Essentials of Social Psychology

Chapter 8: Suggestion-Imitation Phenomena (continued)

Emory S. Bogardus

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Convention Imitation. When a fashion is characterized by wide acceptance, it becomes a convention. Convention, however, is less universal and less permanent than custom.

Convention imitation is based both on prestige and utility. Occasionally a fashion acquires unusual prestige and through extended imitation, sinks into blind and widespread acceptance. Conventional standards are usually composed of much that is irrational. The extraordinary high heel is a useless and dangerous fashion which through prestige has become conventional. In this and many other cases of common conventions, the origin of the convention is found in examples set by the hereditary leisure class. Through prestige, countless conventions govern conduct and tastes.

Utility, also, creates conventions. Useful inventions quickly pass from the fashionable to the conventional, such as the typewriter, the automobile, the tractor. Automobiles, however, serve two purposes —commercial and pleasure. The former are conventional; the latter, fashionable. Pleasure cars permit competitive ornamentation; they are used as forms of

(156) conspicuous consumption of goods. Automobile accessories are usually in the fashionable class.

Conventionality shares with fashionableness the field of contemporary imitation.[1] A convention is noncompetitive, is widely adopted as the standard, and is less deliberate than fashion. It may be irrational, but it is not faddish or governed by the mob rule of excitement.

Conventionality, like custom, reveals servile obedience. Conventions are customs in the making; they frequently are customs in the fields of manners or morals.

6. Custom Imitation. Custom imitation is the unconscious or conscious acceptance of ideas or ways of doing which developed and spread during generations preceding the present. It is non-competitive and nondeliberative, like convention imitation. The impulses which lead one to convention imitation likewise impel one to accept without analysis the standards of the past.

Custom rules with an iron hand. Custom blinds. Custom is supported by the power of habit. The members of a primitive tribe who were accustomed to carry all loads on their heads were furnished with wheelbarrows and shown how to use them, but they refused to follow instructions. They persisted in carrying the loaded wheelbarrows upon their headsso great was the strength of custom.

Although it functions throughout life, custom imitation is especially strong in the years of childhood

(157) and adolescence. After the individual reaches maturity and the later years of life, he asks and thinks in customary ways without often asking why. The fact that a way of doing has been followed successfully in the past implies present usefulness. But utility in the past is not necessarily a guarantee of present serviceableness, because conditions and needs may have changed. Hence, even customs of high repute should be tested occasionally by current needs.

A written constitution may be well suited to its day, but in some ways be a hindrance under the changed social conditions of a later century. Individuals have established endowments by will for worthy purposes; but conditions shifted and the endowment legacy no longer met needs. Moreover, the legacy cannot be changed if in the meantime the giver has died. Endowments for teaching children to card, spin, and knit were worthy at the time, but when inventions in these fields were made and carding, spinning and knitting became machine processes, these endowments, permanent by law, became useless. The custom of keeping windows in houses closed tightly was meritorious in the days when the wind blew in under the rafters, between the logs, and through the floors, but is unhealthy when houses are built better. Race prejudice was necessary in the time of fang and claw, but harmful under the reign of increasing good will. Political autocracy was justified when 99 per cent of the people were illiterate but is anti-social when the large majority are educated and thoughtful.

There are sections of life, both societary and individual, which fall directly under the control of cus-

(158) -tom. Language, religion, and law escape with difficulty from the cast-iron grasp of custom. It is custom which maintains the incongruities in a language, dogmatism in a religion, and blind adherence to precedents in law. Custom is likely to rule on the feeling side of life. New ideas do not readily penetrate the feelings; they must appear in the garb of the old—as customs; whereas under the rule of fashion old ideas in order to survive put on the livery of the new.

Under a régime of custom imitation, the leaders are usually elderly men. At least they are men who stand for beliefs that have become established. On the other hand, under the sway of fashion, the leaders are much younger; they have not yet reached their prime and have a willingness to try the new.

In the physically isolated places of the earth, such as mountain regions or islands that are aside from the main arteries of travel, custom imitation is in the ascendance. Likewise in the socially isolated divisions of society, such as the "slums," custom imitation rules. Moreover, in the socially isolated phases of individual and family life, custom predominates. The newest furniture is put in the living room while out-worn furnishings are used in rear rooms. In all three sets of circumstances there are lacking essential contacts with and stimulations from the new.

Tarde has shown that epochs of custom imitation alternate with periods of fashion imitation. Sometimes custom and convention will be endorsed by one political party and fashion by the other—revealed in the classification of the conservative and the liberal parties, or the conservative and liberal wings of a

(159) single party.

