Human Nature and the Social Order

Chapter 2: Suggestion and Choice

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE antithesis between suggestion and choice is another of those familiar ideas which are not always so clear as they should be.

The word suggestion is used here to denote an influence that works in a comparatively mechanical or reflex way, without calling out that higher selective activity of the mind implied in choice or will. Thus the hypnotic subject who performs apparently meaningless actions at the word of the operator is said to be controlled by suggestion; so also is one who catches up tricks of speech and action from other people without meaning to. From such instances the idea is extended to embrace any thought or action which is mentally simple and seems not to involve choice. The behavior of people under strong emotion is suggestive, crowds are suggestible; habit is a kind of suggestion, and so on.

I prefer this word to imitation, which some use in this or a similar sense, because the latter, as ordinarily

(52) understood, seems to cover too little in some directions and too much in others. In common use it means an action that results in visible or audible resemblance Now although our simple reactions to the influence of others are largely of this sort, they are by no means altogether so; the actions of a child during the first six months of life, for instance, are very little imitative in this sense; on the other hand, the imitation that produces a visible resemblance may be a voluntary process of the most complex sort imaginable, like the skilful painting of a portrait. However, it makes little difference what words we use if we have sound meanings back of them, and I am far from intending to find fault with writers, like Professor Baldwin and M. Tarde, who adopt the word and give it a wide and unusual application. For my purpose, however, it does not seem expedient to depart so far from ordinary usage.

The distinction between suggestion and choice is not, I think, a sharp opposition between separable or radically different things, but rather a way of indicating the lower and higher stages of a series. What we call choice or will appears to be an ill-defined area of more strenuous mental activity within a much wider field of activity similar in kind but less intense. It is not sharply divisible from the mass of involuntary thought. The truth is that the facts of the mind, of society, indeed of any living whole, seldom admit of sharp division, but show gradual transitions from one thing to another: there are no fences in these regions. We speak of suggestion as mechanical; but it seems

(53) probable that all psychical life is selective, or, in some sense, choosing, and that the rudiments of consciousness and will may be discerned or inferred in the simplest reaction of the lowest living creature. In our own minds the comparatively simple ideas which are called suggestions are by no means single and primary, but each one is itself a living, shifting, multifarious bit of life, a portion of the fluid "stream of thought" formed by some sort of selection and synthesis out of simpler elements. On the other hand, our most elaborate and volitional thought and action is suggested in the sense that it consists not in creation out of nothing, but in a creative synthesis or reorganization of old material.

The distinction, then, is one of degree rather than of kind; and choice, as contrasted with suggestion, is, in its individual aspect, a comparatively elaborate process of mental organization or synthesis, of which we are reflectively aware, and which is rendered necessary by complexity in the elements of our thought. In its social aspect—for all, or nearly all, our choices relate in one way or another to the social environment—it is an organization of comparatively complex social relations. Precisely as the conditions about us and the ideas suggested by those conditions become intricate, are we forced to think, to choose, to define the useful and the right, and, in general, to work out the higher intellectual life. When life is simple, thought and action are comparatively mechanical or suggestive; the higher consciousness is not aroused, the reflective will has little or nothing to do; the captain stays below and the

(54) inferior officers work the ship. But when life is diverse, thought is so likewise, and the mind must achieve the higher synthesis, or suffer that sense of division which is its peculiar pain. In short, the question of suggestion and choice is only another view of the question of uniformity and complexity in social relations.

Will, or choice, like all phases of mental life, may be looked at either in a particular or a general aspect; and we have, accordingly, individual will or social will, depending upon our point of view, as to whether we regard the activity singly or in a mass. But there is no real separation; they are only different phases of the same thing. Any choice that I can make is a synthesis of suggestions derived in one way or another from the general life; and it also reacts upon that life, so that my will is social as being both effect and cause with reference to it. If I buy a straw hat you may look at my action separately, as my individual choice, or as part of a social demand for straw hats, or as indicating non-conformity to a fashion of wearing some other sort of hats, and so on. There is no mystery about the matter; nothing that need puzzle any one who is capable of perceiving that a thing may look differently from different standpoints, like the post that was painted a different color on each of its four sides.

