Essentials of Social Psychology

Chapter 6: Suggestion-Imitation Phenomena

Emory S. Bogardus

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1. Suggestion. Suggestion and imitation are different aspects of the same phenomenon. Suggestion is the initiating part and imitation is the resulting phase. Suggestion is the process whereby an idea or mode of action is presented to the mind and accepted more or less uncritically. Imitation is the process of copying an idea or mode of action and carrying it out more or less immediately in a relatively unchanged form. The entire process constitutes a suggestion-imitation phenomenon.

Suggestion depends upon the motor character of ideas, or the dynamic nature of thought. An idea tends to carry itself into action. An idea will always express itself in action unless inhibited by counter impulses, habits, or ideas. If some one merely mentions apple pie, even between meals, I am quite certain to feel hungry for apple pie. If some one casually refers to a baseball game that is in progress near by while I am writing these lines, I shall find myself unconsciously laying aside the pen and looking for my cap. Furthermore, I will go to the game if there are no seriously inhibiting impulses, either instinctive, habitual, or conscious.

One's inmost thoughts tend to be expressed. Bluff-

(118) -ing fails. A college student who bluffs is soon recognized, first by his fellow-students and immediate friends, and then by his instructors. The palmist and medium utilize the principle that thoughts tend to expression. They maintain a continuous conversation, apparently meaningless at times, and read closely and expertly the slightest changes in the facial expression of the sitter—and then make good guesses.

We reveal our true selves often by our unconscious attitudes. When most natural, or "off our guard," we manifest our true nature. Our secret thoughts crop out unexpectedly and unconsciously to us. A secret thought sooner or later is bound to disclose itself, often to the owner's chagrin. It is in the off guard moments that the inmost self is bound to announce itself. By these off guard expressions, we are judged—and rightly.

Suggestion then is the unconscious or conscious intrusion into the mind of an idea which is received more or less uncritically. The motor character of an idea will do the rest—which is imitation. This definition differs from that of Dr. Sides, [1] who holds that the suggested idea meets at first with more or less opposition.

Suggestion is direct or indirect. If direct, it usually comes in the form of a command, and with prestige or authority. It is illustrated by the parental command to the child who promptly obeys, by the priestly injunction to the worshipper, by the officer's orders to the private, by the hypnotist's command to his subject. Hypnotism affords a productive field for

(119) the study of direct suggestion, but comes within the purview of abnormal psychology and not of social psychology. As a social phenomenon it is as yet not sufficiently understood to be commended as useful. Under present conditions, the specially trained psychologist is the only person who is entitled to use hypnotism.

Indirect suggestion operates unrecognized by the subject. It has been described aptly by E. A. Ross as "slantwise" suggestion and as representing a flank movement, rather than a frontal attack as in the case of direct suggestion.[2] The adult mind is frequently more apt to be influenced by this method than by any other. The average child, on the other hand, responds more or less readily to both direct and indirect suggestion. The distinction between these two classes of suggestion is simply in the way in which the suggested idea gains entrance to the mind.

The illustrations of the constructive use of indirect suggestion are manifold. "When I wish my young brother on the opposite side of the dining-room table to sit up straight," says a young lady, "I straighten up suddenly myself, without comment, without interrupting the conversation, and without even glancing at my brother, and he invariably responds." This simple case illustrates a far-reaching application of the principle of indirect suggestion in exerting a constructive moral influence upon others. Many teachers and parents nag, scold, and order, "Don't do this," or "Don't do that," and children react contrarily. Other teachers and parents set one moral example

(120) after another in a straightforward way, and children are attracted and try to follow the steady, strong pace. Didactic moralizing is often ineffective because it centers attention in a negative way upon forbidden conduct, whereas a striking moral example makes an appeal to the heroic impulses and to the love of action.

