Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 14: Custom Diffusion

Emory S. Bogardus

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

OLD and established ideas and ways of doing act as indirect and direct suggestion,—the response is custom diffusion. Custom suggestion is more largely indirect than fashion suggestion, and custom imitation is more frequently unconscious than in the case of fashion. Custom suggestion and imitation function powerfully in childhood, while fashion monopolizes more attention in early maturity. Since most persons imitate customs rather than start them, custom imitation is more direct and personal than custom suggestion. Together custom suggestion and custom imitation constitute custom diffusion.


Custom diffusion has its strength in habit. Through the life of the home, the play group, the school group, and so on, customary ways of feeling, thinking, and doing become early adopted and established in the form of habitual reactions. The personal strength of custom is found in its utilization of habit; by taking the form of habits, custom assumes a degree of permanence.[1]

By being born into a custom heritage the little child has his thought patterns molded to it before he is old enough to take notice ; and when he reaches an age of criticism, even his habits of examining and criticising are largely determined by custom. Thus, custom sets its stamp on human thinking and even on human judging. Custom determines most of the thinking of most people most of the time. It furnishes the fundamentals in education along religious, economic, political, and other lines. A basic problem in social psychology is not how persons make custom, but how "different customs, established interacting arrangements, form and nurture different minds." Customs are the patterns into which individual activity weaves itself.[2] Customs are collective patterns. They shape the impulses of individuals into dominating habits.

Most of the political ideas of a youth twenty years of age are those of the preceding generation. If his parents are staunch Republicans or

( 169) Democrats, he will be the same. In religion, the ordinary child in a devout Baptist family, or a Roman Catholic family, or a Hebrew family in Russia, or a Buddhist family feels and thinks as his parents whose reactions in turn are perhaps generations or centuries old. Thus in almost any field, custom exercises a powerful a priori influence by being transmitted from the habits of one generation to the habits of the next.

The members of a primitive group in India 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 on their heads so enslaved were they by custom and habit. As an individual grows old, he tends to rely more and more upon habitual thinking. What he has once settled upon, he is likely to abide by. If the analysis of a problem is difficult and the consideration of it has required considerable time, then the conclusions determined upon are likely to persist for years. To think is an effort, and to work through a complicated process requires courage so that when once a conclusion has been decided upon a person takes up the matter again seriously only with the greatest reluctance. So an idea may thus remain accepted long after its content has served its purpose. The individual's current attitudes are often to be explained on the ground of decisions made twenty or fifty years ago. As a person grows older he is more apt to rest content with past decisions ; the less likely is he to take up anew questions to which perhaps he once gave an open mind, for example, whether he should become a Democrat or a Socialist, what religious faith or denomination should he ally himself with, or what type of business or professional ethics should he accept. For this reason, therefore, custom has much of its backing from elderly people.

As persons mature they are less energetic, lose initiative, indulge in reminiscence rather than plan undertakings ahead. There tends to set in a mental decay which unfits an aged person from being a progressive.

Age, of course, does not need to become conservative. As one grows old he may be controlled by the habit of inquiry, of looking forward, of renouncing outworn beliefs. A group also may discriminate between its reactionary and its liberal-minded elderly people, and thus keep age in control without blindly obeying custom. A liberal elderly person may combine experience and progressiveness in a happy proportion, approximating all the benefits of the Aristotelean mean ; and thus represent a better leader than one filled with the zeal of youth without discretion. Such a leader may conserve the best values in a given custom, and modify the whole custom for the current good of the group.

( 170)


Custom diffusion follows the feeling planes. Memories of the beautiful and lovely fortunately live long, and become sacred. The spiritually helpful is fleeting enough at best, and the rôle of custom in giving the best things of the spiritual life an extended existence is as a rule a social gain. The best of the past may thus continue into the present, although at times even the spiritually best of a bygone age is hampering when many new needs have arisen. Respect for parents, reverence for religion, respect for law are additional examples of the salutary operation of custom and while the principle sometimes creates maladjustments it conserves socially useful values. A more universal recognition of this principle in the United States at the present time is to be desired.

One of the most virulent phases of the feeling expressions of custom is found in prejudices. If these are taught a person when he is a child, he overcomes them in later life only with extreme difficulty. They operate with the greatest possible tenacity in connection with hatred and kindred sentiments and hold people under their yoke even when rational judgment indicates otherwise.


Custom diffusion culminates in group heritage. It is the content and spirit of the past;[3] it is the best of racial experience. It is unscientifically preserved and transmitted; it has often suffered wholesale destruction as a result of national calamity; and its preservation has rested upon the fickle reactions of public opinion, particularly of the opinion of the ruling classes and the privileged few. It includes the moral and religious convictions of the past, and carries the ripe judgments of the seers and prophets of ancient days. Custom develops out of the experiences of persons and becomes molded into powerful sanctions.[4] It includes traditions, or "the age old modes of thought or action expressive of the historic spirit of the group."