It is, I think, a mistake of superficial readers to imagine that psychologists or sociologists are trying to depreciate the will, or that there is any tendency to such depreciation in a sound evolutionary science or philosophy. The trouble with the popular view of

(55) will, derived chiefiy from tradition, is not that it exaggerates its importance, which would perhaps be impossible; but, first, that it thinks of will only in the individual aspect, and does not grasp the fact—plain enough it would seem—that the act of choice is cause and effect in a general life; and, second, that it commonly overlooks the importance of involuntary forces, or at least makes them separate from and antithetical to choice—as if the captain were expected to work the ship all alone, or in opposition to the crew, instead of using them as subordinate agents. There is little use in arguing abstractly points like these; but if the reader who may be puzzled by them will try to free himself from metaphysical formulae, and determine to see the facts as they are, he will be in a way to get some healthy understanding of the matter.[1]


By way of illustrating these general statements I shall first offer a few remarks concerning suggestion and choice in the life of children, and then go on to discuss their working in adult life and upon the career as a whole.

There appears to be quite a general impression that children are far more subject to control through suggestion or mechanical imitation than grown-up people are; in other words, that their volition is less active. I am not at all sure that this is the case: their choices are, as a rule, less stable and consistent than ours,

(57) their minds have less definiteness of organization, so that their actions appear less rational and more externally determined; but on the other hand they have less of the mechanical subjection to habit that goes with a settled character. Choice is a process of growth, of progressive mental organization through selection and assimilation of the materials which life presents, and this process is surely never more vigorous than in childhood and youth. It can hardly be doubted that the choosing and formative vigor of the mind is greater under the age of twenty-five than after: the will of middle age is stronger in the sense that it has more momentum, but it has less acceleration, runs more on habit, and so is less capable of fresh choice.

I am distrustful of that plausible but possibly illusive analogy between the mind of the child and the mind of primitive man, which, in this connection, would suggest a like simplicity and inertness of thought in the two. Our children achieve in a dozen years a mental development much above that of savages, and supposing that they do, in some sense, recapitulate the progress of the race, they certainly cover the ground at a very different rate of speed, which involves a corresponding intensity of mental life. After the first year certainly, if not from birth, they share our social order, and we induct them so rapidly into its complex life that their minds have perhaps as much novelty and diversity to synthesize as ours do.

Certainly one who begins to observe children with a vague notion that their actions, after the first few

(58) months, are almost all mechanically imitative, is likely to be surprised. I had this notion, derived, perhaps without much warrant, from a slight acquaintance with writings on child-study current previous to 1893, when my first child was born. He was a boy —I will call him R.—in whom imitativeness, as ordinarily understood, happened to be unusually late in its development. Until he was more than two years and a half old all that I noticed that was obviously imitative, in the sense of a visible or audible repetition of the acts of others, was the utterance of about six words that he learned to say during his second year. It is likely that very close observation, assisted by the clearer notion of what to look for that comes by experience, would have discovered more: but no more was obvious to ordinary expectant attention. The obvious thing was his constant use of experiment and reflection, and the slow and often curious results that he attained in this manner. At two and a half he had learned, for instance, to use a fork quite skilfully. The wish to use it was perhaps an imitative impulse, in a sense, but his methods were original and the outcome of a long course of independent and reflective experiment. His skill was the continuation of a dexterity previously acquired in playing with long pins, which he ran into cushions, the interstices of his carriage, etc. The fork was apparently conceived as an interesting variation upon the hatpin, and not, primarily, as a means of getting food or doing what others did. In creeping or walking, at which he was very slow, partly on account of a lame foot, he went through a


similar series of devious experiments, which apparently had no reference to what he saw others do.


He did not begin to talk—beyond using the few words already mentioned -- until over two years and eight months old; having previously refused to interest himself in it, although he understood others as well, apparently, as any child of his age. He preferred to make his wants known by grunts and signs; and instead of delighting in imitation he evidently liked better a kind of activity that was only indirectly connected with the suggestions of others.


I frequently tried to produce imitation, but almost wholly without success. For example, when he was striving to accomplish something with his blocks I would intervene and show him, by example, how, as I thought, it might be done, but these suggestions were invariably, so far as I remember or have recorded, received with indifference or protest. He inked to puzzle it out quietly for himself, and to be shown how to do a thing often seemed to destroy his interest in it. Yet he would profit by observation of others in his own fashion, and I sometimes detected him making use of ideas to which he seemed to pay no attention when they were first presented. In short, he showed that aversion, which minds of a pondering, constructive turn perhaps always show, to anything which suddenly and crudely broke in upon his system of thought. At the same time that he was so backward in the ordinary curriculum of childhood, he showed in other ways, which it is perhaps unnecessary to describe, that comparison and reflection were well developed. This

(60) preoccupation with private experiment and reflection, and reluctance to learn from others, were undoubtedly a cause of his slow development, particularly in speech his natural aptitude for which appeared in a good enunciation and a marked volubility as soon as he really began to talk.