There is a normal and powerful tendency for a crust of custom to form over the psychic life of every group. There is a continuous carrying forward of the mores. The group, thus, has to safeguard itself against stagnation by encouraging a certain amount of inquiry in regard to customary beliefs. If this protective measure is not steadily encouraged, the group will be smothered and crushed beneath the weight of outworn customs, or dynamic forces within the group will gather strength until a revolutionary break is made at some point through the enveloping crust. The value of custom imitation is in its tendency to conserve the best ideas and activities of the past (along with much that is chaff, which has to be winnowed by criticism), and in its stabilizing character.

7. Rational and Socio-Rational Imitation. Rational imitation is the imitating of that which has merit in any phase of life. It is imitating that which is efficient, while the imitating of the inefficient is irrational. It includes cross sections of fashion, convention, and custom imitation.

Since customs are ways of doing which have weathered the storms of years, and human nature changes very slowly, a larger proportion of customs are rational than would at first appear. Attention is commonly called to those customs which have become ridiculous because of new life conditions, while the large number of customs which function smoothly and usefully are rarely mentioned. To the degree

(160) that a custom is accepted critically and on the ground of serviceability, the process is rational. Even a degree of custom imitation which is not characterized by deliberation is rational.

Convention imitation is less rational than custom imitation. Conventions often gain expression in the semi-superficial phases of life where glamor or perfunctory respectability rule. Reputability sometimes covers a multitude of foolish conventions. When conventionality is examined, however, in the industrial or the scientific process it ranks high rationally.

Inasmuch as fashion imitation rests largely upon novelty and mere reputability it is ordinarily irrational. Of a hundred new fashions in several fields that might be selected at random probably less than ten per cent could be proved of substantial value.

Rational imitation includes a considerable proportion of custom imitation, a lesser degree of conventionality, and a small percentage of fashionableness. Customs and conventions must be submitted continuously to present-day tests of efficiency, or they will block progress. Fashions also need to be submitted to the test of efficiency, or they will provoke tremendous social losses and dissipations.

Certain phases of group and individual life are under the rigid control of rational standards. Business success follows high standards of efficiency. Scientific investigation must meet the requirements of accuracy, efficiency, and utility.

Among current customs and conventions which are irrational, there are the following

(1) French heels.


(2) Hard, stiff collars for men.
(3) Wearing furs on a hot summer day.
(4) Wearing woolen coats by men on a hot day.
(5) Promiscuous kissing of defenseless babies.
(6) Piercing ears for earrings.
(7) Wearing gloves when they are not needed for protection.
(8) Thin, filmy styles of dress for women in cold weather.
(9) Considering thirteen an unlucky number.
(10) Knocking on wood to preserve one's good f ortune.
(11) Wearing spurs by officers who do not ride horses.
(12) Wearing large hats in church.
(13) Throwing rice at a wedding couple.
(14) Wearing hoods on academic gowns.

A vital aspect of rational imitation is socio-rational imitation, which applies not only the ordinary standards of efficiency but also those of human welfare. It adds sociality to rationality.

It has been common to use the tests of efficiency and reasoning but not necessarily socio-rational criteria in the business and manufacturing world. To crush out small competitors has been considered efficient and rational by the large concerns, but they have not been moved in so doing by socio-rational motives. To strike at a critical hour in industrial production has been considered efficient by labor leaders, but in so doing they have not recognized socio-rational demands.

Strength of character and efficiency are terms which

(162) connote rational methods of living and working, but both may be and are used in destructive and disastrous ways to society. Theoretically and carried out in its fullest meaning, psychological efficiency ranks high, but practically it often results in turning men into automatic machines, employees into mechanisms, and spiritual values into material phenomena. Strength of character is no guarantee of socialized action. Villains and criminals often possess great strength of character, but they use it in anti-social directions. Socio-rational imitation adds the standard of social welfare to that of psychological efficiency and strength of character.

Socio-rational imitation is the highest form of rational imitation. In the past rationality has been defined largely in terms of individual happiness and welfare. This idea always had staunch support in hedonism and related ethical theories. Then rationality was given a larger meaning and made to include individual action in accordance with the welfare of small groups, such as one's family group, the business unit, the local club or fraternal organization. It is still considered rational to enact tariff legislation which will benefit a relatively small number of individuals as much as possible and enable them to charge the great mass of consumers in our own country more than they sell the same goods for (at a fair profit) in a foreign country. There are those who believe today in a political democracy in order to secure economic gains by "log-rolling," by undermining law, by preaching the doctrine that labor and capital have nothing in common.


The difference between rational and socio-rational imitation is one of degree. Rationality needs to be extended so that the acts of the individual and of the nation will be measured not simply by local or selfish ends but by humanity standards. Nations are still prone to act along paths that are nationally selfish and to call such action rational. Nations submit hesitatingly and distrustfully to socio-international procedure. And well they may, until all the leading nations achieve a broader basis and a wider horizon than they have known in the past for international conduct. For nations, rational imitation has meant chiefly nationally selfish practices, which have been proclaimed rational. A socio-rational example, however, has been set by the United States when through her president she said that she has no selfish national ends to gain, that she desires no conquest, no dominion, that she is but one of the champions of the rights of mankind.[2]

A socio-rational way of imitating is the most valuable method of imitation which is known to social psychology.



