancied oppression of some portion of society. These persons revel in sympathy; but they do little to relieve the cause beyond railing at the general scheme of things which makes such conditions possible. Suspicion may be justly aroused that it is the scheme of things which they hate, and their sympathy is simply a form of rationalization for justifying their hatred. A similar tendency is seen in those who release certain repressed interests by sentimentalizing over the criminal. How completely we are made to share the feelings of `Jimmy Valentine' the burglar famed in song and drama! We sympathize also with those who rebel against social conventions, and who advocate free love and other forms of alleged freedom; not admitting that we ourselves sanction these things, but simply contending that we are persons of `broad sympathies.' It should be remembered that the fact that we can sympathize with a criminal or a social rebel is in no measure a justification for the conduct of such a person. Sympathy merely obscures the issue and prevents taking the objective social viewpoint necessary for dealing with these cases.

But it would be unfair to leave the impression that sympathy has no really useful social function. Where not indulged for personal satisfactions, but combined with a drive to be of service to others, it is one of the most vital forces of society. Its chief functions is to knit us more closely with our fellows by conditioning our behavior not only upon the way in which they react overtly, but upon the evidences of their thought and feeling. Through the sympathetic reaction we enter into a fuller understanding of the conscious

(239) feelings and motives of others. The unity of the group is thus emphasized in the subjective life as well as the behavior of its members. We shall return to this subject in connection with our study of social consciousness.

Summary. We may conclude briefly as follows: (1) Sympathy is not an instinctive process; there is no direct innate effect of the emotion as expressed in one individual upon the emotional response of another. (2) The emotion aroused in the sympathizer is not necessarily a replica of that in the person who affords the stimulus. (3) The emotion aroused in the sympathizer is a part of his own system of emotional habits from past experience, evoked as a conditioned response to some element common to the original and the present situations. (4) Sympathy makes for better understanding in human adjustments, but it is not necessarily conducive either to altruism or to social justice.


An Analysis of Acts to which the Term `Imitation' is Applied. Before the rise of a really critical science of behavior the term `imitation' enjoyed wide repute in social theory. Tarde, Baldwin, and Ross have given it a basic position in their accounts of human nature and society. Psychologists to-day are fairly well agreed that the term is little more than an inexact expression for the similarities observed in the behavior of different individuals. Explanation for such similarities must be sought at a deeper level. Our treatment of imitation must therefore be mainly negative. In the six following propositions types of behavior sometimes ascribed to imitation will be traced to more fundamental origins.

1. There is little ground for assuming specific instinctive tendencies to react to the movements of others by producing similar movements of our own (see p. 76). It is very difficult to induce in a baby under a year and a half old an unequivocal instinctive imitation of a movement or expression.[3] Reactions which at first

(240) appear to be due to instinctive imitation are explicable on other grounds.

2. Many acts of alleged instinctive imitation are due to the conditioning of responses by social stimuli similar to the responses themselves. One day while the writer's baby was visiting, the hostess observed him wave his hand aimlessly up and down. She at once drew his attention and waved her hand, at the same time crying `bye-bye.' The affair interested him greatly,-and thereafter he would react either to the sight of a waving hand or to the sound of `bye-bye' by waving his hand. By one unaccustomed to look for the genetic origin of behavior traits this trick would have doubtless been ascribed to spontaneous and instinctive imitation. It was really due to nothing of the sort, but to a conditioned response in which the conditioning stimulus was an act similar to the response itself. Smiling when others smile is probably due to a similar conditioning process. The whole category of sympathetic reactions, as explained earlier in this chapter, is derived, not through imitation, but through conditioning. The expression of fear in those about us means that we ourselves are in danger; hence we too become afraid. To say however that we imitate the fear of others is to state something which is either meaningless or else untrue. The heightened emotionality in crowds is likewise due to conditioning of our emotional reactions rather than to imitation of one individual's behavior by another.

3. Some acts of alleged instinctive imitation are to be explained as conditioned circular responses. In Chapter VIII the parrotlike stage of infantile language was shown to be due, not to instinctive imitation, but to the use of previously established connections between auditory and speech centers. When others speak syllables to the child they put into operation the ear-vocal reflexes which the child has already fixated by hearing himself talk.

The sound is thus repeated but not imitated. Crying when other children cry, laughing when the parents laugh, and similar responses are explained in the same manner.

4. Many acts of alleged imitation are due not to the effect of one individual upon another, but to the fact that all are reacting to the

(241) same stimulus. Watching others fight does not cause us to fight also. If we join in, it is not through imitation of the others, but because we are incited through hatred of a common enemy.

5. Imitation is not a method of motor learning; it represents merely a drawing of the attention to some special part of the field of stimulation. The child or animal does not learn to open a box by deliberately copying the movements of another who is opening it. Such movements may serve to direct the efforts of the learner toward some limited and crucial portion of the box, for example, the latch. But within this sphere the only method employed is the trial and chance success, or the deliberate planning, of the individual himself. At a later time the sight of another person opening a box may interest the child and cause him to open it. But this is only after the method of doing it has been acquired by purely individual practice. It is true that in the acquisition of complex habits we can assist our progress by trying to copy the exact positions of the hands or feet of our tutor. Even here however we reach only a rough approach to success; refinement by practice must complete the coordinations approximated by imitation. Such motor copying also does not apply to the elementary manipulative tendencies of childhood.