Imitation came all at once: he seemed to perceive quite suddenly that this was a short cut to many things, and took it up, not in a merely mechanical or suggestive way, but consciously, intelligently, as a means to an end. The imitative act, however, was often an end in itself, an interesting exercise of his constructive faculties, pursued at first without much regard to anything beyond. This was the case with the utterance of words, and, later, with spelling, with each of which he became fascinated for its own sake and regardless of its use as a means of communication.

In a second child, M., a girl, I was able to observe the working of a mind of a different sort, and of a much more common type as regards imitation. When two months and seven days old she was observed to make sounds in reply to her mother when coaxed with a certain pitch and inflection of voice. These sounds were clearly imitative, since they were seldom made at other times, but not mechanically so. They were produced with every appearance of mental effort and of delight in its success. Only vocal imitations, of this rudimentary sort, were observed until eight months was nearly reached, when the first manual imitation, striking a button-hook upon the back of a chair, was noticed. This action had been performed experimen-

(61)-tally before, and the imitation was merely a repetition suggested by seeing her mother do it, or perhaps by hearing the sound. After this the development of imitative activity proceeded much in the usual way, which has often been described.

In both of these cases I was a good deal impressed with the idea that the life of children, as compared with that of adults, is less determined in a merely suggestive way, and involves more will and choice, than is commonly supposed. Imitation, in the sense nf visible or audible repetition, was not so omnipresent as I had expected, and when present seemed to be in great part rational and voluntary rather than mechanical. It is very natural to assume that to do what some one else does requires no mental effort; but this, as applied to little children, is, of course, a great mistake. They cannot imitate an act except by learning how to do it, any more than grown-up people can, and for a child to learn a word may be as complicated a process as for an older person to learn a difficult piece on the piano. A novel imitation is not at all mechanical, but a strenuous voluntary activity, accompanied by effort and followed by pleasure in success. All sympathetic observers of children must be impressed, I imagine, by the evident mental stress and concentration which often accompanies their endeavors, whether imitative or not, and is followed, as in adults, by the appearance of relief when the action has come off successfully.[2]


The "imitative instinct" is sometimes spoken of as if it were a mysterious something that enabled the child to perform involuntarily and without preparation acts that are quite new to him. It will be found difficult, if one reflects upon the matter, to conceive what could be the nature of an instinct or hereditary tendency, not to do a definite thing previously performed by our ancestors—as is the case with ordinary instinct—but to do anything, within vague limits, which happened to be done within our sight or hearing. This doing of new things without definite preparation, either in heredity or experience, would seem to involve something like special creation in the mental and nervous organism: and the imitation of children has no such character. It is quite evidently an acquired power, and if the act imitated is at all complex the learning process involves a good deal of thought and will. If there is an imitative instinct it must, apparently, be something in the way of a taste for repetition, which stimulates the learning process without, however, having any tendency to dispense with it. The taste for repetition seems, in fact, to exist, at least in most children, but even this may be sufficiently explained as a phase of the general mental tendency to act upon uncontradicted ideas. It is a doctrine now generally taught by psychologists that

(63)the idea of an action is itself a motive to that action, and tends intrinsically to produce it unless something intervenes to prevent. This being the case, it would appear that we must always have some impulse to do what we see done, provided it is something we understand sufficiently to be able to form a definite idea of doing it.[3] I am inclined to the view that it is unnecessary to assume, in man, a special imitative instinct, but that, "as Preyer and others have shown in the case of young children, mimicry arises mainly from pleasure in activity as such, and not from its peculiar quality as imitation." [4] An intelligent child imitates because he has faculties crying for employment, and imitation is a key that lets them loose: he needs to do things and imitation gives him things to do. An indication that sensible resemblance to the acts of others is not the main thing sought is seen in such cases as the following: M. had a trick of raising her hands above her head, which she would perform, when in the mood for it, either im~tatively, when some one else did it, or in response to the words "How big is M. ?" but she responded more readily in the second or nonimitative way than in the other. This example well illustrates the reason for my preference of the word suggestion over imitation to describe these simple re-

(64)-actions. In this case the action performed had no sort of resemblance to the form of words "How big is M. ?" that started it, and could be called imitative only in a recondite sense. All that is necessary is that there should be a suggestion, that something should be presented that is connected in the child's mind with the action to be produced. Whether this connection is by sensible resemblance or not seems immaterial.

