American Social Psychology

1. Floyd H. Allport (1890)

Fay Berger Karpf

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Allport may be said to be the first American social psychologist radically to challenge the widely accepted view that if social psychology is to be linked to one of the better established fields of investigation at all, it more naturally tends to associate itself with sociology than with psychology.[1] Heretofore, while American psychologists had been concerning themselves with the subject matter of social psychology all along they did so for the most part either incidentally only to their more traditional psychological interests, as in the case of James, or through a recognized extension of these interests into an important field of interpretation, as in the case of Baldwin.[2] Allport, however, definitely

( 401) approached the subject from the standpoint that it is not only "a part of the psychology of the individual"[3] but also that it is logically not conceivable in any other terms. This point of view he formulated in opposition to what he has termed "the group fallacy" in social psychology, so that his statement of his position has brought him into clear conflict with the "group" and "culture" approaches and the sociological conception of the subject associated with them, as we shall see. It is on this account, in conjunction with its consequences on the side of method, that his social-psychological theory has been prominently before American social-psychological thought in recent years and that it is of special importance here.

Allport says in introducing his particular treatment of social psychology:

Only within recent years have the psychologists of this country turned their attention seriously toward the social field. With one or two exceptions, the earlier works upon this subject, as well as a number of recent ones, have been written by sociologists. To these writers psychologists owe a debt of gratitude for revealing new and promising opportunities for applying psychological science. Sociological writers, however, have given their attention mainly to the larger aspects, the laws of behavior and consciousness as operative in social groups. In so doing they have naturally adopted as materials the concepts of human nature provided by the older psychologists of good standing. With the recent expansion of psychology and growth of psychological insight, it has become necessary to modify many of these earlier conceptions and to add not a few new ones. Social science has not yet profited by taking account of this advancement, but has lagged behind in its fundamental assumptions regarding human na-

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-ture. A need has therefore arisen of bringing to the service of those interested in social relationships the most recent psychological investigation and theory. I have written this book as an attempt in the direction of supplying this need.[4]

Commenting further on the relation between his approach to the subject and previous social-psychological thought as it has developed under the influence of sociology, he suggests that while social psychology has grown up largely through the labors of the sociologists, it is a mistake to suppose that it is a branch of sociology rather than of psychology. In this connection, he takes particular objection to Ellwood's designation of the field as "psychological sociology." "This seems to the present writer," he says, "to minimize unjustly the claims of the psychologist. It is surely a legitimate interest to consider social behavior and consciousness merely as a phase of the psychology of the individual, in relation to a certain portion of his environment, without being concerned about the formation or character of groups resulting from these reactions."' It is from this standpoint that he proceeds.

More specifically, Allport explains, there were two main lines of development which he aimed to bring within the scope of his treatment of social psychology—the behavior viewpoint [5] and the experimental method. [6] Along with these, he mentions in the second place "the Freudian contributions to psychology" as deserving special recognition. With these as major lines of interest,[7] he calls attention to the innovations of organization and treatment in which his conception of the subject resulted. He says in this connection:

There are certain innovations in the treatment of the subject for which it may be well to prepare the reader. To one interested primarily in social relations

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it may seem that I give an unusual amount of space to purely individual behavior. This is in accordance with my purpose ... to adhere to the psychological (that is, the individual) viewpoint. For I believe that only within the individual can we find the behavior mechanisms and the consciousness which are fundamental in the interactions between individuals. I have, therefore, postponed until the last chapter almost all the material treated in books which have been written from the sociological viewpoint. If the reader finds that not until the final chapter has he arrived upon familiar ground, I shall venture to hope that his understanding may have been increased through treading the less familiar pathways.[8]

In conjunction with this conception of his task, as already noted above, Allport leads into a criticism of the "group fallacy" in social psychology, which defines his position in especially challenging terms.

