The Research Task of Social Psychology[1]

Gardner Murphy
Department of Psychology, Columbia University

I take it for granted that those who have joined here in a common enterprise for the advancement of social' psychology will expect from the chairman, in his one opportunity to address them, some attempt at clarification of the status of social psychology, and the ways in which it may be made more coherent, more substantial, and more useful. My purpose, then, is to say, as simply and as clearly as I can, what seem to me to be the directions in which social psychology must proceed if it is to achieve serious scientific status, entitled to a hearing in relation to public issues. Forgive me if I speak bluntly or dogmatically. Time is brief. I give you simply a personal opinion. Soften and modify the form of my appeal to you in whatever way will enable you to make constructive use of it.

I shall try to make six points. First, that research in social psychology is being carried out mostly by people with fine intelligence but very limited training, and that really effective work in this field necessitates a type of technical information and proficiency that are not imparted by our graduate schools today. Second, that if and when our research personnel in social psychology is properly trained to carry out investigations which are crucially important, our American life will be immediately and profoundly affected. Third, that the importance of social psychology will be even greater as the pace of economic change accelerates and as we move toward a less chaotic, more democratically ordered society. Fourth, that as our contributions begin, within a decade or two, to make a real difference to society, there will be resistance to the application of our findings, and devious means used to keep our work from the service of the public, just as new patents are daily held out of use because they might conflict with established interests. Fifth, that this fact inexorably forces upon us the study of ways and means of making

( 108) direct contact with the American public, carrying out just as scientific a job in the social education of the public as we carry out in our laboratory problems. Sixth, that the simultaneous achievement of the research and educational tasks will bring us straight into the realm of social planning, placing upon us an immense responsibility and giving us an immense opportunity to serve the public as it more and more consciously and purposefully undertakes to chart and to follow its own path through the economic wilderness which lies ahead, to the utterly different social order which will emerge two or three generations later.

Social psychology, the last branch of psychology to dare claim a place among the experimental disciplines, has taken shape because the social surroundings of the human animal are so obviously important in the control of his conduct. We have hastened to satisfy the demands as well as we could. But have we found ourselves really adequate to the formulation of clear and convincing principles? We wanted to help in explaining the South Sea Bubble, or the Spanish-American War; and simply because we were doing the best we could, we approached these problems with principles taught us by maze-running rodents and with yardsticks for the measurement of students' opinions. The mazes are good and so are the attitude tests; but somehow with all our wealth of psychological information and techniques, the gears have not meshed, we have not really taken hold of the forces that are making and breaking individuals and societies. In the past five years two thousand pieces of research in social psychology have been published, mostly by serious and careful workers. We look today at our federal and state capitals, to the CIO and the middle class reaction to it, at intelligent efforts towards social planning and almost universal sabotage of such efforts. Somehow our research, if meaningful, ought to clarify the world scene. Does it do so? I do not mean at all that the only test of science is immediate application; I mean rather that really vital findings will suggest application. Have you and I, here and now, research findings and research methods which would truly and profoundly help the society in which we live? Do there exist in the world today persons so competent in the study of human nature that they could actually take hold and assist an executive in a position of public trust? I am very skeptical indeed. I profoundly doubt the existence of any body of information or of any research tools which are close enough to society's needs to warrant careful attention from those who are responsible for social planning.

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I do not mean that we are utterly ignorant; I offer no pessimist's plea for the renunciation of knowledge. I say rather that with social behavior in disorder the problem is one for experts. You and I are supposedly the experts, but where and how do we begin? Suppose my brother is desperately ill, with an internal hemorrhage. Any fool knows in a general way that we must stop the bleeding, but if life is to be saved, a technically competent person must be found. You and I may differ regarding the needs of the sick culture of the Western world, but we can agree that the task requires the services of experts. But where are these experts? For this delicate task a few of the rising generation, let us say those taking the first year of premedical work, are our best hopes, and we do not know whether the patient will last long enough to receive their aid. But it is evident that hastily improvised knowledge will not serve. Our patient is in danger simply because of profound ignorance, and nothing but profound knowledge will save him. We need, I think, the answers to profound questions about human nature and the social order. We need a social psychology which is something more than the elaboration of the obvious, and something more than a collection of good guesses. We need vital and well systematized knowledge of fundamentals in human motivation and the manner in which these fundamentals are canalized and expressed in an ordered society.