There seems to be some opposition between imitation of the visible, external kind, and reflection. Children of one sort are attracted by sensible resemblance and so are early and conspicuously imitative. If this is kept up in a mechanical way after the acts are well learned, and at the expense of new efforts, it would seem to be a sign of mental apathy, or even defect, as in the silly mimicry of some idiots. Those of another sort are preoccupied by the subtler combinations of thought which do not, as a rule, lead to obvious imitation. Such children are likely to be backward in the development of active faculties, and slow to observe except where their minds are specially interested. They are also, if I may judge by R., slow to interpret features and tones of voice, guileless and unaffected, just because of this lack of keen personal perceptions, and not quickly sympathetic.

Accordingly, it is not at all clear that children are, on the whole, any more given to imitation of the mechanical sort, any more suggestible, than adults. They appear so to us chiefly, perhaps, for two reasons. In the first place, we fail to realize the thought, the will, the effort, they expend upon their imitations. They

(65) do things that have become mechanical to us, and we assume that they are mechanical to them, though closer observation and resection would show us the contrary. These actions are largely daring experiments, strenuous syntheses of previously acquired knowledge, comparable in quality to our own most earnest efforts, and not to the thoughtless routine of our lives. We do not see that their echoing of the words they hear is often not a silly repetition, but a difficult and instructive exercise of the vocal apparatus. Children imitate much because they are growing much, and imitation is a principal means of growth. This is true at any age; the more alive and progressive a man is the more actively he is admiring and profiting by his chosen models.

A second reason is that adults imitate at longer range, as it were, so that the imitative character of their acts is not so obvious. They come into contact with more sorts of persons, largely unknown to one another, and have access to a greater variety of suggestions in books. Accordingly they present a deceitful appearance of independence simply because we do not see their models.

Though we may be likely to exaggerate the difference between children and adults as regards the sway of suggestive influences, there is little danger of our overestimating the importance of these in the life of mankind at large. The common impression among those who have given no special study to the matter appears to be that suggestion has little part in the ma-

(66)-ture life of a rational being; and though the control of involuntary impulses is recognized in tricks of speech and manner, in fads, fashions, and the like, it is not perceived to touch the more important points of conduct. The fact, however, is that the main current of our thought is made up of impulses absorbed without deliberate choice from the life about us, or else arising from hereditary instinct, or from habit; while the function of higher thought and of will is to organize and apply these impulses. To revert to an illustration already suggested, the voluntary is related to the involuntary very much as the captain of a ship is related to the seamen and subordinate officers. Their work is not altogether of a different sort from his, but is of a lower grade in a mental series. He supplies the higher sort of co-ordination, but the main bulk of the activity is of the mentally lower order.

The chief reason why popular attention should fix itself upon voluntary thought and action, and tend to overlook the involuntary, is that choice is acutely conscious, and so must, from its very nature, be the focus of introspective thought. Because he is an individual, a specialized, contending bit of psychical force, a man very naturally holds his will, in its individual aspect, to be of supreme moment. If we did not feel a great importance in the things we do we could not will to do them. And in the life of other people voluntary action seems supreme, for very much the same reasons that it does in our own. It is always in the foreground, active, obvious, intrusive, the thing that creates differences and so fixes the attention.

(67) We notice nothing except through contrast; and accordingly the mechanical control of suggestion, affecting all very much alike, is usually unperceived. As we do not notice the air, precisely because it. is always with us, so, for the same reason, we do not notice a prevailing mode of dress. In like manner we are ignorant of our local accent and bearing, and are totally unaware, for the most part, of all that is common to our time, our country, our customary environment. Choice is a central area of light and activity upon which our eyes are fixed; while the unconscious is a dark, illimitable background enveloping this area. Or, again, choice is like the earth, which we unconsciously assume to be the principal part of creation, simply because it is the centre of our interest and the field of our exertions.

The practical limitations upon the scope of choice arise, first, from its very nature as a selective and organizing agent, working upon comparatively simple or suggestive ideas as its raw material, and, second, from the fact that it absorbs a great deal of vital energy. Owing to the first circumstance its activity is always confined to points where there is a competition of ideas. So long as an idea is uncontradicted, not felt to be in any way inconsistent with others, we take it as a matter of course. It is a truth, though hard for us to realize, that if we had lived in Dante's time we should have believed in a material Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise, as he did, and that our doubts of this, and of many other things which his age