He says:

Impressed by the closely knit and reciprocal nature of social behavior, some writers have been led to postulate a kind of "collective mind" or "group consciousness" as separate from the minds of the individuals of whom the group is composed. No fallacy is more subtle and misleading than this. It has appeared in the literature under numerous guises; but has everywhere left the reader in a state of mystical confusion.[9]

Seeking to define his own essential position in contrast to the above view, he continues:

The standpoint of this book may be concisely stated as follows. There is no psychology of groups which is not essentially and entirely a psychology of individuals. Social psychology must not be placed in contradistinction to the psychology of the individual; it is a part of the psychology of the individual, whose behavior it studies in relation to that section of his environment comprised by his fellows. His biological needs are the ends toward which his social behavior is a developed means. Within his organism are provided all the mechanisms by which social behavior is explained. There is likewise no consciousness except that belonging to individuals. Psychology in all its branches is a science of the individual. To extend its principles to larger units is to destroy their meaning.[10]

After taking up the "group fallacy" for more detailed consideration under the special headings of the "crowd mind," the "collective or class mind," and the "group mind," he finally arrives at the following conclusion:

All theories which partake of the group fallacy have the unfortunate consequence of diverting attention from the true locus of cause and effect, namely, the behavior mechanism of the individual. They place the group prior to this mecha-

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-nism in order of study, and substitute description of social effects in place of true explanation. On the other hand, if we take care of the individuals, psychologically speaking, the groups will be found to take care of themselves. The reasons for our repeated insistence upon regarding social psychology as a phase of the psychology of the individual should now be fairly evident.[11]

In the light of these views, he proposes the following working definition of social psychology:

Social psychology is the science which studies the behavior of the individual in so far as his behavior stimulates other individuals, or is itself a reaction to their behavior; and which describes the consciousness of the individual in so far as it is a consciousness of social objects and social reactions. More briefly stated, social psychology is the study of the social behavior and the social consciousness of the individual.[12]

Consistently with this conception of the subject, Allport directed his attention almost entirely to the consideration of individual behavior, first from a purely physiological standpoint and then under various conditions of social stimulation and group influence. Starting out with a preliminary discussion of the physiological basis of behavior, he proceeds to develop the psychology of "The Individual in His Social Aspects" through a consideration of the usual topics: instinct, habit, learning, emotion, thought, etc. And having thus prepared his basis of interpretation, he passes on to the consideration of "Social Behavior" in terms of the standpoint established—in terms, that is, of the physiological mechanisms of individual behavior described, his concern in this connection being such subject matter as social behavior in animals, social stimulation through language and other forms of communication, types and conditions of social response, etc. Only in the closing chapter dealing with "Social Behavior in Relation to Society," as noted above, does he arrive at what he himself describes as the "familiar ground" of social-psychological discussion, in the consideration of social behavior viewed from the standpoint of social unity, social order, social continuity and social change.

This conception of his task naturally enabled Allport to bring experimental evidence from the field of individual psychology within the scope of his discussion to a greater extent than in most social-psychological treatises. In addition, he has himself done some very notable work in attempting to apply the experimental, testing, and rating techniques

( 405) to the investigation of special problems of social-psychological interest, and the report of these studies has the effect of emphasizing this phase of his discussion especially.[13] Recognition of this aspect of his work as a contribution which is at present having widely significant results for the extension of social-psychological methodology and the advance of concrete social-psychological investigation [14] cannot, however, obscure the fact that for the most part, and especially in so far as his organizing viewpoint is concerned, his treatment is merely analytical and reinterpretive on the same basis as most other current reformulations of social-psychological theory. For example, he did not for the most part disregard the content material usually included in social-psychological treatises written from the sociological standpoint, but he sought to reinterpret it in his own terms. Likewise, he did not, except as indicated above, introduce new material in his treatment of the psychology of the individual, but he sought to bring to the service of his outlook and standpoint the usual discussions of instinct, emotion, habit, thought, etc.

Altogether, his approach is more like McDougall's in the latter's Introduction to Social Psychology than that of any other writer so far considered, except that, centering his discussion about the conditioned reflex notion[15] instead of the instinct notion as used by McDougall, he was able to bring the social factor into play in his treatment more directly as well as more tellingly. This departure being, in fact, at the very basis of Allport's distinctive social-psychological position, it is necessary to consider it here a little further from the standpoint of its bearing on his outlook and procedure.