6. There is no general instinctive drive to imitate. Behind each complex activity in which one individual copies another there is some personal and prepotent interest other than the more desire to imitate. One boy follows another over the fence in order to get his share of the farmer's apples. He copies the act of tipping his hat to ladies in order to secure social approval or to make a good impression upon a certain girl. Two of the most common drives of childhood are the effort to be grown up and the compensatory striving for power. Hence boys and girls ape the behavior of their parents, and play imitative family games in order to realize, in imagination at least, the first of these desires. Imitations of policemen, robbers, and engineers help them to attain the coveted feeling of power. Large integrated systems of behavior are thus brought in, not in order to imitate, but simply as means to a certain end. Given a definite goal to be reached we learn from the behavior of others that a certain type of action will help us to attain it; but the goal, itself

(242) is not established by imitation, nor is the skill necessary for performing the suggested action acquired by that process.

On the whole we may dispense with the conception of imitation in other senses than mere description of uniformities of behavior. The fact that the reaction of 'one individual resembles that of another is of course of vast social importance. In order to understand these uniformities, however, we must seek for deeper explanations than that afforded by the assuming of a tendency to imitate.


Various Definitions of Suggestion. The term `suggestion.' like sympathy and imitation, denotes a certain relation of stimulus and response operative between individuals. Like sympathy it will be seen to involve no unique type of process, and like imitation it is a collective term embracing a number of distinct elementary mechanisms. When we accept an opinion uncritically, using it as a basis, for our belief or action, we may be said to respond to a suggestion.' Thus Professor McDougall considers suggestion as a process resulting in the acceptance of a proposition in the absence of logically adequate grounds. Professor Stern defines it as "the imitative assumption of a mental attitude under the illusion of assuming it spontaneously." Both these statements indicate the relatively unconscious nature of the process; but the latter broadens the notion from a matter of mere belief to a mental `attitude,' thus implying some action or readiness to act. Professor Baldwin introduces an explanatory element in his definition, and includes, like Stern, a motor factor. He regards the process as a mechanism of attention which narrows the consciousness and motor impulses to restricted lines, and inhibits attitudes of discrimination and selection. It is here justly recognized that suggestion has a negative aspect, namely, the inhibiting of consciousness and action of a nature antagonistic to the suggested proposition. Finally, Munsterberg conceived the process entirely in the behavioristic terms of action and inhibition. A suggestion, according to him, is "a proposition to action which overcomes antagonistic impulses" in the subject. The only criticism one can apply to these definitions is that, while each suggests an important aspect of response

(243) suggestion, each is too limited to do justice to all the types and phases of the process.

The Potency of Spoken Language in Bodily Control. Before attempting a complete analysis of suggestion, it will be profitable consider the capabilities of the mechanism through which the suggestion is generally brought to bear, namely, the response of bodily effectors to language stimuli. The spoken word has a more `profound effect upon the human organism than is commonly recognized. This effect is shown in two ways: (1) in the automatic and unconscious nature of language controls, and (2) in the far-reaching and complete character of the bodily changes produced.

The first aspect is illustrated by the circular speech reflexes, in which the sound of a word directly stimulates the response of pronouncing it. As adults we unconsciously employ these mechanisms in the reiteration of phrases spoken by others with whose opinions we are in perfect agreement. Echolalia is an abnormal extreme of the same phenomenon. Aphasia presents similar features in that spoken words, which the patient through his disorder has lost all means of understanding, may be written mechanically by him from dictation. `Psychopathic obedience' is a condition in which the patient immediately executes every action proposed to him. Perfectly normal individuals also show at times an immediate and undeliberated response to commands. These effects are based upon deeply fixed habits of association between word sounds and the bodily movements which they signify. It is convenient to regard them as sub-cortical or ‘short-circuited' modes of response,. having their centers at a lower level of the nervous system than the portions concerned with thought and meaning. While this explanation is still a hypothesis, it fits well with the description of the suggestion consciousness as an unreasoned and immediate acceptance of a proposal.

The influence of language not only approaches an immediate reflex, It is also remarkably thorough and far reaching. Hypnosis, which is essentially a state of heightened suggestibility, presents the clearest examples. By repeated suggestion the operator gains absolute control of all the mechanisms of the body. The resistance being broken down, the statement "You cannot open your

(244) eyes" takes immediate effect, and the subject actually cannot move his lids. The auditory impulse enters the central nervous system and goes immediately out to the effectors. It is as though one were talking directly to the muscles of the subject. Even perceptual and thought mechanisms may be controlled in deeper hypnotic states. The subject will actually fail to see a person standing nearby if told he has left the room. The flow of tears, and other glandular and visceral changes not even under the control of the subject himself, may be brought about through language suggestion. Among primitive tribes the magic formulae of the shaman have, under conditions of fear, produced wasting illness, and, as some travelers allege, death. Such cases illustrate the profound integration which exists between the afferent mechanism for receiving language stimuli and the entire reaction system of the body. Though shown here in extreme form, the same general organization of neurons underlies the responses to all language suggestion, and gives to the social environment a possibility of the most intricate control of the individual through the spoken word.