(68) did not question, have nothing to do with our natural intelligence, but are made possible and necessary by competing ideas which the growth of knowledge has enabled us to form. Our particular minds or wills are members of a slowly growing whole, and at any given moment are limited in scope by the state of the whole, and especially of those parts of the whole with which they are in most active contact. Our thought is never isolated, but always some sort of a response to the influences around us, so that we can hardly have thoughts that are not in some way aroused by communication. Will—free will if you choose— is thus a co-operative whole, not an aggregation of disconnected fragments, and the freedom of the individual is freedom under law, like that of the good citizen, not anarchy. We learn to speak by the exercise of will, but no one, I suppose, will assert that an infant who hears only French is free to learn English. Where suggestions are numerous and conflicting we feel the need to choose, to make these choices is the function of will, and the result of them is a step in the progress of life, an act of freedom or creation, if you wish to call it so; but where suggestion is single, as with religious dogma in ages of faith, we are very much at its mercy. We do not perceive these limitations, because there is no point of vantage from which we can observe and measure the general state of thought; there is nothing to compare it with. Only when it begins to change, when competing suggestions enter our minds and we get new points of view from which

(69) we can look back upon it, do we begin to notice its power over us. [5]

The exhausting character of choice, of making up one's mind, is a matter of common experience. In some way the mental synthesis, this calling in and reducing to order the errant population of the mind, draws severely upon the vital energy, and one of the invariable signs of fatigue is a dread of making decisions and assuming responsibility. In our complicated life the will can, in fact, manage only a small part of the competing suggestions that are within our reach. What we are all forced to do is to choose a field of action which for some reason we look upon as specially interesting or important, and exercise our choice in that; in other matters protecting ourselves, for the most part, by some sort of mechanical control—some accepted personal authority, some local

(70) custom, some professional tradition, or the like. Indeed, to know where and how to narrow the activity of the will in order to preserve its tone and vigor for Its most essential functions, is a great part of knowing how to live. An incontinent exercise of choice wears people out, so that many break down and yield even essentials to discipline and authority in some form; while many more wish, at times, to do so and indulge themselves, perhaps, in Thomas á Kempis, or "The Christian's Secret of a Happy Life." Not a few so far exhaust the power of self-direction as to be left drifting at the mercy of undisciplined passions. There are many roads to degeneracy, and persons of an eager, strenuous nature not infrequently take this one.

A common instance of the insidious power of milieu is afforded by the transition from university education to getting a living. At a university one finds himself, if he has any vigor of imagination, in one of the widest environments the world can afford. He has access to the suggestions of the richest minds of all times and countries, and has also, or should have, time and encouragement to explore, in his own way, this spacious society. It is his business to think, to aspire, and grow; and if he is at all capable of it he does so. Philosophy and art and science and the betterment of mankind are real and living interests to him, largely because he is in the great stream of higher thought that flows through libraries. Now let him graduate and enter, we will say, upon the

(71) lumber business at Kawkawlin. Here he finds the scope of existence largely taken up with the details of this industry—wholesome for him in some ways, hut likely to be overemphasized. These and a few other things are repeated over and over again, dinned into him, everywhere assumed to be the solid things of life, so that he must believe in them; while the rest grows misty and begins to lose hold upon him. He cannot make things seem real that do not enter into his experience, and if he resists the narrowing environment it must be by keeping touch with a larger world, through books or other personal intercourse, and by the exercise of imagination. Marcus Aurelius told himself that he was free to think what he chose, but it appears that he realized this freedom by keeping books about him that suggested the kind of thoughts he chose to think; and it is only in some such sense as this implies that the assertion is true. When the palpable environment does not suit us we can, if our minds are vigorous enough, build up a better one out of remembered material; but we must have material of some sort.

It is easy to feel the effect of surroundings in such cases as this, because of the sharp and definite change, and because the imagination clings to one state long after the senses are subdued to the other; but it is not so with national habits and sentiments, which so completely envelop us that we are for the most part unaware of them. The more thoroughly American a man is the less he can perceive Americanism. He will embody it; all he does, says, or writes, will be full

(72) of it; but he can never truly see it, simply because he has no exterior point of view from which to look at it. If he goes to Europe he begins to get by contrast some vague notion of it, though he will never he able to see just what it is that makes futile his attempts to seem an Englishman, a German, or an Italian. Our appearance to other peoples is like one's own voice, which one never hears quite as others hear it, and which sounds strange when it comes back from the phonograph.

