Social Process

Chapter 13: The Higher Emulation

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE condition under which human nature will be ruled by emulation in service is, in general, simple. It is that one be immersed in a group spirit and organization of which such emulation is a part. If we have this, no unusual virtue is required to call out devotion and sacrifice, only the ordinary traits of loyalty and suggestibility. In college athletics or in a regiment a man is surrounded by good fellows with whom he is in ardent sympathy, all whose thoughts are bent upon the success of the group. It is not only that he knows he has his own glory or shame at stake, but more than this, the spirit of the whole flows in upon him and submerges his separate personality, until that spirit really is himself. He does not count the cost but lives and acts in the larger life. It is said of one of the national armies, "each man is for his company, each company is for its regiment, each regiment is for the army, and the army is for the collective honor of them all."

The complete merging of self-consciousness is for times of special enthusiasm, but if the intimate group is lasting it forms a habit of thought and feeling that dominates the ambition and conscience of the individual, so that what would otherwise be a selfish struggle for power is raised to emulation in the service of the group. The

(138) man of science toiling in his laboratory is ennobled and supported by the sense of a great whole in which he is working, and of other men, his comrades and rivals, whose opinions will reward and immortalize his discoveries. So it is with the various branches of literature, with the fine arts, and with all the true professions. Indeed this is just the distinguishing trait of a true profession, that it should have a continuing spirit and tradition capable of moulding to high issues the minds of its members. And we might say that the aim of reform, as regards motivation, is to make every social function a true profession. It would seem that there is no function so distasteful that it might not conceivably be ennobled in this way. What could be more repellent at first view than much of the work of the surgeon or the nurse? Yet we see how it is transformed by group consciousness and pride.

The existence of a group spirit and tradition implies several things whose power to raise and animate the individual mind are manifest. Among these are social emotion, standards of merit, and a certain sense of security.

We all know how hard it is to get up steam if each of us has to build a little fire of his own and cannot draw from any general reservoir of heat. Few men can go ahead under such conditions, and those few do it at a great expense of effort. On the other hand, nearly all of us delight in sharing an emulative excitement, and a man who, from pure lethargy, is almost worthless when working alone may easily prove efficient in a group. I once employed to cut and pile wood a man whom I had seen doing wonders in a gang, but I found that it was

( 139) only in a gang that he would do anything at all. The power to work energetically by oneself is a high quality which we need to cultivate, but it exists only in limited quantity, and even so is usually dependent upon imaginative contact with a group.

As to standards, it is in the nature of the continuing thought of a group to cherish heroes, to set up ideals and models of achievement, and to impress these upon the members. The Christian Church has its central Example and its noble army of saints and martyrs for the emulation of the faithful, and every live organization, down to the gang of bad boys in the alley, has something of the same sort.

These aims and symbols need to be high, definite, and appealing, in order that they may instigate imagination and effort; and to bring them to this condition requires time and co-operative endeavor in the group as a whole. Contemporary life in almost every department is weak at this point; even where there is the most ardent goodwill it is apt to fail of results because of crude and uncompelling standards.

By a sense of security I mean the feeling that there is a larger and more enduring life surrounding, appreciating, upholding the individual, and guaranteeing that his efforts and sacrifice will not be in vain. I might almost say that it is a sense of immortality; if not that, it is something akin to and looking toward it, something that relieves the precariousness of the merely private self. It is, rare that human nature sustains a high standard of behavior without the consciousness of opinions and sympathies that illuminate the standard and make it seem worth while. It lies deep in the social nature of our

( 140) minds that ideals can hardly seem real without such corroboration.

In a still more tangible sense I mean a reasonable economic security. A man can hardly have a good spirit if he feels that the ground is unsure beneath his feet, that his social world may disown and forget him to-morrow. There is scarcely anything more appalling to the human spirit than this feeling, or more destructive of all generous impulses. It is an old observation that fear shrinks the soul; and there is no fear like this. The soldier who knows that he may be killed at any moment may yet be perfectly secure in a psychological sense; secure of his duty and of the sympathy of his fellows, his mind quite at peace; but this treachery of the ground we stand on is like a bad dream. As one will shrink from attaching himself in love and service to a person whom he feels he cannot trust, so he will from giving his loyalty to an insecure position. It is impossible that such tenure of function as now chiefly prevails in the industrial world should not induce selfishness, restlessness, and a service only mercenary.