Suggestion Defined as a Control of Attitude. This then is the type of physiological effect produced by verbal suggestion. An example of post-hypnotic suggestion will lead us to a still closer view of the normal mechanism. It is suggested under hypnosis that at six o'clock the subject will go to the telephone and call up a certain friend. A motor setting is thus prepared to perform this act at a certain signal, the approach of the hour of six; and when the time comes the subject, though now no longer under hypnosis, automatically performs the act. The motor set thus built up by suggestion we may call an attitude. In everyday life attitudes are built up in similar fashion. We talk over with our friend the feasibility of some civic project, or the merits of the new minister; and quite without knowing it we become set to react in accordance with this discussion when suitable occasion arises. We accept the words of ‘an expert' on any subject and repeat them to our friends as spontaneously as if they were our own. A suggestion from a friend regarding our appearance, manners, or habits may determine in us a fixed attitude to react in the direction suggested. A refractory child may with tact be talked into an attitude of yielding

(245) graciously to suggestions regarding his conduct. An enemy may often be handled in the same manner. All examples of this sort involve a preparatory setting of the synapses at the motor centers d possibly increases in tonicity of the muscles to be employed in carrying out the line of behavior suggested.

Suggestion is concerned with the control of bodily attitudes in three possible ways. First, it serves to build up or prepare the setting for a definite response when the releasing signal is given. The examples just mentioned belong to this category. Secondly, it may serve as the signal (social stimulus) which releases the attitude already established. And thirdly, suggestion may augment the released response as it is being carried out. These three effects of suggestion will be illustrated in the following sections.

I. Suggestion in the Formation of Attitudes. There is a great power in the spoken word; but it is not a magic power. Every normal suggestion builds up its attitude upon some deep-lying reaction tendency already present. Interests, emotions, sentiments, derived drives, and innate prepotent reactions (see Chapter III) serve as bases. A classic example is the jealousy and suspicion of Othello wrought upon by the persistent artifices of Iago until an attitude of infuriated vengeance toward Desdemona was developed. Advertisers notoriously exploit human drives in building up an attitude to purchase their products. Here also repeated suggestion is used in the attitude-forming process. Quality, good value, and the satisfaction of every form of human need are associated persistently with the particular trade name.

The following story, at the writer's expense, gives a clear picture of this phase of suggestion. One day the writer joined a rather apathetic audience upon whom an auctioneer of jewelry and silverware was endeavoring to make an impression. Little interest was felt by any of the group until the auctioneer (who knew what he was about) announced that a magnificent manicure outfit which he displayed would be given free to the first person to raise an existing bid to six dollars. A lady at once raised the bid and carried off article and bonus joyfully. At once the writer's economic and bargaining interests were aroused. He drew mechanically nearer, all critical and discriminating tendencies abolished, and his con-

(246) -sciousness filled with the realization that things were being given away and that he must bid without restraint upon the very next article. This he did - and carried home for an extreme price a 'nickel silver' sugar bowl which he didn't want! A clearer case of the formation of an attitude for response through suggestion could not be desired.

2. Suggestion in the Release of Attitudes. There are situations in which previous events have already given rise to a motor setting, and in which the suggestion serves merely to release the act for which the body is prepared. Persons deprived of loved ones by the late war have developed an attitude of yearning expectancy concerning some future contact with the souls of the dead. Spiritualistic mediums and ouija boards have provided suggestions for the release of these tendencies; and an international craze for things 'psychic' has been the result. Yawning when others yawn

is not sheer imitation. It occurs principally when we are tired and on the point of yawning ourselves. With this preparation the sight of the act serves as a release of the act in question. We have long standing attitudes of respect and obedience to age, prestige, and expert opinion. Hence any language suggestion from sources of this character liberates the response suggested.

The release of motor settings often involves the principle of allied and antagonistic responses (see p. 37). Suppose one is starting from home on a cloudy morning. The appearance of the sky is a stimulus which tends to evoke the response of getting an umbrella. Thoughts of inconvenience and of the chance that it may not rain represent a neural setting of an antagonistic sort, that is, leaving the umbrella behind. A friend suggests that the sky indicates rain, and immediately an allied stimulus is added to the attitude for taking the umbrella, and the antagonistic setting for leaving it is inhibited. The allied stimulus of the suggestion in this case is the deciding factor.

Both the formation and the release of attitudes are illustrated by familiar instances of suggestion. The art of the salesman is to build up a setting to purchase his product in the neuromuscular system of the prospect. When such a setting is developed and strengthened through argument and demonstration, the 'psycho-

(247) logical moment' must be grasped and the contract blank produced the direct suggestion to purchase delivered. The attitude is therewith released. Professor F. M. Davenport narrates an amusing instance of suggestion comprising these two phases, and vouches for its truth.[4] It is quoted in slightly abridged form below.