"A rather large boy, John, was transferred from the seventh grade to the ungraded room, of which I had charge, because in the seventh grade he would do absolutely nothing but arithmetic and drawing,"' reports a public school teacher. For a few days John was permitted to follow his own inclinations to a large extent and did good work in his two favorite subjects of arithmetic and drawing, but no other work. "Knowing from the unpleasant experiences of his former teachers that it would be useless to insist on his studying the despised geography or history lesson, I said nothing about these subjects, but mentioned only the two subjects which he enjoyed. One day, however, while discussing a geography lesson with a group of pupils, I asked John if he would draw on the blackboard a certain map for the use of the geography class that day, complimenting him in the presence of the class upon his ability to draw. Each day thereafter I asked him to draw some assignment in the geography lesson, taking care that the assignments would require more and more reading in geography on his part. A similar method was pursued in history, with the result that at the close of the year John was doing creditable work in both geography and history—the subjects in which he had failed in the seventh grade." This use of indirect suggestion calls

(121) for limitless patience and mental dexterity, but saves boys to society.

A librarian noticing that the young people were reading low grade novels, pasted on the inside of the front and back covers of these books a statement to this effect: "Other books of this type are — —." Here she gave the names of three or four works of fiction, being careful to mention books of a little better grade than the one in which the notice appeared. In a short time the young patrons of the public library were reading a better grade of books. The process was repeated, with the result that in a year's time the librarian had changed the type of fiction reading in her library.

A merchant, having too many slow-pay customers, offered prizes for the best essays on the subject: "How to collect poor accounts." Considerable talk developed on the subject of long-term credit. As a result, the merchant was saved from bankruptcy.

In a given public school, prejudice had developed against a few Japanese and Chinese children who were in attendance. The teacher announced a debate upon the subject: Resolved that China has advanced further democratically in the last ten years than Japan. She appointed three children on each side of the question and asked one-half of the room to gather information for the affirmative debaters and the other half to work for the negative speakers. All the pupils fell to studying about the peoples of China and Japan and the struggle to secure democracy in each of these countries. By the day of the debate, marked interest in and sympathy for both the Chinese and the Japan-

(122) -ese had developed. As a result of this use of indirect suggestion, the teacher experienced no further trouble because of race prejudice.

The powerful character of indirect suggestion has been proved countless times. By its use strong-minded and well-trained persons have been misled. At Camp Forrest, Georgia, the men were lined up one day before a row of trenches with their gas masks, which were to be tested, in an alert position. At the sound of the klaxon, guns were fired, and shells exploded. The men had to put on their gas masks and to stand around until the smoke passed over. Presently several of the men in order gained the attention of the instructors, and observed that they could smell gas and that the masks were leaking. In a few minutes when the men were permitted to remove their masks, they learned to their chagrin that there had been no gas at all. As in this case, many of the fears of every-day life are ungrounded—the product of indirect suggestion.

The unlearned, especially, need to be on their guard against indirect suggestion. An immigrant of several years standing opened a banking business in a Pennsylvania town. For a time he had little patronage from the new, incoming aliens of his race. Presently he purchased a large safe and put it in the show window. At once the money on deposit increased rapidly —not because he had proved himself an honest banker, but for the reason that he had a reliable-appearing safe.

Boys often wield a strong influence over their younger comrades by indirect suggestion. Mark

(123) Twain has revealed this situation perfectly. For example, Tom Sawyer has the unpleasant, irksome job of whitewashing a fence. When a boy friend passes, Tom boasts of his ability to whitewash and deliberately daubs the fence. The sight causes the newcomer to challenge Tom, to seize the brush, and to exhibit his own skill. By this process the fence is whitewashed—with Tom looking on all the while. Tom had "elevated fence painting to the rank of the most popular sport in the home town," and on a day when fishing and swimming had been scheduled.

Children sometimes influence their elders through indirect suggestion. When George was visiting at the home of a playmate, the latter's mother removed a pan of hot cookies from the oven. George looked wistfully at the cookies and said: "My mother told me not to ask for anything." He received a cookie without asking.

Illegitimate use of indirect suggestion is often made by politicians. The public needs continually to safeguard itself against the indirect suggestion that is resorted to by demagogues. In a certain city the people were asked to vote bonds to construct an aqueduct. For some time before the election day there was much said in the newspapers about the shortage of water supply for the city, and finally rigid regulations were made concerning the use of the water. The people became scared and voted the bonds, but after the election, the rigid water regulations were rescinded, even though the additional water supply would not be available for years.

