An Outline of Social Psychology

Chapter 13: Personality and Conduct Restrictions of Cultural Behavior

Jacob Robert Kantor

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That man is a social animal now passes as one of the tritest of sociological truisms. That a person is in many ways a product of his anthropic groups and dependent upon them has also been more than sufficiently reiterated in humanistic literature.

Social psychology apparently reinforces these beliefs. For we have learned that individuals during their culturalization and while developing their cultural personality equipment are from the very instant of birth dominated by numerous behavior groups. What kind of persons they are empirically destined to become and how they shall conduct themselves even to the minutest details of their behavior life are restricted by the institutional circumstances with which they are in contact.

Let us review briefly some of the psychological conditions for the behavior restriction to which we refer. In an important sense the cultural equipment is the fundamental core of the psychological personality, involving all types of psychological adaptation. Since, as we have seen, cultural conduct covers by far the largest number of actual responses that the person performs, it would seem that he is decidedly hedged about by the groups of which he is a member.

We entertain a picture of the individual as falling in with the habits, customs, attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs of vari-

( 352) -ous communities harboring specific cultural institutions. In this sense much of the person's behavior may be predicted if only one knows beforehand to what particular groups he belongs and hence with what institutions he will be in contact.

And yet we are constrained to ask, does this story of the person's domination by groups give us an adequate description of his relation to various congeries of individuals with which he is inevitably and inseverably connected? Can a person really not go beyond the social intelligence of his various groups or respond with better or more effective intellectual reactions than those represented by his cultural milieu? Is it not possible for an individual's art appreciation, religious thought and beliefs to vary from or transcend his own immediate civilization? Are individuals forever destined to be controlled in their morals and manners by the social surroundings in which they find themselves? Though it may be true that most people are mere shadowy reflections of the groups to which they belong and that most actions of all persons are group conformity responses, still the behavior restriction of individuals is neither absolute nor inevitable.

Certain it is that the psychologist who is interested in the concrete behavior life of persons cannot be satisfied with any simple generalization.[1] Instead he must regard his problem to be the study of the detailed facts of a person's behavior life. Accordingly, we devote the present chapter to marshalling such evidence as will indicate the actual dependence and independence of persons from the standpoint of psychological collectivities.

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Every group is always a specific collection of persons. This very fact creates a strong presumption against the view that persons are absolutely dominated by groups. Surely the association of individuals cannot completely destroy the fluctuating character of their psychological behavior.

Every instance of psychological conduct is a unique event. Moreover, it is an event pregnant with potentialities for changes in all of the persons in a group, or in other words in the group as a whole. It must therefore be a bit of faulty abstractionism to interpret persons as absolutely moulded by groups. If, as no one can deny, all human action is either in its origin or later operation inseparably connected with human persons and events, that fact does not grant any license to insist upon the absolute submergence of particular acts or persons.

An illustration may help to clarify the point. I have just observed a peculiar action of a protozoan under my microscope. This is an observation that has never been made before by any one. I at once proceed to make notes definitely describing the phenomenon with a view to publishing the observation. Now so far as the psychological responses I am performing are concerned they are unique and specific events. True enough I could not have made this observation unless I had been a member of a miscroscope-using group, and also of an organization which has discovered and been interested in protozoans and their behavior. Furthermore, the language in which I record the observation is a type of phenomenon developed by a group of individuals. And yet it would be an extreme fault if we did not allow for the uniqueness and independence of the psychological happenings involved.

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Another point arguing for the relativity of persons and groups is the extreme flexibility of all human collectivities. Since we are not dealing with metaphysical entities, groups cannot be regarded as fixed and rigid objects. As we have seen in our anthropic perspective, human groups are exceedingly dynamic and unstable. Groups change incessantly and are coming in or going out of existence. Certainly, the psychological collectivities existing in such anthropic milieux are decidedly not the least variable and shifting of the many dynamic factors involved.

Whatever fixity is found in group phenomena is doubtless owing to the objects in which group institutions inhere. But cultural stimuli do not exclusively or even for the most part, inhere in natural objects or situations. Quite as frequently they belong to human, anthropological, and sociological institutions. We have already emphasized the fact that social psychological institutions are dependent for their existence and function upon human circumstances. Even when natural objects supply the bases for such institutions, their stimulational function is conditioned to a great extent by prescribed or human properties of such objects.