In a little town between Cleveland, Tennessee, and Chattanooga, it was the purpose to give a donation to the colored minister. One of the brethren in the church volunteered to make a collection from the various homes, and an old colored woman loaned this brother her cart and a pair of steers for the purpose. After he had been throughout the neighborhood and had secured a load of provisions and clothing, he drove off to Chattanooga and sold everything, including the cart and the steers, pocketed the proceeds and departed on a visit to Atlanta. Consternation and indignation reigned in the community when the affair became known. After some time the culprit drifted back, in deep contrition, but having spent all. Indignation once more arose to a white heat, and it was determined to give him a church trial at once. The meeting was crowded; and the preacher, after stating the charges, announced that the accused would be given a chance to be heard. He went forward and took the place of the preacher on the platform.

"I ain't got nuffin to say fo' myse'f," he began in a penitent voice, "I'se a po' mis'able sinner. But, bredren, so is we all mis'able sinners. An' de good book says we must fergib. How many times, bredren? Till seven times? No, till seventy times seven. An' I ain't sinned no seventy times seven, and I'm jes' go' to sugges' dat we turn dis into a fergibness meetin', an' eberybody in dis great comp'ny dat is willin' to fergib me, come up now, while we sing one of our deah ole hymns, and shake ma hand."

He started one of the powerful revival tunes, and they began to come, first those who hadn't given anything to the donation and were not much interested in the matter, then those who hadn't lost much, and then the others. Finally all had passed before him except one, and she stuck to her seat. "Dar's one po' mis'able sinner lef'," said he, "dat won't fergib." (She was the old lady who had lost the steers.) "Now I sugges' dat we hab a season ob prayer, an' gib dis po' ole sinner one mo' chance." And after they had prayed and sung a hymn, the old lady came up, too!

3. Suggestion in the Increase of Responses already Released. The third effect of suggestion is related to the second. We have just seen that social influences help to discharge motor settings

(248) already prepared, as in going up to shake hands with the forgiven darky and in feeling an emotion of tenderness toward him. After these responses have been set off they may be intensified by a continuance of the same social stimuli that brought them about. Thus one would go forward more quickly, and his emotion would reach a higher pitch, because he continued to see others doing the same act. The social stimulus thus serves as a suggestion not only for releasing the reaction but for augmenting it as it is being carried out. In both cases it serves as an allied stimulus and is contributory (see p. 37) to a motor setting already existing. The term social facilitation may be used to include both these effects (releasing and intensifying)

In the old-fashioned religious revival we find all three effects of suggestion upon attitude and response. First, through the preaching of 'hell fire' and 'conviction of sin,' the attitude of penitence is built up. Secondly, this setting is released by the invitation-hymn and the call to come forward. And thirdly, the acts bespeaking self-surrender and the cries of religious ecstasy from others increase the ardor of the emotional reaction of each convert. Situations of this sort will be more closely analyzed in the two following chapters. It is sufficient here to recognize them as forms of response to suggestion.

Conditioned Response in Suggestion. In the story of the penitent negro the singing of the revival hymn operated as a suggestion to come forward. This was because the members of the congregation had so often before heard it while they were coming forward or watching others do so. Many suggestions not involving language are based on the same principle, namely, the use of acts and objects usually accompanying a response as conditioning stimuli for bringing about the response at the will of the suggester. Boys, for example, enjoy the prank of sucking a lemon in front of the trombone player in a band in order to harass his performance by the conditioned puckering, of his mouth. The eccentric who goes hatless and gloveless in zero weather probably derives satisfaction in the knowledge that his habits are causing others to shiver. Hurrying to complete his lecture at the close of the hour, the professor is often distracted by the youth who leans forward

(249) and sits on the edge of his seat in order to produce a conditioning suggestion for bringing the remarks to a close.

The Conditions of Suggestibility. The main conditions favoring suggestion, like those for sympathy, represent the 'openness' of the organism to the stimulating suggestion, and are based, in particular, upon an attitude of submissiveness toward the suggester. High self-expression in personality traits, physical strength, superior social position, and prestige through power or knowledge place their possessors in an ascendant relation to those with whom they come in contact, thus giving their behavior a suggestive influence. Sex is sometimes a determinant of a suggestible attitude, females usually standing in the submissive role toward males, and hence susceptible to suggestions from them. Difference of age is also a strong factor in responsiveness to suggestion. Since most of the child's knowledge comes from his elders, and also because he feels his physical weakness before them, he has formed the attitude of accepting all their suggestions without question. Where, as in childish ignorance, conviction is based entirely upon the authority of the speaker, suggestion shades imperceptibly into simple belief. Poverty of ideas and extreme submissiveness are thus the causes of the notorious suggestibility of childhood.[5]

A situation which speedily places one in an attitude of submissive suggestibility is the presence of a group, or indeed the mere allusion to large numbers. We bow before the will of the majority. We rise irresistibly when the congregation rises, clap when the audience claps, and express disapproval in unison with the throng. Adherence to style and custom is based in part upon the attitude of submission to suggestion from great numbers. The mere fact of being in a crowd places one in this setting, and so prepares for the release of specific actions suggested by the behavior of the others.