There are fortunately many wholesome ways in

(124) which indirect suggestion may be used in public situations. When Roosevelt was police commissioner in New York City, he received an application for police protection by an anti-Jewish speaker who was going to hold a meeting in the Jewish section of the city. The request was granted, but it did not take the anti-Jewish demagogue long to appreciate the indirect suggestion when he found that he was protected by a detail of twenty-five Jewish policemen.

Insinuation is a highly intellectualized form of indirect suggestion. It may easily become exceedingly dangerous, because it stimulates the imagination. If in recommending a young person for a position, I conservatively say that the young man will do fairly well, the imagination of the employer immediately suggests several possible weaknesses of the candidate, rather than one and that perhaps more or less negligible. By the use of the word "fairly" I arrest the attention of the employer, and his imagination at once is likely to do the young man injustice. Consequently, if I use the term "fairly," I must explain why or the insinuation will unjustly wreck the chances of my friend.

Another set of terms, namely, immediate, mediate, and contra-suggestion has been used by Boris Sidis, and indicates the ways in which suggestions are translated into action.[3] If a suggested idea is acted upon promptly and in line with its impulses, the phenomenon is immediate suggestion. If time elapses and modifications occur, the type is called mediate suggestion. Some persons and many children respond in an opposite way to that which is suggested, and illustrate con-

(125) -tra-suggestion. Contra-suggestion is born usually of an exaggerated sense of individuality, and of inadequate opportunity to learn the lessons of social cooperation.

2. Suggestibility. Suggestibility is the degree to which a person is open to suggestion. Normal suggestibility includes fixation of attention, elimination of inhibitory impulses, and immediate or mediate consummation. Abnormal suggestibility, which is the state of hysteria or of hypnotism, is a condition in which the subject, within instinctive and habitual limits, is completely a slave to the will of the operator.

Suggestibility is common to all individuals, but in varying degrees under varying conditions. Professor Ross[4] and Dr. McDougall [5] have so thoroughly discussed these variations that they need not be presented at length here.

(1) Suggestibility depends upon the degree of gregariousness. Animals which live in flocks or herds are more suggestible than those which forage alonecompare the suggestibility of the sheep with the tiger. Since man is highly gregarious, his suggestibility is very pronounced.

(2) Suggestibility depends upon racial nature. Southern races are more suggestible than Northern; Italians, than English. A hot climate makes suggestible peoples while a frigid habitat keeps the feelings calm, and suggestibility low.

(3) Suggestibility depends upon temperament. The emotional and nervous are more suggestible than

(126) the phlegmatic. Because of their slower reaction time, the latter are enabled to profit by the time elements which usually undermine suggestibility. He who bides his time is commonly more calculating than suggestible.

(4.) Suggestibility depends upon sex. The authorities are generally agreed that men are less suggestible than women, but nearly all the authorities on the subject are men. It would be interesting to learn the findings of women investigators. According to the available data, women as a class have not had as wide a range of experience as men. As a result women are not able to bring to bear as many controls upon a variety of suggestions as do men.

On the other hand, in times of financial craze men go wild in their desires to invest the hard-earned savings of themselves and their wives. Who is more suggestible than men in the minutes when millions are being made or lost in the stock market? In such cases the wife is often the cooler-headed. Men fall before the suggestibility of a gambling-table, but how many wage-earning women gamble their money away on pay-night?

(5) Suggestibility depends on age. The young as a rule are more suggestible than the old. The child and adolescent are lacking in organized knowledge with which to face suggestions. Consequently they are more suggestible than individuals of experience, travel, and organized information upon many subjects.

(6) Suggestibility depends on degree of fatigue. The fatigue toxins which circulate through the system dull the brain centers and decrease the ability to make

(127) rational judgments. A person is more suggestible in tired than in refreshened hours. Suggestibility increases with fatigue.

(7) Suggestibility depends on lack of organized knowledge. He who has a complete fund of organized facts, drawn from all phases of a given field, will not be suggestible in that connection, although he may be very suggestible in other matters upon which he is not thoroughly informed. Suggestibility decreases in proportion to the increase of organized knowledge.

(8) Suggestibility depends on the prestige of the sources of suggestion. The average person is very suggestible in the presence of a leading authority. Unfortunately, an individual with prestige is accepted as an authority by many persons on a large number of topics outside his field of deserved prestige. What the "mayor" or the "bishop" says on subjects far removed from the fields of politics and religion is accepted without question by the victims of prestige suggestion. Prestige slows up the processes of reason.