It was Allport's aim in this connection, as he tells us, "to combine the virtues and omit the defects of both sides of the controversy" regarding the place of instinct in human behavior—the side which tends to hold to this notion too tenaciously and the side which would reject it as a valid basis of explanation in human psychology altogether.[16] This he sought to accomplish by introducing the "reflex" concept into his discussion as at once more definite and more specific than the traditional instinct concept and by replacing orthodox instinct theory with a modified form of conditioned reflex theory developed in terms of so-called "prepotent reflexes." Recognizing six important classes of human prepotent reflexes —starting and withdrawing, rejecting, struggling, hunger reactions, sensitive-zone reactions, sex reactions[17] —he says in regard to them:

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The human being has inherited a number of prepotent reflexes which are fundamental not only in their potency, but in the control which they exert over habit formation throughout life. Ultimately, as well as genetically, they are prepotent.[18]

It is clear even from this single passage that, while Allport is more cautious in his identification of inherited behavior patterns, he proposes to use the classification which he arrives at in much the same spirit as instinct psychology has used its classifications.[19] There is, however, always this difference between his treatment and conventional instinct psychology, namely, that the conditioned reflex theory as used by him and such other behaviorist interpreters of human behavior as Watson [20] is much more adaptable to the increasing emphasis upon the importance of the social environment, which is clearly characteristic of modern social-psychological thought. Instead of the instinct-emotion level of interpretation, at any rate, Allport's treatment tends to lead out toward a habit-attitude level, so that, despite important differences of basic orientation, his theory seems at times to approach more closely the social-psychological formulations of such writers as Dewey and Thomas than those of conventional instinct psychology.[21]

The general principle which underlies this part of Allport's discussion is schematically stated by him as follows:

The prepotent reflexes are subject to modification by synaptic changes in their central portions. The effects of such changes are (1) to extend the range and complexity of the stimuli capable of exciting the response, and (2) to refine and specialize the response itself. The first effect, which may be called an afferent modification, is brought about by the principle of the conditioned response; the second, resulting in an efferent modification, is due to the selection and fixation of successful random movements in the processes of habit formation and thought.[22]

Summarizing his more concrete interpretation of this principle as it applies to the social modification of behavior, he notes especially the following major lines of development:

Social objects such as persons, attitudes, expressions, and language serve as the stimuli to which various prepotent activities may be transferred. Approval and disapproval become the conditions of response. Through contact with others an enormous part of the learning takes place by which the original reflexes are converted into useful habits. The child and youth being docile and responsive to language, many prepotent stimuli need be represented only indirectly;

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that is, through admonition and instruction. Hence many of the cruder errors of the learning process are eliminated in advance. The more drastic experiences in satisfying the need for protection, and for food and sexual adjustment, are worked out in the history of the race. The individual begins the modification of his prepotent reflexes where unnumbered generations of his forbears have left off. Thought itself, in its inseparable connection with language, traditional knowledge and custom, is largely a part of the general social influence. By the direction through society of the learning process the efferent side of the prepotent reflex arcs are modified from purely individualistic to highly socialized responses. And finally, the common sanction may so far control the habits formed upon the inborn activities as to substitute for the original biological end a somewhat modified purpose of social origin.[23]

In these general terms, Allport develops his treatment of social behavior as outlined above, his emphasis throughout as previously stated, except for the closing chapter, falling naturally upon the physiological behavior mechanisms of the individual as over against the conditioning situations and developments of the social environment. More flexible though his treatment is in so far as social considerations are concerned, as compared with the conventional instinct approach, it thus leaves the subject with little advance upon such a standard treatment as McDougall's Introduction to Social Psychology as regards the study of these conditioning situations and developments of the social environment. And unlike McDougall, who considered his work merely as an introduction to social psychology proper, which subject in itself he proposed to survey in two supplementary volumes—the first of which was his Group Mind—Allport, as we have seen, set forth a view of social psychology corresponding to his one-sided physiological approach, and this view he has defended aggressively against all competing views.[24]

More so even than in the case of McDougall, it is accordingly necessary to supplement his conception of the subject with such conceptions as stress the opposite, that is the socio-cultural approach. It is for this reason that it seems well to consider briefly, alongside of his Social Psychology, such a treatment as that of Bernard's Introduction to Social Psychology, which leads out from a somewhat similar starting point to a broadly synthetic but predominantly environmental conception of social psychology.