I should like to refer specifically to three cardinal research problems. First, the raw materials, the fundamental action tendencies of man, however vague or however specific, within the structure of which social behavior appears, must be experimentally defined, and individual differences systematically explored. Broadly, this is the problem of the experimental analysis of motive, of impulse, of desires and aversions, their basic characteristics and their variations from person to person. Second, the problem of the degree of plasticity of this raw material in the growing individual, the social conditioning and canalizing of drives into the recognized patterns of social habit, again with recognition of the peculiarities of types and of individuals. Third, the nature of the organic structure of the socialized person, the architectonics of values and attitudes in the individual organism.

Let us see first what we have done with the problem of motives. Thorndike in 1913 opened his remarkable discussion of human nature

( 110) with reference to progress which had been made in achieving a scientific understanding of instincts. He referred to the British and American instinct psychology, but had at his command little biological research. When one looks at the anti-instinct polemics of the 1920's and reflects on the pitifully fragmentary knowledge of instincts which did in fact exist in 1913, he realizes that the one thing Thorndike needed if he was to write effectively on the original nature of man was, as Thorndike himself clearly saw, careful genetic and experimental material on the mammalian young, especially on the human infant. Progress in the study of motivation has indeed been made, decade by decade. But here I ask you very earnestly whether the social psychologists have been responsible for this progress, whether such knowledge has not come almost exclusively from biology, from the anatomy and physiology of the embryo and young infant, and from the endocrine and other biochemical studies of modern medicine, enriched here and there by shrewd clinical observation? Each forward step has been guided by competent, thorough, and sophisticated laboratory work, well grounded in basic biological principles. It has not come from the rehashing of Aristotle or Hobbes, or even of Darwin and Marx. It has come, almost without exception, from men thoroughly disciplined in the complexities of modern biology. Is it not worth while to ask whether social psychology, as it studies human motives, can be properly set up as an antithesis, or even an antidote, to physiological psychology, as is today so often the case? I ask whether the social psychologist, if he is not to fail in the twentieth century crisis, does not need to orient his research in the light of all the biology, especially physiology and biochemistry, that he can get.

Now it is of course a patent fact that the human organism is somehow plastic enough to fit more or less into an extraordinary variety of molds. All the biology in the world will still leave human motivation unexplained unless our research is also oriented in terms of a thorough and accurate knowledge of the cultural sciences. If, however, one wishes to use cultural science data to clarify the behavior of present-day man, he needs not merely to know that men are moulded by culture, but needs to understand, in full detail, the processes and mechanisms by which this moulding is effected, and the areas of stability and elasticity in the process of adaptation. This is a way of saying that he needs thorough training

( 111) in the psychology of learning, creating and adapting, seen, as before, in the light of all the biological information he can get. The cultural approach is thus not an antithesis to the biological; rather, it can be wisely used only when one has devoted himself seriously to the biology of individual organisms. Social psychology becomes vital exactly when thorough technical proficiency in the biological and in the social sciences are intimately fused. An example of the type of vital research to which I refer is the California study of the intimate relation between certain aspects of skeletal and sexual growth and the quality of attitudes toward the self and relations with the group; or David Levy's study of the relation of pituitary dysfunction to patterns of social dominance and submission—profoundly revealing studies which could not have been carried out without some technical understanding both of organs and of society.

The need for better biological training is everywhere apparent. Thus in view of the general recognition of the infinite diversity of tensions and miseries traceable to the placing of man in an environment which does not satisfy him, there is surely little sense in continuing to speak as if man could adapt himself equally well to any environment. Here the concept of cultural relativism has done immense damage, indeed as great damage, I believe, as the concept of an unchanging human nature. Both notions are blatantly at variance with the findings of the cultural sciences. If man is to be moulded to society, society must also be moulded to man. In short, one of the greatest research needs in social psychology is to discover what social arrangements, what human values, are really sound. And no one can begin to do research on such a problem unless he knows the human organism, its needs, its capacity to create and to adapt, the limits of its adaptation, and the individual differences in each creative or adaptive function, with their implications for the total social pattern. The third problem to which I referred, the organization of attitudes of values within the individual, is surely soluble only in terms of the basic biological principles which have to do with the integration of responses into functioning heirarchies.