(9) Suggestibility depends upon the degree of crowd or group emotion that prevails. In a large crowd it is natural to feel insignificant and to act with the crowd rather than to follow the mandate of cognition. In fact, cognition may be prevented. Group emotion sways all excepting the most intellectually stubborn.

The least degree of suggestibility is found in the person of well-organized habits, of a vast range of organized experiences and systematized knowledge which he by habitual processes turns quickly upon the

(128) given suggestion. But not all suggestions are harmful. To scrutinize a suggestion may prove its worth and its acceptability. All suggestions should be examined as coolly and thoroughly as possible and rejected if found of doubtful value, or accepted if meritorious and spread.

It is possible to think overmuch of certain fears and die of auto-suggestion, or to concentrate on certain constructive ideas and save oneself from destruction. Sickness or health, pessimism or optimism can often be explained in terms of auto-suggestion.

Suggestion is a powerful agent of either social construction or destruction. Society can use it to build itself into an autocratic or a democratic state. Society through its educators can indoctrinate little children with almost any set of ideas that is desired. The power of advertisers or demagogues is puny in comparison with that of the educators of children—for in the last instance suggestibility is at the flood tide.

3. Imitation. Imitation is the unconscious or conscious copying of an act or idea. It is the motor part of the suggestion-imitation process. Certain so-called imitative acts are simply a phase of communication or language. The boy who clenches his fist when he meets the clenched fist of another boy is not imitating the act of the second youth, but is simply making an appropriate response. The suitable response which is called forth happens to resemble the combative attitude but is not an imitation thereof.

Unconscious and conscious imitation are the counterparts of indirect and direct suggestion respectively. Unconscious imitation is usually preceded by indirect

(129) suggestion, while conscious imitation is induced by direct suggestion.

Actions are more easily imitated than ideas; they are especially subject to unconscious imitation. When attention is centered on the conversation of an individual, one is unconsciously prone in replying to copy the gestures and mannerisms of the speaker. Gestures are so subject to unconscious imitation that they spread rapidly and may become even nationally common. The child is prone to copy irrationally the striking, spectacular actions of others. In this way, the motion picture that portrays stealing, burglary, sex coarseness has a harmful effect upon the adolescent.

"Haven't you noticed that a crime that is pictured in the `movies' is usually punished before the film is ended?" a young delinquent was asked who attributed his downfall to the motion picture. "Oh! yes," he replied, "but after I get the idea of how to commit a daring act (from the `movie'), I always am willing to take a chance that I won't get caught."

The experience of a lady of training, culture, and refinement affords an illustration of unconscious imitation of another type. "When that stuttering song, `K-K-Katie,' first came out, my little niece delighted to sing it, much to my chagrin. I despised it and abhorred it. But a few weeks later, much to my own amazement and her satisfaction, my niece caught me singing it, as I set the table for dinner!"

Examples of conscious imitation may also be found on every hand. The daily observations of a parent, or a teacher, are filled with illustrations. After a baby twenty months old saw the carpenters smoke

(130) cigarettes, he put a box of crayolas into his coverall pockets, and "smoked" crayolas, imitating every move and gesture of the men. One day a twelve-year-old boy wore an overseas cap, and the next day the neighborhood was swarming with overseas caps — made of wrapping paper, newspapers, and other materials. Bergson's theory of the creative impulse is announced, and at once newspaper writers and leaders of clubs begin to expound it as if they had adopted it. The cash register is invented, and is universally purchased by business houses. "Over the Top" is advertised, individuals talk about the book, and the desire to read it spreads over the country—culminating in a tremendous sale.

Conscious imitation operates in any field directly in proportion to the alleged superiority and inversely in proportion to the social distance of the action or idea that receives attention. The chief elements in this fundamental law of conscious imitation have been described at length by Tarde and E. A. Ross. The parent is imitated by the child; the bishop, by the young preacher; the scientist, by the laboratory assistant. Society women are the idols of debutantés, who in turn dazzle the "sub-debs." Charlie Chaplin has a clientele of ambitious imitators. City people are copied by rural folk. The college upperclassmen set the pace for the freshmen. "Courtesy comes from the court." In other words, there is "a descent of example."'