There is nothing more important to understand, or less understood, than the class atmospheres in which nearly all of us live. We usually believe that the way we look upon social and economic questions is the natural way, the American way, the right way, not perceiving that it is a way imposed upon us by suggestions which, flowing in upon us from the people with whom we associate, determine the premises of our thought. There is something rather alarming, to one who wishes to see his country united, in the selfcomplacent ignorance which men in one class show regarding the ideas and feelings of their fellow citizens in another. It is rare to find among business or professional men any real comprehension of the struggles and aspirations of the hand-working class, while the contemptuous attitude of the native toward the immigrant, or the white toward the negro, is inevitably answered by resentment on the other side. The basis of these misunderstandings is the lack of real communication. We mean well but unless we understand one

(73) another good meanings are ineffective. The press, which ought to interpret social classes to each other, is itself divided on class lines, and the papers and magazines which the well-to-do man reads confirm him in his class bias, while the hand-worker feeds his upon labor and socialist publications. Nor do the common schools, for the most part, give the children instruction which prepares them for large and sympathetic views.

One result of all this is that it is easy, in times of excitement, for propagandists to arouse dangerous suspicions and hostilities of one class against another— as was shown during the trying period immediately following the Great War. If we are to have friendly co-operation, among classes or among nations, we must begin by having more understanding.

The control of those larger movements of thought and sentiment that make a historical epoch is still less conscious, more inevitable. Only the imaginative student, in his best hours, can really free himself —and that only in some respects—from the limitations of his time and see things from a height. For the most part the people of other epochs seem strange, outlandish, or a little insane. We can scarcely rid ourselves of the impression that the way of life we are used to is the normal, and that other ways are eccentric. Doctor Sidis holds that the people of the Middle Ages were in a quasi-hypnotic state, and instances the crusades, dancing manias, and the like.[6] But the question is, would not our own time,

(74) viewed from an equal distance! appear to present the signs of abnormal suggestibility ? Will not the intense preoccupation with material production, the hurry and strain of our cities, the draining of life into one channel, at the expense of breadth, richness, and beauty, appear as mad as the crusades, and perhaps of a lower type of madness? Could anything be more indicative of a slight but general insanity than the aspect of the crowd on the streets of Chicago?

An illustration of this unconsciousness of what is distinctive in our time is the fact that those who participate in momentous changes have seldom any but the vaguest notion of their significance. There is perhaps no time in the history of art that seems to us now so splendid, so dramatic, as that of the sudden rise of Gothic architecture in northern France, and the erection of the church of St. Denis at Paris was its culmination: yet Professor C. E. Norton, speaking of the Abbot Suger, who erected it, and of his memoirs, says, " Under his watchful and intelligent oversight the church became the most splendid and the most interesting building of the century; but of the features that gave it special interest, that make it one of the most important monuments of medićval architecture, neither Suger, in his account of it, nor his biographer, nor any contemporary writer, says a single word." [7] To Suger and his time the Gothic, it would seem, was simply a new and improved way of building a church, a technical matter with which he had little concern, except to see that it was duly carried out

(75) according to specifications. It was developed by draughtsmen and handicraftsmen, mostly nameless, who felt their own thrill of constructive delight as they worked, but had no thought of historical glory. It is no doubt the same in our own time, and Mr. Bryce has noted with astonishment the unconsciousness or indifference of those who founded cities in western America, to the fact that they were doing something that would be memorable and influential for ages.[8]

I have already said, or implied, that the activity of the will refiects the state of the social order. A constant and strenuous exercise of volition implies complexity in the surrounding life from which suggestions come, while in a simple society choice is limited in scope and life is comparatively mechanical. It is the variety of social intercourse or, what comes to the same thing, the character of social organization, that determines the field of choice; and accordingly there is a tendency for the scope of the will to increase with that widening and intensification of life that is so conspicuous a feature of recent history This change is bound up with the extension and diffusion of communication, opening up innumerable channels by which competing suggestions may enter the mind. We are still dependent upon environment—life is always a give and take with surrounding conditions— but environment is becoming very wide, and in the case of imaginative persons may extend itself to almost any ideas that the past or present life of the race has

(76) brought into being. This brings opportunity for congenial choice and characteristic personal growth, and at the same time a good deal of distraction and strain. There is more and more need of stability, and of a vigorous rejection of excessive material, if one would escape mental exhaustion and degeneracy. Choice is like a river; it broadens as it comes down through history—though there are always banks—and the wider it becomes the more persons drown in it. Stronger and stronger swimming is required, and types of character that lack vigor and self-reliance are more and more likely to go under.

The aptitude to yield to impulse in a mechanical or reflex way is called suggestibility. As might be expected, it is subject to great variations in different persons, and in the same person under different conditions. Abnormal suggestibility has received much study, and there is a great body of valuable literature relating to it. I wish in this connection only to recall a few well-known principles which the student of normal social life needs to have in mind.