Essentially, it is cultural behavior which of all psychological facts lends plausibility to the view of the absolute group restriction of the individual's conduct. True enough were cultural conduct the exclusive type of psychological action individuals would be quite severely limited in their responses.

Let us recall, however, that in addition to performing cultural conduct the person also responds with suprabasic, contingential, and idiosyncratic behavior. The relative inde-

( 355) -pendence of these three types of non-cultural conduct we will consider briefly.

With respect to suprabasic conduct it must be admitted that it adds relatively little to the freedom and autonomy of the individual's behavior. In a former chapter we have pointed out that it is definitely built up on the basis of equipment which has been acquired with a close regard to the surroundings of the individual. The basic conduct underlying the suprabasic equipment is to a great extent cultural behavior acquired during the infancy and childhood of the person. And yet even here there is room for autonomous behavior of an elementary sort.

Contingential responses, however, depending primarily upon fortuitous and unforeseen situations, immediately suggest a large place for autonomous and independent activity. Not being primarily equipmental, contingential conduct is quite far removed from the behavior of other persons. As a result it allows for a wide differentiation between the individual's activities and the behavior character of any of the groups to which he belongs. It would be a metaphysical conception of the most palpable sort that would assume that such events are absolutely dominated by group phenomena.

Idiosyncratic behavior, founded as it is on the cumulative experience of the individual, naturally provides the broadest basis for free and autonomous responses. This type of action, be it recalled, may be quite unrelated to any of the groups to which the person belongs. All complex intelligent action, voluntary conduct, critical reactions, as well as creative and inventive behavior, practically always run counter to established and conventional ways of acting. Marking the variations of persons from other single or massed individuals, idiosyncratic behavior decidedly argues for the non-submergence of persons in collectivities.



The proposition that individuals are not dominated and controlled by the groups in which they live is demonstrated also by the actual resistance of persons to group phenomena. At this point we refer again to the modifications which individuals effect in institutions during their culturalization period. Through such resistances institutions become different and take on new cultural properties. In such a process, of course, we have definite demonstration of the casual domination of the psychological group by the individual. In the phenomenon of culturalization also we see how various conflicts and hindrances arise through the differing equipments that the individual has in his personality organization. Here again are conditions for the mitigation of the group's domination upon the individual undergoing socialization. It is chiefly the person's resistance and interference during the culturalization process that make for the instability of groups and their stratification into levels.

All of the bases for the relativity of individuals and groups that we have been discussing so far are definitely psychological in character. To these we must add certain non-psychological circumstances which likewise mitigate the influence of groups. These conditions either operate directly upon the situation or they first influence various psychological circumstances of the persons concerned. Very important, for example, are the individual's economic, and hygienic circumstances in that they may interfere with his normal compliance with group prescriptions and conformities. Under what might be called normal conditions the individual definitely acquiesces to the dictates of the group and abides by the common institutions and standards governing the use of property, but with interference with these so-called ordinary circumstances the person cuts himself off from his group.

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Doubtless by far the most important argument for the relativity of persons and groups is the great number of collectivities to which any individual actually belongs. Being a member of many psychological organizations the person takes on all kinds of varying equipment which fit him at once for a position of psychological independence. Such an extremely large number of responses does more. It makes the individual capable of comparing and criticizing institutions.

In the first instance, of course, we are referring to psychological groups. But the observation carries to all sorts of collectivities. How many groups we actually belong to may be gathered from the fact that sharing a single reaction with others constitutes a specific group membership. To acquire behavior equipment in numerous groups means automatically serving any absolute connection with any particular one.

Let us choose an illustration which exemplifies this point with respect to both psychological and anthropic groups. When a person is a member of several linguistic groups he is automatically released thereby from the restrictions of any particular set of linguistic institutions. Moreover, his linguistic conduct is richer and makes him decidedly more adaptable in linguistic situations. The personality equipment of such an individual is larger and more important with respect to any particular group or all of the groups of which he is a member. As it happens the individual is more restricted in linguistic situations than in practically any other case. In other than linguistic circumstances the individual can develop very definitely a capacity to modify group phenomena. This is especially noticeable in the case of manners, customs, morals, and social usages of all varieties.

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The study of the various conflicts between the behavior of persons and the conduct conventions of their groups throws into direct relief the characteristics of human behavior as natural occurrences.