Alleged rather than real superiority is often the real magnetic factor. Real prestige is not distinguished from acquired prestige. Although the former is based on worth of personality and the latter upon ex-

(131) -traneous factors, such as name, fortune, and mere reputation, the latter is as powerful in influencing the populace as the former. Even rational imitators are frequently blinded and misled by a meteoric glare. An alleged brilliant idea will immediately attract a following and may gather great force. The hereditary rich have said that to inherit vast wealth is the greatest thing in the world. They have acted as if working for a livelihood is a servile status. Their theory is that "life-long loafing is more worthy of respect than life-long industry," or that persons who have to work are "miserable boobs." As E. A. Ross has pointed out, the nine-tenths in any society who work have allowed the one-tenth who are born rich to persuade them that they are despicable because they work. An abominable idea which has been promulgated by an alleged superior class has been accepted by the real superior classes.

The greater the superiority, real or alleged, the greater the power to produce imitation. The colonel steps aside when the general appears. All eyes turn from the governor when the presidential car arrives.

The greater the mental and social proximity, the greater the imitation. Lawyers imitate eminent jurists, but turn their backs upon distinguished poets. We imitate most largely within our own fields of interest. The chief exception to this corollary of conscious imitation is that too close proximity may produce too great familiarity, with a resultant decline in imitation. But the elemental law of imitation is that the higher in prestige either real or false—is imitated by the lower.


There are cases, however, in connection with unconscious imitation, where the inferior are imitated by the superior, e. g., the softening of the consonants and the opening of the vowels by Southern white people in unconscious imitation of the Negro.[6] The lady of culture may temporarily adopt a passing fad. The worthy congressman may use a cheap, transparent trick of the professional campaigner.

Nothing is imitated exactly according to copy, because of the individual equation of the imitator and of the changes that have occurred in the social situation. "Platonism produced no other Plato: Christianity yields no other Jesus nor Paul."[7] Imitation always includes a degree of modification. Every imitator is at the same time an inventor, and every inventor is also an imitator. Since individuality always colors or shapes every imitation, it is rarely pure imitation, but also invention—invention often of poor grade. Witness the difficulty of the child in learning to write well—how hard it is for him to copy good writing.

Imitation is primarily a conserving factor in society. It secures the continuance of established ways of doing, and also, of new methods. Lincoln generalizes upon the subject of democracy, and through imitation that theme passes from individual to individual, from page to page, decade to decade, race to race—and it is preserved. In 1876, Alexander Bell invented the telephone, which through imitation has become almost universal in middle and upper class homes. Unknown

(133) inventors produced Arabic numerals, which through imitation have been commonly adopted throughout Occidental civilization.

Imitation assumes three main forms of social expression. (1) Fashion imitation is competitive imitation of the new and current. It manifests special characteristics such as the fad and the craze. (2) Convention imitation is non-competitive copying of the formal. (3) Custom imitation is the imitation of established and ancestral ideas and methods.

When put to the test of service, every imitation falls into one of three classes—irrational, rational, or socio-rational. Many customs, but a smaller percentage of conventions and of fashions, can pass the test of serviceability. Upon careful scrutiny many socalled rational imitations are found to be useful only within a small range or to a class of people, and harmful, dangerous, or even destructive outside these limits. Socio-rational imitations are not only useful within narrow social confines, but are helpful throughout the range of their influence. In the two subsequent chapters the distinctions will be made in detail between fashion, convention, and custom imitation, and between irrational, rational, and socio-rational imitation.



1. Why are you suggestible?

2. In what particulars are you least suggestible?

3. What is the relation of the motor character of ideas to suggestibility?


4. What rule may one follow in driving a nail in order to avoid hitting his thumb?

5. What is muscle-reading?

6. What is the relation of so-called mind-reading to muscle-reading?

7. Why does your throat ache "after listening to a speaker who forms his voice badly"?

8. What is the suggestion in the politician's slogan: "Let us pass prosperity around"?

9. What difference does it make whether clerks ask, "Shall we send the package?" or, "Shall we send the package, or will you take it with you?"

10. From the standpoint of suggestion, what is the difference between the two signs: "Keep off the grass," and "Why not keep on the sidewalk?"