Advertisers play freely upon suggestibility toward both prestige and large numbers. Placards announce that a certain remedy is endorsed by eminent physicians (a picture representing one of them often accompanies), or that thousands have been cured by it and

(250) are ready to extol its virtues. Professor H. T. Moore has measure the susceptibility of individuals to these forms of suggestion by having them pass judgment upon the seriousness of grammatical errors and moral faults, and upon the aesthetic value of musical cadences. A set of judgments was first obtained without any suggestive influence; and another set was taken later after telling the subjects (1) the opinion of the majority and (2) the opinion of 'experts' in regard to each of the items to be evaluated. The tendency to change their previous judgments to accord with the majority opinion on speech and morals was found to be almost five times as great as the change which might be expected by mere chance. The effect of suggestion in the case of expert opinion was slightly less, but still substantially large, the subjects altering almost half of their former judgments which were at variance with the stated opinion of experts.[6]

The two extremes in susceptibility to suggestion are represented by the hypnotized person, who is absolutely submissive and responsive to the command of the operator, and the negatively suggestible person who is so thoroughly on his guard against yielding that he believes or acts in the manner opposite from that suggested. This is not mere passing stubbornness, but a trait of personality. It is a resistance against domination by the social environment, and is so strong that some persons of this type will not admit seeing the ordinary optical illusions, because they do not wish to be tricked by a clever draughtsman or a joking friend. A temporary period of negative suggestibility occurs at the age of two or three years. It marks the transition from helpless infancy to assertive childhood.

To complete our account we may mention a number of devices and special conditions for rendering suggestions effective. 1. It is useful closely to concentrate the subject's attention by instruction or artifice so that the suggested proposal alone is received.


2. Monotony and rhythm, as in the chants of the medicine man or e passes of the hypnotist, relax and soothe the subject, and place him in a drowsy state of non-resistance. 3. Indirect suggestion takes the recipient off guard by avoiding the direct issue at first until a suitable attitude can be prepared for its acceptance. This method was employed in the story of the negro penitent. 4. A similar distraction of attention is produced by the interesting motions made by the conjurer with his right hand while his left unobtrusively performs the trick. 5. Fatigue and intoxicants some times increase suggestibility. 6. It is important, finally, to word a suggestion in a positive rather than a negative manner. We have no response attitude for "thou shalt not"; therefore we often translate the phrase for purposes of action into "thou shalt." The skilled publicity agent never prints the slogan that "the cause cannot fail." He assures the public instead that "the cause is certain to succeed!"

Final Definition of Suggestion. Throughout the preceding discussion we have spoken of 'response to suggestion' rather than of suggestion as a form of response in itself. There are two senses in which the word may be used: namely, as stimulus, and as the behavior process of the response. The former use is rather more distinctive than the latter. 'A suggestion' is always a very definite thing; whereas the process of suggestion contains little that is unique. The attitude, for instance, of the runner crouching on the mark, and the release as he springs forward at the pistol shot, differ in no essential way from the physiological processes operative in cases that we would more appropriately term 'suggestion.' It might be stated that the suggestion process is characteristically, though not invariably, a response to a social form of stimulation, and that it implies a relation of ascendance and submission, that is, the control of one person by another (cf. Munsterberg's definition). If we add that the neural pathways used are more immediate and less accompanied by thought consciousness than in other responses to language, the picture is fairly complete. The following somewhat cumbersome definition will serve to summarize the nature of suggestion, both as process and as stimulus.

Suggestion is a process involving elementary behavior mechanisms

(252) in response to a social stimulus; the nature of the process being that the one who gives the stimulus controls the behavior and consciousness of the recipient in an immediate manner, relatively uninfluenced by thought, and through the method of building up motor attitudes, releasing them, or augmenting the released response as it is being carried out.

'A suggestion' is a social stimulus producing the effect just described.


Genetic Origin of Laughter. The Incongruous. Laughter, which is preeminently a response to social stimulation, has been a subject of speculation among philosophers of all ages. The greatest obstacle to a satisfactory explanation has been that, unlike other basic forms of behavior, laughing does not serve any known biological purpose. Another drawback has been that scientists have attempted to explain the full-fledged humor of the adult as a kind of innate quality without going back to its beginnings in infancy. The genetic approach is the soundest one, for children are the greatest laughers. In later years their free and boisterous humor becomes restrained and 'intellectualized' into the witticism and the satire.

The elemental joke consists in being tickled. Laughter is the innate response to the stimulation of the sensitive or ticklish zones of the body (see p. 67). While the act of laughing is inborn, the range of things that come to be laughed at is extended by experience (p. 68). Let us trace this expansion of the.sense of humor in some of its details.

The most obvious thing about tickling is that it represents a great fuss about nothing. It is the light touches and pokes that evoke laughter. But it is also true that the ticklish zones overlie some of the most vital organs of the body. Hence there is something terrible in a thrust at these parts which throws into relief the antagonistic pleasant emotion aroused by the playful outcome of the thrust. The tickler moreover does not miss the opportunity of making the feint as sudden and terrifying as possible in order to get the heartiest peal of laughter from the child when the latter finds he is only being tickled. This is precisely the situation in

(253) numerous funny events of daily life. There is a sudden passage from a strained expectancy to nothingness (Kant's theory of humor), or else a rapid shift from bigness, weight, or seriousness to the small and inconsequential (Lipps). It is the humorous passage from the sublime to the ridiculous. Fun of this type is common on the stage and in the circus. The acrobat takes a running leap and somersaults over four horses. The clown then runs down the platform in swaggering imitation, but suddenly stops and brushes a fly from the nearest horse.