Here is an individual, a member of a family, a man of affairs, doing business or engaged in some profession and participating in various civic, political and philanthropic enterprises. Sometimes his business or professional activities may interfere with his functions as a member of a family, he may neglect his wife and children, be unable to provide them with the kind of home and environment they once had or to which they are accustomed. Specifically he may find it necessary or desirable to deprive his family of his society or reduce their economic or social status. As a husband he may transfer his affections to another woman and violate his pledge and obligations toward his wife. Or in another case, the needs and requirements of his family, augmented by his love and ambitions for them, prompt him to take advantage of his business partners, to violate some phase of his professional code, or, crassly though regretfully, commit some crime against the laws of his state.

In short, in the. course of a person's living, whether through negligence, the collocation of circumstances, or the stimulation of a private ambition, things happen that interfere with his utter conformity to collectivities. Nor need we go to the extreme of asserting that it is the person without an occupation and at the point of starvation who will rebel against the moral[2] and legal usages of his human environs. Even if persons in breaking conventions inevitably face a future period of remorse or atonement they nevertheless indulge in independence of conduct.[3]

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Not that an individual deliberately rejects group institutions. He may suffer keenly from the necessity of not complying with usages and customs, but the sheer necessity of the situation forces a kind of action on his part which may weaken and even destroy the behavior restraint put upon him. The behavior life of every individual is replete with circumstances which make it impossible for one to be absolutely at the mercy of a group and quite necessary for him to assert his behavior independence.

In every sphere of human action we have abundant illustrations of persons tearing themselves free from the fetters of civilization that originally bind them. A glance at the whole mass of criminal life, whether against property or persons, shows us those who not only reject a code as a social or legal entity but also withdraw their behavior from that of the remainder of their fellows. How far a man can be an anarchist is a great question, but effective withdrawal from authority is by no means rare. Even if a person does in fact conform in his conduct to group action, his verbal or intellectual protest and his self-pity and hatred mark him off from others as a man apart.

To the mental pathologist the question occurs with increasing perplexity how many of our obviously queer and frequently unfortunate abnormals are none other than sheer protestants. These are people who are biologically intact and in function normal but who cannot or will not adjust themselves to others. From our present standpoint we may place such persons in a class with the martyrs, heretics, and iconoclasts who prevent the smooth flow of civilization.

These suggestions will no doubt be associated by the reader with radicals and protestants in the intellectual domain. It is perhaps here that our best examples are found. Immediately we think of a Walt Whitman who once was practically universally condemned as a degenerate who had broken into print, only to become a revered world figure in literature. The

( 360) life of Darwin, too, exemplifies a thinker timidly sowing seeds which, despite the hate and despisal of orthodoxy, later developed into conventional doctrine.


What power lies in individuals in withstanding the domination of groups is manifested in their capacity to modify and destroy groups. In the final analysis all changes in the sociological and psychological status of human organizations have their foundation in the conditions and behavior of persons. Some of these changes are wrought in a casual and undeliberate manner. The person merely acts in conformity with the exigencies of life, entirely unaware of the modifications he is introducing, say, in the linguistic and religious behavior of his community.

In many cases the individual's behavior is negative in character. For some reason he fails to conform to the behavior of the group and in this way weakens and destroys institutions both sociological and psychological. The great force of the person in modifying his civilization lies, of course, in the spread of his conduct to other people in the group.

More positive methods of altering social conditions are illustrated by the person who plans an enlargement of his own economic responses and deliberately develops an industrial culture in a community that has hitherto been exclusively agricultural. In the wake of this self-seeking and self-effecting behavior a new civilizational complexion of the person's group appears. Such deliberate activity, however, is not in this case designed to alter institutions. When the latter is true the results tend to be much more immediate; that is, the person is successful in his activity.For instance, new ideas, beliefs, and social practices have sprung up in amazingly short time in the guise of a new religion.

Another process involved when persons alter group phe-

( 361) -nomena is based upon conflicts of culturalization in individuals. We may have here what is really a conflict of different cultural systems whose competition results in the elimination of one or the other, but it all takes place through the activity of specific persons.

Through culturalization in one of his groups the individual acquires various beliefs, practices and ideas which interfere with his functioning in another of his collectivities. For example, the type of ethical usages which he becomes acquainted with in his professional group may not work very well with respect to some domestic organization to which he belongs. This conflict of cultural traits may result in the alteration of the institutions in one of the collectivities. Acquiring cultural traits of criticism and scepticism in some intellectual association may be the starting point for the individual's operation on some other set of persons, in the end making for a conformity of the two sets of individuals, although they previously were very different.