11. What suggestion does "a brass-trimmed, marble-faced, mahogany-upholstered bank" make to an immigrant from South Europe?

12. What suggestion does a $6000 limousine make to the average honest but poor man?

13. What suggestion is made by a dentist's sign which shows a large tooth deeply imbedded in the gums?

14. What do the extravagant dresses of the wife or daughter of a lawyer or a physician suggest to the client or patient?

15. Why can one easily walk a narrow plank that lies on the ground, but not one which extends across a deep chasm?

16. How do you explain "the deadliness of the innuendo"?

17. Why is faint praise more damaging than downright depreciation?

18. Why is it usually true that the best way to get the offer of a coveted position is not to seem too anxious for it?

19. Is a person suggestible when asleep?

20. Give an original illustration of autosuggestion.

21. Is an underfed person more suggestible than a well-fed person?

22. Are men more suggestible than women?

23. Why is it dangerous for a traveller in the Kentucky mountains to pull out a handkerchief from his hip pocket?

24. How do you account for the moral influence of certain teachers, and the lack thereof of others who are equally well-intentioned?

25. What is the danger in talks "on sex hygiene before the segregated pupils of the public schools"?

26. Is it safer "on meeting a formidable animal to stand than to run"?

27. Explain the suggestion in the statement, "He protests too much."

28. When is a person most suggestible?

29. When is one least suggestible?


30. Give an original illustration of unconscious imitation.

31. Illustrate: Imitation is a conserving factor in society.

32. Illustrate: "We are most imitative in the things not the object of conscious attention."


33. Explain: Imitation is a vital factor in social progress.

34. Explain: "Everybody in the same village walks on an average at the same rate of speed."

35. Explain the statement that sentiment is "more electric than opinion."

36. Is an ideal a better religious nucleus than a dogma?

37. Should there be censorship of motion pictures?

38. Why is the moral responsibility of the novelist great?

39. Does art need censorship more than science?

40. Who is the more dangerous to society, the disseminator of wrong ideals, or of wrong opinions?

41. Explain: "The vortical suction of our population is stronger than ever before."

42. How do you explain psychologically that "nothing succeeds like success"?

43. Explain from the standpoint of social psychology that "nothing succeeds like success" ?

44. Which is imitated the more easily:
(1) Indolence or ambition?
(2) A hopeful or a fearful attitude?
(3) Yawning or sneezing?
(4) Saving or spending?
(5) Vices or virtues?


Baldwin, J. M., Mental Development, Chs. VI, IX, XII.

Binet, A., La suggestibilité.

Carver, T. N., (editor), Sociology and Social Progress, Ch. XXI.

Cooley, C. H., Human Nature and the Social Order, Ch. II.

Davis, Jr., M. M., Psychological Interpretations o f Society, Chs. IX, X.

Ellwood, C. A., An Introduction to Social Psychology, Ch. X.
——, Sociology in its psychological Aspects, Ch. XIII.

Fry, E., "Imitation as a Factor in Human Progress," Contemp. Rev., LV : 658-77.

Gowin, E. B., The Executive and His Control of Men, Ch. XII.

Gumplowicz, L., "La suggestion sociale," Riv. ital. di sociol., IV 545-55.

Howard, G. E., Social Psychology, (syllabus), Sect. II.

Keatinge, M. W., Suggestion in Imitation.

McDougall, William, An Introduction to Social Psychology. (eighth edit.), pp. 96-107, 325-45

Münsterberg, H., On the Witness Stand, pp. 96-107.

Ross, E. A., Social Psychology, Ch. II.
——, Social Control, Chs. XIII, XIV.

Schmidkunz, H., Psychologie der Suggestion.

Tarde, Gabriel, The Laws of Imitation.
Social Laws. In Carver, Sociology and Social Progress, Ch. XXI.

Thorndike, E. L., The Original Nature of Man, Ch. VIII.


  1. The Psychology of Suggestion, p. 15.
  2. Social Psychology, Ch. II.
  3. The Psychology of Suggestion, p. 23.
  4. Social Psychology, Ch. VII.
  5. An Introduction to Social Psychology, Ch. IV.
  6. E. A. Ross, Social Psychology, p. 150.
  7. W. E. Hocking, Human Nature and Its Remaking, p. 250.

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