Not only is the transition effected between contrasting and incongruous situations; it is also a sudden transition. Suddenness, physiologically considered, means the abrupt change from one type of attitude to another. The tickled baby passes from a reaction of withdrawal and alarm to one of mirth and laughter as the playfulness of the attack is felt. And it is also a sudden passage, for the tickler makes his movements very rapidly. It is no idle metaphor, therefore, which describes more mature humor as 'poking fun.' and speaks of the 'thrust,' the 'dig,' and the 'sally of wit.' Though carried out by the thought mechanism, rather than via the ribs, the fundamental attitudes assumed are essentially the same as the infant's, and are probably to be explained as developments of the latter. The mechanism involved is similar to that of mimetic facial expression (see p. 217). Whenever, therefore, the events of life lead to a quick and complete change of motor setting, providing the setting changed to is not a vital one like fear or, rage, a laugh is likely to be the form of release. This is the humor of the incongruous. It represents a generic type, of which the transition from the important to the trivial is a single species.

A good joke usually has a point, that is, an incident in the narrative or action where the sudden change of setting occurs that is released in laughter. It is generally led up to by a strain of expectancy. It is important not to give away the point before the proper moment, for then the attitude of the serious or sublime will not be sufficiently established for the sudden shift, or incongruity, to be keenly felt. This fact should be borne in mind by those who make their point first and then try to illustrate it with a joke, and by the dismal professor who forgets that he has told the story to the same

(254) class before. The elementary aspect is represented by the fact that one cannot tickle his own ribs. He 'gives away the point' because he knows (1) that he is going to tickle and not gouge, and (2) that he is going to do it at a certain moment. There is thus neither suddenness nor change of attitude. An example of a jest giving the sudden twist that shifts our attitude is as follows. A philosophic old colored barber made the following observation to a new patron:

"Yo' has a large head, sub. It's a good thing to have a large head, fo' a large head means a large brain, an' a large brain is de most useful thing a man kin have, fo' it nourishes de roots of de hair." [7]

Other laughable situations do not lead up to a definite point, but present the two sides of the case simultaneously. We thus experience a rapid alternation between the opposed attitudes. The writer remembers laughing uproariously with his college mates over the imagined situation of the dignified President of the college rolling aimlessly about the floor. The practical joke, such as causing a pompous gentleman to sit on his hat or slip on a banana peel, evokes the same contrast of attitude by simultaneous elements of the situation. In these instances our response to the usual dignity of the person alternates quickly with the opposite response to his present undignified position. The neatness of caricature and mimicry divert us by the same principle.

Another phase of incongruity is that lying between pleasure and pain. We must remember that the ticklish zones, if more vigorously plied, yield emotions of an unpleasant sort. Situations, likewise, in daily life lie on the border-line between tragedy and comedy. The small boy sometimes manages to release the pain of a stubbed toe through laughter instead of crying. Laughter is thus a release which may be used instead of a painfully toned emotional response, thereby making human life more tolerable. In the words of Lord Byron

"If I laugh at any mortal thing
'Tis that I may not weep."

(255) Professor McDougall finds this release especially effective as an `antidote' for primitive sympathetic pain, and bases upon it an attempt to explain all instances of laughter.

One more sequel of the infantile tickle reaction remains to be traced. The child is passive in the affair; he is acted upon by the tickler. Likewise, in experiencing jokes, the adult must be submissive. He must lay himself open to being tickled. If one adopts a critical or analytical attitude or otherwise asserts himself in listening to a joke, it will probably fail to strike him as funny. We must be willing to follow along with the story, accepting, if need be, the incredible or absurd, merely for the sake of the game. We must, in short, assume the play attitude, whether in the childish banter of tickling assaults or in the refined raillery of grown-ups.

Up to this point we have tried to show that the foundations of humor may be traced to the infantile response to sensitive zone stimulation; and that the range of the laughable increases with experience by carrying over the bodily settings for sudden, incongruous, play-like reactions from the original tickle encounter to analogous situations of mature life.

Laughter as a Release of Inhibited Emotion. Freudian Wit. Another modern theory of laughter, now fairly well known, is that of Dr. Sigmund Freud. Before discussing it let us consider a special case of emotional behavior. If a child for the first time sees a false-face on a playmate, he may show signs of hesitation bordering on fear. As soon as the trick is discovered he is struck by the incongruity (his old friend with a new and marvelous physiognomy), and he bursts into laughter. This response is however due, not to the incongruous setting alone, but to the release through a new channel of the effects of a stimulus which previously had produced a fear reaction. The fearful state represented a blocking of action because the situation was wholly unfamiliar; but now a somatic outlet is obtained through the antagonistic and pleasant side of the emotional mechanism (see Chapter IV).[8] The elementary re-

(256) -sponse to tickling thus fulfills a distinct biological purpose in the release of inhibited emotional pressure.