Finally, we may suggest that idiosyncratic or other noncultural conduct of the individual may result in the total destruction of a group. To begin with, through such behavior the individual stands out as a decided variant within the collectivity to which he originally conformed. For example, within certain cultural organizations individuals develop personal ideals and ambitions which are hampered and interfered with by conformity to group phenomena. Thus the individual criticizes and jeers at the activities of the other members.In some cases, such activity may result in the total transformation of certain actions and institutions. In this general type of individual influence upon cultural phenomena are included the activities of scientific discovery and mechanical invention which are distinct non-cultural personal activities but which in many cases have a tremendous effect upon cultural phenomena not only of intellectual organizations but other types of cultural groups.

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How changes take place in simpler societies is comparatively easy to observe. Accordingly, it is a current doctrine among anthropologists that all progress in society must originate in and be fostered by individuals. It is entirely immaterial what standard we adopt for our judgments concerning improvements in the behavior, objects, and organizations of a society, for in any case, such improvements must have their origin in the activity of some individual from whom it spreads like a contagion throughout the entire community. Let us recall that all invention and creative conduct is in the first instance invariably the behavior of some person.

The individual basis of group improvement holds even if it is merely a case in which a person brings something into a group from some other collectivity or carries something over from a moiety or level of one group into another level. Whether one looks upon invention and creative conduct as an influence of a person or a collectivity, or as the effect wrought by one moiety upon another, in either case one cannot regard the person as an inevitable group product or as absolutely restricted by groups.

That persons are independent of groups is more strikingly established when our problem is shifted to the regression of groups or their disintegration. May not individuals be responsible for the disappearance of groups? Are we going to treat man and his relations with others as an absolute and abstract circumstance or as a concrete datum. If the latter, no serious doubt can exist as to interchange of influences between persons and groups.

Nevertheless, it is still pertinent to ask the question, why, if the person is so potent a factor in human affairs, he cannot do more to bring about the progress that is so vitally necessary for every community. The answer seems to be that since every complex human occurrence consists of a congeries of

( 363) specific phenomena, the psychological element cannot outweigh the other features. The person bent on improving his group must contend with non-psychological institutions and phenomena of all sorts. Again, there are innumerable conflicts of interests, so that if some improvement were carried out, it might be resisted by other members of the group as conflicting with their advantages.

The results are clear. A canvass of available data leaves no doubt that persons are not merciless materials or inevitable products of psychological or anthropological processes.

The protestant personality is a genuine fact of human society. Not even a rigid social organization nor an efficient culturalization process can prevent the development and existence of independent critics and non-conformists. Of course, as has often been said we must always come down from specific instances to actual persons. We cannot be misled by statistical conceptions.

The cosmopolitan is no illusion. While no one can escape culturalization one is not limited to any city or nation. One may also deliberately and voluntarily step out of groups and their influences and develop universal attitudes, or better still, private and personal behavior equipment.

Intelligent and rational persons clearly illustrate the lack of absolute dominance of individuals by collectivities. For in a genuine sense intelligence and rationality are to a great extent the opposite of conformity. These are qualities that represent variability and heterodoxy. How else than by being unique and self-possessed can one be psychologically alert and efficient? Here one must be independent of things and the ideas and beliefs of other persons. To be psychologically dominated by circumstances or by a group is ipso facto not to be intelligent. To be intelligent one must be different even though one may be wrong. To be reasonable one must decide a problem oneself even though one is in danger of starting from the wrong premises.

( 364) Genuine morality is not public custom. Unless we are prepared to say that there is no genuine moral action we must admit that persons are not always and inevitably at the mercy of group prescriptions. Actions may be independent though not capricious. We can decide when we ought to do something, and do it without being ruthlessly dominated at every point by the laws and sanctions of crowds or other social organizations. Genuine moral conduct is personal deviation and the setting of oneself over against others rather than blind conformity. Genuine moral conduct like all idiosyncratic behavior represents a condition of pull or strain, between a person and others, which may be regarded as the group standing against the individual.


  1. By entertaining such generalizations the sociologist indicates that his discipline is still dominated by an old-fashioned type of absolutistic philosophy. When the American sociologist raises the problem of group versus individual or when he embraces the conception of the dominance of the former, he is illustrating an acceptance of the German idealistic philosophy as an antidote to the discredited individualism of British empiricism.
  2. In a conventional sense, of course.
  3. That social and legal penalties prevent much rebellious behavior is a sociological fact emphasizing the autonomy of psychological happenings.

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