Since customs are indirect suggestions that are unconsciously imitated in the early years of life, since they are so numerous, so omnipresent, so much a part of childhood's environment that the imitation of them is universal, their influence is inestimable. Man's social behavior is con-

( 171) -ditioned and largely determined by the character, past and present, of the social and economic organization in which he has been reared.[5]

Custom diffusion thrives best where social contacts are few and non-stimulating. In isolation, group heritages have little competition and rule with an iron hand.[6] To the extent that communication is hampered geographic isolation fosters custom imitation. Then there is economic isolation, for the consumptive standards of the rich do not greatly influence the poor, although in a country where fashion is encouraged and cheap imitations are prevalent, custom imitation loses a part of its force. Education, isolation, and a lack of appreciation of culture give custom imitation unlimited leeway. Social isolation debars persons from recognition and from social stimuli; hence, they remain the victims of too much custom imitation.


Custom control is maintained prominently in the following cultural fields : language, religion, ritual, and law. I. Our language is received so early in life—its basic elements being fixed before we begin to think—that when we later scrutinize it we find ourselves largely its slaves. The fundamental speech habits are fixed in the pre-thinking years and thus constitute a substratum to thinking habits themselves ; they cannot easily be uprooted.

2. Religious beliefs are given a setting in the feeling reactions of life. They are usually taken on faith, and when once accepted are hard to modify. They are often received in the early years of life indirectly and as a result of the home atmosphere. The supernatural factors in religion arouse fear, awe, and respect, and these when ingrained by habit in child nature are almost impossible to be changed. Hence, custom functions easily in the religious life.

3. Ritual at first carries standard ideals and beliefs, and continuing to do so, represents one of the most significant expressions of custom. A ritual sometimes reflects social experience reduced to its most tangible and succinct terms. It often discloses strong social aspirations that are put in suppliant form, such as the Lord's Prayer.

The performance of ritual is usually a group affair. The aim is to secure something that is judged worth while. There is generally implied

( 172) an agreement in conduct resulting from the tacit recognition of a universal and social need.[7]

The ritual is maintained as symbol of social or group values, and dies out when these disappear, unless external force is applied in its behalf. Its original content is often forgotten, and new life is introduced into it. The religious ritual is to-day undergoing such a transformation. Its earlier individualistic content in this country no longer suffices and so its more awakened advocates are introducing a "social creed" in order to meet the needs of the hour and at the same time to prevent the religious ritual from falling into disrepute among persons who are abreast of the times.

The ritual however tends to become a "mere mumbling," an habitual mechanism without meaning. The habitual repetition of its terminology, however, has a steadying effect on a person's life; it constitutes an anchor and represents an element of dependence.

4. The concept of law gets its earliest meanings in terms of punishment with its accompaniments of suffering, fear, and respect. In mature years the actual contacts with law are found in terms of humiliation, physical incarceration, and social isolation. These engender a feeling setting for the operation of law, and make it difficult to be changed when once it becomes established.

Law, moreover, stands for a consensus of group judgment. Time must elapse, first, before facts can be known; second, before the majority of a group, especially if the group be large, can make up their minds; and hence law must lag behind the times. When a line of conduct is given both support and opposition, it is impossible for a law to be fully recognized and it may thus become antiquated when finally enforced.

Law attempts to standardize conduct, and in so doing it becomes formal, conventionalized, and fixed. It deals with overt acts which often belie the spirit behind them. At times a form of behavior is created to conceal the spirit behind them, or to conceal a spirit of behavior of a different type. Law cannot regulate motives and hence in confining itself to behavior it may become encysted in change-resisting forms.


Custom control is often highly irrational. An established custom is apt to represent ideas derived by outworn methods. The Ptolemaic

( 173) theory persisted long after inductively derived astronomical knowledge ceased to justify it. When a new and more accurate concept, the Copernican thesis, was proclaimed, the older theory was supported in many bitter conflicts, chiefly ecclesiastical. The common drinking cup is still used by the unscientifically minded, and by those who ignore bacteria. Wine at communion persists in days of prohibition. Custom, becoming habitually established in human thought, has no ready means of response to fashion, science or anything new, and hence functions after the stalk on which it grew has withered.

Custom control is indiscriminate, conserving the bad along with the good. Being non-moral it needs to be recurrently examined in the light of science. 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 current serviceableness, because conditions and needs may have changed. Hence, even customs of high repute require testing from time to time.

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. The sanction of the whole carries with it the sanctity of the parts, including the out-of-date sections. 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. Perpetual endowments for teaching children to card, spin, and knit, were worthy at the time, but when inventions turned carding, spinning, and knitting into machine processes, these 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 unhealthful when houses are built better; and yet the custom remains with many people. Race prejudice, necessary in the time of fang and claw, is harmful under the reign of increasing good will, yet it rules blindly to-day even among the cultured. Political autocracy was justified when 99 per cent of the people were illiterate, but is anti-social when the majority are educated and thoughtful; yet its spirit governs many so-called political leaders.