The member of a professional group or of a labor-union gets security largely from his standing in the group, which insures that if he is unjustly ousted from one position he can rely upon getting another. It is natural however, that where this is the case his loyalty will be to the group rather than to the employer. If the latter treats men as machines he will get mechanical service. Moreover, it is not to be expected that a man will give his full loyalty and service to an employer merely as such, as the source of his pay. To enlist his higher spirit he must feel that the work itself is honorable, that he is serving his country, humanity, and God.

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A nation can hardly preserve that interest and loyalty which makes it truly strong unless it can so order things that the individual feels the nation's care for him, its eye upon his virtues and failings, its appreciation of what he has done, and readiness to stand by him in undeserved trouble. Well-devised systems of education, assistance in finding work, protection against injustice, advice and temporary relief in difficulties, insurance against sickness, accident, and old age--measures of this kind, supplementing, but not supplanting, his own efforts, will go far to make him a real patriot. An intricate society calls for many helps which would formerly have been thought paternal.

The position of a university teacher, under prevalent conditions, illustrates fairly well the benefits of a reasonable security. After a period of probation, intended to be exacting, he is given a permanent appointment which is understood to be forfeitable only by misconduct, although his promotion, which is gradual and extends over a long period, depends upon the degree of his achievement. An equal inducement to exert himself is the hope of service, in teaching and research, and of the appreciation of this by students and colleagues, a hope which is almost certain to be realized if he does his part. He has reason, also, to anticipate considerate treatment in sickness or other trouble, and is often assured of a pension in old age. The plan seems to work well in leading men to labor faithfully and in calling forth a higher quality of service than would be elicited by more stringent treatment. One feels that lie has the duty and opportunity to put his very self into his function-his faith, his aspiration, his originality, if he has any. Whatever inefficiency may be found is to be attributed, I should say, not to the

(142) principles of motivation, but either to defects in the process by which men are chosen, or perhaps to the lack, in some lines of teaching, of high and clear standards of achievement. The favorable effect of a secure and yet animating environment is beyond question.

While it is not indispensable, in order to secure emulation in service, that the work should allow of self-expression and so be attractive in itself, yet in so far as we can make it self-expressive we release fresh energies of the human mind. The ideal condition is to have something of the spirit of art in every task, a sense of joyous individual creation. We are formed for development, and an endless, hopeless repetition is justly abhorrent. No matter how humble a man's work, he will do it better and in a better spirit if he sees that he can improve upon it and hope to pass beyond it.

Judged by such standards, our present order is inefficient, because its tasks are so largely narrow, drudging, meaningless, unhuman. An English writer has described the pernicious influence of what he calls "the resentful employee," "the class of people who, without explanation, adequate preparation, or any chance, have been shoved at an early age into uncongenial work and never given a chance to escape." "He becomes an employee between thirteen and fifteen; he is made to do work he does not like for no other purpose, so far as he can see, except the profit and glory of a fortunate person called his employer, behind whom stand church and state blessing and upholding the relationship. . . . He feels put upon and cheated out of life."[1]

We do not help the individual to feel that he is contrib-

( 143) -uting, in his own way, to an interesting whole. It seems that for this, as for so many other reasons, we must aim at a greater sense of solidarity, to make the common life more real and attractive, and the individual more conscious of his part in it. The idea of freedom as developed in our present institutions is somewhat empty, because negative; we are apt to give a man the choice between drudgery and anarchy, and when we find that we have more of the latter than other nations we think it is because we are so free.

We need, then, a system of social groups, corresponding to the system of functions in society, each group having esprit de corps, emulation and standards within itself, and all animated with a spirit of loyalty and service to the whole. To achieve this would call for no change in human nature, but only in the instigation and direction of its impulses; it would mean chiefly firmer association and clearer ideals of merit among those pursuing the several functions. Pecuniary inducement would play a large part in it, but would be dethroned from the sole and all-sufficing position assigned to it in the prevalent economic philosophy. Freedom, self-expression, and the competitive spirit would be cherished, but could not degenerate into irresponsible individualism.

Much of our higher life is already organized in harmony with this ideal, and we see it applied, in part at least, to many private undertakings and to public enterprises like the building of the Panama Canal. I believe that the principle of emulation in service is one whose operation can gradually be extended so as to take in the great body of productive activity.


  1. H. G. Wells.

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