As would naturally follow from our analysis of the relation between suggestion and choice, suggestibility is simply the absence of the controlling and organizing action of the reflective will. This function not being properly performed, thought and action are disintegrated and fiy off on tangents; the captain being disabled the crew breaks up into factions, and discipline goes to pieces. Accordingly, whatever weakens the reason, and thus destroys the breadth and

(77) symmetry of consciousness, produces some form of suggestibility. To be excited is to be suggestible, that is to become liable to yield impulsively to an idea in harmony with the exciting emotion. An angry man is suggestible as regards denunciation, threats, and the like, a jealous one as regards suspicions, and similarly with any passion.

The suggestibility of crowds is a peculiar form of that limitation of choice by the environment already discussed. We have here a very transient environment which owes its power over choice to the vague but potent emotion so easily generated in dense aggregates. The thick humanity is in itself exciting, and the will is further stupefied by the sense of insignificance, by the strangeness of the situation, and by the absence, as a rule, of any separate purpose to maintain an independent momentum. A man is like a ship in that he cannot guide his course unless he has way on. If he drifts he will shift about with any light air; and the man in the crowd is usually drifting, is not pursuing any settled line of action in which he is sustained by knowledge and habit. This state of mind, added to intense emotion directed by some series of special suggestions, is the source of the wild and often destructive behavior of crowds and mobs, as well as of a great deal of heroic enthusiasm. An orator, for instance, first unifying and heightening the emotional state of his audience by some humorous or pathetic incident, will be able, if tolerably skilful, to do pretty much as he pleases with them, so long as he does not go against their settled habits of thought.

(78) Anger, always a ready passion, is easily aroused, appeals to resentment being the staples of much popular oratory, and under certain conditions readily expresses itself in stoning, burning, and lynching. And so with fear: General Grant, in describing the battle of Shiloh, gives a picture of several thousand men on a hill-side in the rear, incapable of moving, though threatened to be shot for cowardice where they lay. Yet these very men, calmed and restored to their places, were among those who heroically fought and won the next day's battle. They had been restored to the domination of another class of suggestions, namely, those implied in military discipline. [9]

Suggestibility from exhaustion or strain is a rather common condition with many of us. Probably all eager brain workers find themselves now and then in a state where they are "too tired to stop." The overwrought mind loses the healthy power of casting off its burden, and seems capable of nothing but going on and on in the same painful and futile course. One may know that he is accomplishing nothing, that work done in such a state of mind is always bad work, and that "that way madness lies," but yet be too weak to resist, chained to the wheel of his thought so that he must wait till it runs down. And such a state, however induced, is the opportunity for all sorts of undisciplined impulses, perhaps some gross passion, like anger, dread, the need of drink, or the like.

According to Mr. Tylor, [10] fasting, solitude' and

(79) physical exhaustion by dancing, shouting, or flagellation are very generally employed by savage peoples to bring on abnormal states of mind of which suggestibility—the sleep af choice, and control by some idea from the subconscious life—is always a trait. The visions and ecstasies following the fastings, watchings, and flagellations of Christian devotees of an earlier time seem to belong, psychologically, in much the same category.

It is well known that suggestibility is limited by habit, or, more accurately stated, that habit is itself a perennial source of suggestions that set bounds and conditions upon the power of fresh suggestions. A total abstainer will resist the suggestion to drink, a modest person will refuse to do anything indecent, and so on. People are least liable to yield to irrational suggestions, to be stampeded with the crowd, in matters with which they are familiar, so that they have habits regarding them. The soldier, in his place in the ranks and with his captain in sight, will march forward to certain death, very likely without any acute emotion whatever, simply because he has the habits that constitute discipline; and so with firemen, policemen, sailors, brakemen, physicians, and many others who learn to deal with life and death as calmly as they read a newspaper. It is all in the day's work.

As regards the greater or less suggestibility of different persons there is, of course, no distinct line between the normal and the abnormal; it is simply a matter of the greater or less efficiency of the higher

(80) mental organization. Most people, perhaps, are so far suggestible that they make no energetic and persistent attempt to interpret in any broad way the elements of life accessible ta them, but receive the stamp of some rather narrow and simple class of suggestions to which their allegiance is yielded. There are innumerable people of much energy but sluggish intellect, who will go ahead—as all who have energy must do—but what direction they take is a matter of the opportune suggestion. The humbler walks of religion and philanthropy, for instance, the Salvation Army, the village prayer-meeting, and the city mission, are full of such. They do not reason on general topics, but believe and labor. The intellectual travail of the time does not directly touch them. At some epoch in the past, perhaps in some hour of emotional exaltation, something was printed on their minds to remain there till death, and be read and followed daily. To the philosopher such people are fanatics; but their function is as important as his. They are repositories of moral energy—which he is very likely to lack—they are the people who brought in Christianity and have kept it going ever since. And this is only one of many comparatively automatic types of mankind. Rationality, in the sense of a patient and open-minded attempt to think out the general problems of life, is, and perhaps always must be, confined to a small minority even of the most intelligent populations.