1. Explain: "The starched collars that plague my neck are a yoke of servitude; I would put them away if I were strong enough."


2. Why is the display of good manners conventional among the leisure classes?

3. Illustrate: "Almost everywhere propriety and conventionality press more mercilessly on woman than on man, thereby lessening her range of choice and dwarfing her will."

4. Name three leading conventions of the day.

5. Why does a Christian gentleman take off his hat in church and a Mohammedan his shoes?

6. What are manners for?

7. Explain: Manners become worse as one travels from East to West—they are best in Asia, fairly good in Europe, bad in America.

8. Explain: "Such generally admired beauties of person or costume as the bandaged foot, the high heel, the wasp waist, the full skirt, and the long train are such as incapacitate from all useful work."

9. Give an original illustration of the statement that physical isolation favors customs.

10. Give a personally observed illustration of the statement that social isolation favors customs.

11. Why has the dress suit for men remained more or less the same the world over?

12. Why may a man wear the same dress suit for years, whereas a woman must have a new dress for almost every formal occasion?

13. What survivals—no longer useful—do you see in the quaintly cut dress coat?

14. Why has it been the custom in the United States to retire generals at sixty-four years of age?

15. Why has it been customary to choose men who are past middle age as popes and judges?


16. Of what custom is Hallowe'en a survival?

17. Is the law library the main laboratory of the law student?

18. What are the good phases of the caste system?

19. Whence did the idea arise that "manual labor is degrading"?

20. Why do so many people believe that pecuniary success is the only success?

21. In what custom did the hood on the academic gown originate?

22. Is our food a matter of personal choice or of convention?

23. How would you classify a man who wore a new red necktie when the white conventional evening dress tie is expected?

24. What customs can you name which have developed in the United States?

25. Why are people in old countries more interested in culture than people in new?

26. Does the study of languages tend to encourage the habit of conformity to the new?

27. How does the mastery of the classics affect one's social stability?

28. Is it true that majorities do not necessarily stand for truth and justice but often for the customs and convictions of the past?

29. What is meant by "the neophobia of the old"?


30. Is it rational to follow authority?


31. Indicate a rational way of "ascertaining woman's sphere."

32. What are the strongest foes of new and socio-rational ideas?

33. Make an original list of five irrational customs.

34. Which develops a more open, rational mind, the laboratory method, or the text-book method?

35. Is it rational for a religious leader to require his followers "to renounce the extravagances of fashion and to dress simply"?

36. How does the study of hygiene, psychology, and sociology help one to become crank-proof?

37. Why do Americans who eat raw oysters criticize the Japanese for eating uncooked fish?

38. Why do American women criticize Chinese women for compressing their feet longitudinally when they themselves try "to escape the stigma of having normal feet" by "a formidable degree of lateral compression" ?

39. Why do we ridicule the customs and beliefs of other peoples while we remain oblivious to the weaknesses of our own customs and fashions?

40. What effect does knowledge of the customs and beliefs of other peoples have upon your own customs and beliefs?

41. Does one's manner of living, or manner of work change the more rapidly? Why?

42. If you were trying to induce "Jews and Christians, Orangemen and Catholics, Germans and Slavs, Poles and Lithuanians" to sink their enmities, how would you proceed?

43. Who has the wider outlook and the freer mind,

(167) the average teacher, or the average parent?

44. In what sense is rational imitation conservative?

45. How is rational imitation radical?

46. Give a new illustration of the statement that "one of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea."

47. Explain: "Most of us jump into our belief: with both feet and stand there."

48. If everybody should become a rational imitator, would progress cease because of the lack of people to try strange and peculiar ideas?

49. Why in this civilized country are so many fashions irrational?

50. Does education always imply rational imitation ?

51. What is the main difference between rational and socio-rational imitation?

52. Why have we just begun to talk about socio-rational imitation?



Baldwin, J. M., Social and Ethical Interpretations, Ch. X.

Cooley, C. H., Social Organization, Chs. XVIII, XX.

Hearn, W. E., The Aryan Household, Ch. XVII.

Howard, G. E., Social Psychology, (syllabus), Sects. XII, XIIl.

Lang, A., Custom and Myth, pp. 10-28.


Ross, E. A., Social Psychology, Chs. XII-XI.
——, Social Control,
Ch. XV.

Sumner, W. G., Folkways.

Veblen, Thorstein, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Chs. IX, XI.


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

Ross, E. A., Social Psychology, Ch. XVI.


  1. The best discussion of conventionality has been given by E. A. Ross, Social Psychology, Chs. VII-XI.
  2. Address to Congress by Woodrow Wilson, April 2, 1917.

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