This is the physiological aspect of Freud's theory of the comic, though Freud himself neither recognizes nor understands such mechanisms. If we keep these facts in mind we shall be repaid with a fuller understanding of the contributions of Freud's brilliant but rather narrow genius. His theory explains the bulk of human wit as due to the sudden release of suppressed impulses from the ‘unconscious.' These impulses, which have chiefly to do with our hostilities and our sex attitudes, are usually held in restraint through good-breeding and habits of respect for custom and the opinion of others. A joke gives us an opportunity of releasing in a laugh such inhibited tendencies; because, as we assure ourselves, no one can blame us if it is all in fun. If, for example, we have some grudge against the dignified gentleman who steps on a banana peeling, or if we dislike his pompousness, this dislike, which we might otherwise feel obliged to conceal, is now released in a laugh, the very force of which often startles us. As in the case of the child's laughter at the false-face, an inhibited emotional tendency finds release in a laugh. Inhibited feelings of contempt, superiority, and envy toward certain associates are often betrayed in this fashion.

A corollary of the Freudian theory is that, unless there is some repression present in the listener, the joke will not carry its point. In many instances this is true. Jokes on Christian Science are usually not funny to the Christian Scientist, because he has no repressed contempt or incredulity in regard to that faith. A sexual joke, if not too open, appeals to nearly every one; for all of us must put some restraint upon our sex impulses. A joke may sometimes be interpreted in various ways by different people according to their inhibited tendencies. It is thus everybody's joke on everybody else. A young man who was a Jew once told the writer the following story which he (the Jew) thought was an immensely humorous dig at the Roman Catholics. A Jewish boy and an Irish boy were disputing as to the inerits of their respective religious leaders. "Our Priest knows more than your Rabbi," said the Irish lad. "He ought to," replied the Jewish boy contemptuously, "you tell him everything!" The young man who told this story had his mind filled with the

(257) delightful incongruity of the (supposedly) learned priest receiving all his instruction from ignorant boys; and it was very funny to him. The Catholic, on the other hand, will readily recognize in the jest an allusion to confession and a thrust at the Jew through exhibiting his shrewdness and his contempt for those who would let slip information to their own disadvantage. And so the story is funny for him, too. It is, in short, a joke with two handles.

It is easily possible to overdo Freud's theory; for many instances of humor are based upon pure incongruity or upon kindly banter. Since many of the situations -releasing hostile or sexual attitudes are those in which persons get themselves into incongruous and inconsistent positions, the Freudian release really makes use of an incongruity laugh already on its way. Release of inhibited emotion thus adds fuel to the fire of our tickled laughter.

Laughter is a Social Phenomenon. Laughing is uniquely a response to social stimulations. Animals and things occasionally amuse us, but only because we endow them with human characteristics. In a general sense we laugh only at people. Incongruities arise chiefly through inconsistency with feelings, actions, and personality, in short through the living and human. A large rock and a small one side by side impress us with a sense of contrast; but the tall man and the short man in the circus fill us with the indefinable humor of the incongruous. In the original tickle situation it was always a person who tickled us; and so our laughter has become conditioned entirely through human stimulation. The writer doubts that a 'tickling machine,' were one invented, would have much success. An element of caprice, or unaccountability, peculiar to the human humor-object alone, affords the necessary suddenness for our shift of attitude. Human beings are necessary also as objects of the Freudian laugh, in that our emotional responses come to be centered chiefly in persons; and toward human: only do we feel the obligation to curb the full expression of these impulses. Laughter is thus a kind of institution rooted in society itself.

We not only laugh exclusively at people, we laugh also with them. The social environment is necessary in the role of a contributory as well as a direct stimulus for our mirthful response. One who laughs often to himself is considered eccentric. The solemn face

(258) of a man sitting alone and perusing a comic paper is in itself a matter of humor. We may chuckle a little as we read good jokes; but we do not laugh outright unless a friend hands us the item or tells it to us so that we can laugh with him. There is, in other words, a definite facilitating stimulus in the sound of another's laugh. This sound helps to release and augment our own laughter response once we have been brought almost to the point of laughing through the comic story itself.[9] The laughter of others thus operates as a suggestion according to a process described earlier in this chapter. When we hear a good joke we wish to tell it to some one else to secure the pleasure of another hearty laugh. Although the joke is now old to us we keep on laughing at it so long as there is anybody to laugh with. This is why we do not tire of our own jokes. Another instance is the way a man behaves when one tells him a funny thing that happened in a crowd or a classroom. He usually asks how the crowd took it; and if the reply is that "they roared," his own merriment is redoubled.

It would follow from all this that laughter is directly proportional to the size of the group. And this is true provided the jest is broad enough to touch the inhibited complexes of all. The word `broad' is judiciously used, for it is generally the sexual joke which is of this type. Another factor is that in the large group there seems to be more justification for 'letting one's self out'; for all the rest are doing it, and so it must be all right. Men and women in a theater audience will laugh boisterously at salacious jokes which, were they in small mixed groups, would cause them mortal embarrassment. A certain professor had to give up the use of the word `chicken' in his large classes because of the uproar it invariably caused, no matter how innocent the context. In smaller classes the word scarcely evoked more than an isolated snicker speedily suppressed; but in the large groups the professor was obliged to substitute the euphemism, 'domestic fowl.' There appear, then, three causes which underlie the hilarity- of the crowd: the large volume of stimuli facilitating to laughter present; the release of a common restrained impulse; and the feeling of moral sanction for its release.