  1. It should easily be understood that one who agrees with what was said in the preceding chapter about the relation between society and the individual, can hardly entertain the question whether the individual will is free or externally determined. This question assumes as true what he holds to be false, namely that the particular aspect of mankind is separable from the collective aspect. The idea underlying it is that of an isolated fragment of life, the will on the one hand, and some great mass of life, the environment on the other, the question being which of these two antithetical forces shall be master. If one, then the will is free; if the other, then it is determined. It is as if each man's mind were a castle besieged by an army, and the question were whether the army should make a breach and capture the occupants. It is hard to see how this way of conceiving the matter could arise from a direct observation of actual social relations. Take, for instance, the case of a member of Congress, or of any other group of reasoning, feeling, and mutually influencing creatures. Is he free in relation to the rest of the body or do they control him? The question appears senseless. He is influenced by them and also exerts an influence upon them. While he is certainly not apart from their power, he is controlled, if we use that word, through his own will and not in spite of it. And it seems plain enough that a relation similar in kind holds between the individual and the nation, or between the individual and humanity in general. If you think of human life as a whole and of each individual as a member and not a fragment, as, in my opinion, you must if you base your thoughts on a direct study of society and not upon metaphysical or theological preconceptions, the question whether the will is free or not is seen to be meaningless. The individual will appears to be a specialized part of the general life, more or less divergent from other parts and possibly contending with them; but this very divergence is a part of its function—just as a member of Congress serves that body by urging his particular opinions—and in a large view does not separate but unites it to life as a whole. It is often necessary to consider the individual with reference to his opposition to other persons, or to prevailing tendencies, and in so doing it may be convenient to speak of him as separate from and antithetical to the life about him: but this separateness and opposition are incidental, like the right hand pulling against the left to break a string, and there seems to be no sufficient warrant for extending it into a general or philosophical proposition.
    There may be some sense in which the question of the freedom of the will is still of interest; but it seems to me that the student of social relations may well pass it by as one of those scholastic controversies which are settled, if at all, not by being decided one way or the other, but by becoming obsolete.
  2. The imitativenese of children is stimulated by the imitativenese of parents. A baby cannot hit upon any sort of a noise, but the admiring family, eager for communication, will imitate it again and again, hoping to get a repetition. They are usually disappointed, but the exercise probably causes the child to notice the likeness of the sounds and so prepares the way for imitation. It is perhaps safe to say that up to the end of the first year the parents are more imitative than the child.
  3. "In like manner any act or expression is a stimulus to the nerve-centres that perceive or understand it. Unless this reaction is inhibited by the will, or by counter-stimulation, they must discharge themselves in movements that more or less closely copy the originals."Giddings, Principles of Sociology, 110.
  4. H. M. Stanley, The Evolutionary Psychology of Feeling, p. 53.
  5. Goethe, in various places, contrasts modern art and literature with those of the Greeks in respect to the fact that the former express individual characteristics, the latter those of a race and an epoch. Thus in a letter to Schiller—No. 631 of the GoetheSchiller correspondence—he says of Paradise Lost, "In the case of this poem, as with all modern works of art, it is in reality the individual that manifests itself that awakens the interest."
    Can there be some illusion mixed with the truth of this idea? Is it not the case that the nearer a thing is to our habit of thought the more clearly we see the individual, and the more vaguely, if at all, the universal? And would not an ancient Greek, perhaps, have seen as much of what was peculiar to each artist, and as little of what was common to all, as we do in a writer of our own time? The principle is much the same as that which makes all Chinamen look pretty much alike to us: we see the type because it is so different from what we are used to, but only one who lives within it can fully perceive the differences among individuals.
  6. See the latter chapters of his Psychology of Suggestion.
  7. See Harper's Magazine, vol. 79, p. 770.
  8. See The American Commonwealth, vol. ii, p. 705.
  9. Memoirs of U. S. Grant, vol. i, p. 344.
  10. See his Primitive Culture, vol. ii, p. 372.

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