  1. See in this connection, for example, Proc. Intern. Congress Arts Sci., vol. 5, p. 859, 1904; also WOODWORTH, Contemporary Schools of Psychology, p. 192.
  2. The very title of Baldwin's Social and Ethical Interpretations is notable in this connection.
    The seeming exceptions to this statement, such as the social-psychological positions of Mead and Dewey, are really not exceptions in that they are frankly philosophical formulations which fit more readily into the spirit of the sociological than that of the strictly psychological approach to the subject. In any event, their views were in the first place taken up and developed by social psychologists who approached the subject from the sociological standpoint, and it was in the first instance largely through the writings of the latter that their views began to gain widespread social-psychological currency.
    However, Allport was doubtless very greatly influenced by the conceptions of social psychology set forth by Mead and Dewey as well as by such a writer as W. I. Thomas, whose outlook on the subject Dewey quoted. Especially suggestive in this connection is it to recall the view set forth by Dewey in 1916 when he delivered his address on "The Need of a Social Psychology" before the psychologists of the country. It was at this time that Dewey developed the notion that all psychological phenomena are either physiological or social "and that when we have relegated elementary sensation and appetite to the former head, all that is left of our mental life, our beliefs, ideas and desires, falls within the scope of social psychology." "I foresee," he said at the time, "a great reflex wave from social psychology [used in the objective sociological sense] back to general psychology" (see Psychol. Rev., vol. 24, pp. 266, 271, 1917; also supra, p. 333).
  3. Social Psychology, p. 4. Allport's conception of social psychology as "a part of the psychology of the individual" may be set over against Ellwood's view that social psychology is just another name for psychological sociology (see Allport's comment on this point, Social Psychology, p. 11). In view of these rival conceptions, an increasing number of writers are approaching common ground in the position that social psychology is neither a part of psychology proper nor a part of sociology proper but a more or less well-defined intermediate field, whose chief significance follows from this fact and the resulting two-sided outlook which it can bring to bear upon the problems of human nature and social behavior.
  4. Ibid., Preface, p. v. Quotations from this work are reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company, publishers.
  5. Ibid., p. 11.
  6. The behavior viewpoint, that is, as popularized in this country more particularly through Watson's work in the field of genetic psychology (see ibid., note, p. 50). It is interesting to recall here that the current psychological treatises on social psychology in this country began to appear immediately following the appearance of Watson's Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (1919). To what extent the challenging nature of Watson's work with infants and the decided social-psychological implications of his findings were responsible for this remains a question. But in the case of Allport, at least, the importance of Watson's work stands out clearly (see his basic treatment of "Fundamental Activities" in Chap. III which defines his "conditioned response" viewpoint.
  7. None of these more specific considerations nor all of them together actually serve to distinguish Allport's treatment, for these elements are part of many of the more recent treatments of the subject. What does set it off is his general standpoint of interpretation presently to be outlined. The above are nevertheless very notable features of his work. In fact, they mark an important turning point in the psycho-logical development of the subject in this country. This is especially true in so far as his emphasis upon the experimental approach in social psychology is concerned (see infra, p. 404, 414; also editorial statement Jour. Abnor. Psychol., vol. 16, pp. 3-7, 1921).
  8. Social Psychology, Preface, p. vi.
  9. Ibid., p. 4.
  10. Ibid., p. 4. The physiological orientation which Allport characteristically gives his social-psychological theory and which provides the basis for his criticism of the group viewpoint appears clearly in this passage.
  11. Ibid., p. 9; see in this connection also "The Group Fallacy in Relation to Social Science," Jour. Abnor. Soc. Psychol., vol. 19, pp. 60—73, 1925; "The Group Fallacy in Relation to Culture," ibid., pp. 185—191; "The Nature of Institutions," Social Forces, vol. 6, pp. 167—179, 1927; " `Group' and `Institution' as Concepts in a Natural Science of Social Phenomena," Pub. Amer. Sociol. Soc., vol. 22, pp. 83—99, 1928; "Social Change: An Analysis of Professor Ogburn's Cultural Theory," Jour. Social Forces, vol. 2, pp. 671—676, 1924.
  12. Social Psychology, p. 12.
  13. Ibid., Chaps. VI, IX, XI.
  14. See in this connection MURPHY and MURPHY, Experimental Social Psychology, especially Chap. I.
  15. This was in line with Allport's expressed interest in the behavior viewpoint, more especially as represented by Watson's Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist (see supra, p. 402; also Psychologies of 1925, ed. by Murchison, Part I).
  16. Social Psychology, pp. vi—vii.
  17. Ibid., Chap. III, pp. 50 ff.
  18. Ibid., p. 50.
  19. For an elaboration of this point and a thoroughgoing criticism of Allport's position on this account, see FARIS, Amer. Jour. Sociol., vol. 30, pp. 719-722, 1925.
  20. See his Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, Chaps. VI—IX; also Psychologies of 1925, ed. by Murchison, Part 1. A well-known intermediate position is developed in Thorndike's Original Nature of Man (1913).
  21. See especially Social Psychology, Chap. XIII.
  22. Ibid., p. 56.

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