Hunter, W. S., General Psychology, part I, ch. 4.

Ellwood, C. A., Introduction to Social Psychology, chs. 10, 11.

Cooley, C. H., Human Nature and the Social Order, ch. 2.

Munsterberg, H., Psychology, General and Applied, ch. 18.

Ross, E. A., Social Psychology, ch. 2.

Sidis, B., The Psychology of Suggestion. The Psychology of Laughter.

McDougall, W., Introduction to Social Psychology, chs. 4, 15.

Ginsberg, M., The Psychology of Society, chs. 1, 2.

Bogardus, E., Essentials of Social Psychology, chs. 5, 6.

Gault, R. H., Social Psychology: The Bases of Behavior Called Social, eh. 6.

Baldwin, J. M., Mental Development, chs. 6, 9-12.

Brown, W., "Individual and Sex Differences in Suggestibility," University of California, Publications in Psychology, 1916, II, 291-430.

Aveling, F., and Hargreaves, H. L., "Suggestibility with and without Prestige in Children," British Journal of Psychology, 1921, XII, 53-75.

Moore, H. T., "The Comparative Influence of Majority and Expert Opinion," American Journal of Psychology, 1921, XXXII, 16— 20.

Gault, R. H., "Suggestion and Suggestibility," American Journal of Sociology, 1919, xxv, 185-94.

Peterson, J., "Imitation and Mental Adjustment," Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, 1932, XVII, 1-14.

Humphrey, G., "Imitation and the Conditioned Reflex," Pedagogical Seminary, 1921, XXVIII, 1-21.

—  "The Conditioned Reflex and the Elementary Social Reaction," Journal of Abnormal Psychology and Social Psychology, 1922, XVII, 113-19.

Eastman, M., The Sense of Humor.

Freud, S., Wit and its Relation to the Unconscious. (Translated by Brill.)

Sully, J., An Essay on Laughter.

McDougall, W., "A New Theory of Laughter," Psyche, 1922, II, 292-303.

Hall, G. S., and Allin, A., "The Psychology of Tickling, Laughing, and the Comic," American Journal of Psychology, 1897, Ix, 1-41.

Crile, G. W., The Origin and Nature of the Emotions, pp. 77-109.

McComas, H. C., "The Origin of Laughter," Psychological Review, 1923, XXX, 45-55.


  1. Strictly speaking, however, I have no way of knowing that my emotion is exactly like my friend's. It is more properly described as sympathy with my own past experience than as sympathy with his. It contains moreover other components than revived grief for a dead loved one, for it is mingled with love, pity and other emotions toward my friend. In this sense also my whole reaction is not an exact copy of his. The popular notion, therefore, of sympathy being a replica of the feelings sympathized with is true only in the most general sense.
  2. There is present in such cases a strong attitude for overt assistance, and an accompanying emotion of love. Let us suppose that circumstances or our own selfishness make it impossible to render such assistance. The incipient reactions of help-giving are then blocked at the outset, just as the affectionate habits are thwarted in the grief emotion (see p. 95). This thwarting of course increases the unpleasantness component already present. The emotion felt is a kind of helpless pity. It is introspectively as well as physiologically similar to grief. But if there is some real assistance that we can render, and we are willing to take the trouble, the love component becomes ascendant over the unpleasant helplessness. As we proceed with our work of the Good Samaritan the sad, blocked feeling of pity and the 'lump in the throat' give place to an altruistic love emotion, somewhat pleasurable in quality.
  3. Professors McDougall and Preyer have reported the imitation of a limited type of facial grimace in young infants. These findings have not been generally confirmed, and various statements of a contradictory sort appear in the literature. (Cf. Watson's Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, p. 318; also M. G. Blanton, in the Psychological Review, 1917, XXIV, 456-83.)
  4. Primitive Traits in Religious Revivals, p. 52 f. Copyright, 1905, Quoted under special arrangement with the publishers, The Macmillan Company, New York.
  5. The same considerations apply to the unusual suggestibility of ignorant adults, and to the widespread belief in the Middle Ages in miraculous events backed by the authority of the clergy.
  6. The effect of both classes of suggestion upon judgments of musical preference was much lower. Evidently we are most susceptible to social influences in regard to matters which are likely to affect our social standing, as in this case, our speech and conduct. In regard to standards of language the majority opinion was found to have somewhat more weight than that of experts. See reference at the end of this chapter.
  7. From an article, "Laughter, A Glory in Sanity," by R. Carpenter. American Journal of Psychology, 1922, xxxiii, 419-22.
  8. Dr. Crile explains laughter in the following manner. We are rendered angry or terrified; but our usual reaction of attack or flight is suddenly thwarted by finding it all a joke. Nature must now find some way of liberating in action the energy stored up as a part of the emotional reaction (adrenal effects, etc.) Laughter affords this release, reduces the tensions, and restores the energy balance to normal. The physiological principle of this theory appears both sound and suggestive.
  9. This stimulating value probably arises through the fixation of circularly conditioned responses to the sound of one's own laughter in infancy. (Cf. p. 162.)

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