The long summer school vacation seems to have originated in the days when children were kept at home to help in caring for the crops. But strangely enough this procedure was carried over into urban school systems so that hundreds of thousands of children are turned loose to run unsupervised on dangerous city streets, to play without direction in dark

( 174) hallways and dirty alleys or to waste away their time in idleness and mischievousness for three months every year. "Although half of us are urban, every June we close the schools of our cities and turn millions of children into the streets—to hoe corn and bug potatoes !"[8]

Slavery was a boon when it originated, for it spared the lives of war captives, who previously would have been slain. But it persisted into a day of free labor and of social democracy, being given the sanction of both law and religion in the slave-holding states of the South. Past acceptance served as a blind behind which it could be maintained even against the best interests of the slave states.

Custom creates irrational crusts of behavior over the top of society; it fosters irrational leadership. In religion, it naturally appears as dogmatism. The spokesmen for the supernatural speak authoritatively and dogmatically, and what they say may be questioned only at the risk of appearing sacrilegious and heretical. In the economic world "trusts" persist in their manipulations of the public. The political autocrat has all the power of government behind his ancient decrees, and can imprison or behead all who remonstrate.


Custom diffusion is basic to progress. No matter what may be the weaknesses of custom, it represents all the best of the past that has been saved from the jaws of time. It props law and order but not always justice. It is the foundation upon which the future is being built. By it each succeeding generation is sustained and enabled to advance. Moreover, it furnishes the materials from which inventions spring.

Custom diffusion represents a beginning of the socialization process. By adopting given customs, the members of a group have begun unconsciously to think and act together.[9] They are also acting in harmony with preceding generations, and are inadvertently giving recognition of group values as well as exemplifying the spirit of coöperation—all of which may be considered evidences of group progress.


1. Old and established ideas and ways of doing act as stimuli or suggestions which are widely imitated—the result is custom diffusion.

( 175)

2. The chief strength of customs occurs when they become integrated in the habits of persons; they flourish in the early, uncritical years of life and in the later years with their fixed habits.

3. Custom diffusion is favored by the feelings and sentiments.

4. Custom control rules in social isolation, where the social contacts are few or non-stimulating.

5. The main fields of custom diffusion are in language, religion, ritual, and law.

6. The imitation of specific customs easily becomes irrational because customs survive their usefulness.

7. Custom diffusion is the chief conserving factor in society; it indirectly promotes socialization.


1. What is a custom?

2. Distinguish between custom suggestion and custom imitation.

3. How is custom diffusion related to habit?

4. Why do the feelings strongly support custom diffusion?

5. What is the relation of social heritage to custom imitation?

6. Why is custom imitation strong in religion?

7. For what different reasons is custom imitation dominant in languages?

8. Why is law a stronghold of custom imitation?

9. Explain the tendency of custom imitation to become irrational.

10. How may a written constitution become a social handicap?

11. How do long summer vacations for school children illustrate custom imitation?

12. How does custom imitation contribute to progress?


1. What is the origin of the term "custom?"

2. Why are army officers required by law to retire at sixty-four years of age?

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

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

5. Why are people in old countries more custom-abiding than people in new?

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

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

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

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

10. Is the law library "the main laboratory of the law student"?


Dewey, John, Human Nature and the Social Order (Holt, 1922), Chs. IV, V.

Edman, Irwin, Human Traits (Houghton Mifflin, 1920), Ch. XI.

Hearn, W. E., The Aryan Household (Longmans, Green : 1891), Ch. XVII.

Howard, G. E., Social Psychology (syllabus, Univ. of Nebraska, 1910), Ch. XIII.

Lang, A., Custom and Myth (Longmans, Green : 1904), pp. 10-28.

Ross, E. A., Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), Chs. XV, XLII.

———, Social Psychology (Macmillan, 1908), Chs. XII, XV.

———, Social Control (Macmillan, 1910), Ch. XV.

Sumner, W. G., Folkways (Ginn, 1907).

Wissler, Clark, The American Indian (Oxford University Press, 1922), Ch. XII


  1. See Chapter IV on "Habitual Nature."
  2. John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct (Holt, 1922), p. 62; also pp. 75, 122. 168
  3. Cf. Graham Wallas, Our Social Heritage (Yale Univ. Press, 1921).
  4. Cf. W. G. Sumner, Folkways (Ginn, 1907).
  5. Douglas, Hitchcock, and Atkins, The Worker in Modern Economic Society (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1923), p. 75.
  6. See Chapter VIII.
  7. An excellent treatise of ritual as custom is F. G. Henke's, A Study in the Psychology of Ritualism (Univ. of Chicago Press, 1910).
  8. E. A. Ross, Principles of Sociology (Century, 1920), p. 501.
  9. I. Edman, Human Traits (Houghton Muffin, 1920), p. 419.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2