In discussing this question whether we all need much more training in the biological and in the cultural sciences than we are now receiving, I do not hesitate to agree that Lewin, Sherif, Murray, Moreno, and Piaget have found a way to say immensely vital things without benefit of much biology; but I should add that they would

( 112) have had more to say, and would have said it much more convincingly, if their backgrounds in genetics and physiology were better laid. Much of the theoretical framework of Sherif and of Lewin is starkly geometrical simply because the use of the microscope and the test tube was not well understood; and much of Gordon All-port's superb plea for the study of the uniqueness of the individual would be more convincing if it were couched not only in the language of Emerson and Spranger, but in the language of Morgan and Todd, Child, Gasser, and Ranson.

Indeed, almost every problem in social psychology is in some sense a problem of the relation between unique gene-patterns and endlessly shifting personal environments. Here the crude statistical study of parent-child resemblance is followed today by intensive twin studies at Chicago and studies of human trait linkage at Cold Spring Harbor. The recognition of the importance of the endocrine organs for an occasional odd personality is followed today by researches into the infinite complexity of the human biochemical system in relation to a host of subtle dispositions in the normal person, the differential sensitiveness to a myriad affective stimuli.

Time permits me but a single illustration of the present crippled condition of social psychology,/ in which my own limitations and those of my colleagues are I suppose the same. I stumbled recently upon a remarkable volume entitled The Biology of the Individual, published by the Association for Research in Nervous and Mental Disease. Here is an extraordinary compendium of highly competent medical research, almost every chapter of chemistry, anatomy, physiology, genetics—is of urgent importance to social psychology and the psychology of personality. Yet the volume and most of its contents are unknown to most contemporary social psychologists. I had indeed to blush when I thought of the emptiness and ineptitude of many of my own discussions of motives, the learning process, and the integration of attitudes, when I discovered that problems which I had only vaguely sensed had long been the subject of exact research by medical men, but not by us social psychologists. The rejoinder will perhaps be made that there is no time for all this. I can only reply that you and I are supposed to be the people studying the subtleties of human motivation, and the diversity of inter-personal relations, and that if we have no time for a thorough grounding in the relevant disciplines it might be better to close shop.

( 113) Again if it be replied that life is too short to do all this and go on with our present labors, I can say only that much less work could well be done, and it might mean much more.

Again, if my suggestions regarding the need for more thorough acquaintance with the social sciences be met by the remark that we are already sufficiently culture conscious, I can only say that the recent homage of psychologists to the anthropologists betrays an extraordinary naïveté with regard to the complexity and difficulty of anthropological research, and a naïve tendency to confuse the life of preliterate and literate peoples. We do indeed tell our students about the Arapesh, the BaThonga, the Dobuans and the Andaman Islanders. But are we prepared to follow the technical methods of cultural anthropology sufficiently to understand the arguments of functionalists and diffusionists, and to couch the functionalists' position in coherent psychological terms? Do we know how to integrate anthropological material with the technical psychological materials on the growth of the individual personality? How many of us are seriously using the methods and findings of the cultural anthropologists where they are relevant to our problems? Any careful analysis of current research on attitudes, social behavior of children, or any other current social psychological topic will show serious errors or limitations due to failure to see the individual clearly in his full cultural context. Social psychologists need to know, and to use, anthropology at least as well as geologists know and use chemistry.

In the prevalent customary references to the cultural aspects of personality there is almost never a recognition of the equally pressing need for a thorough grounding in the content and the methods of history. We talk of the Ojibwa and the Zuni; are we equipped to talk of the post-exilic Hebrew or the England of the Tudors, both of them far more imperatively needed by the student who seriously compares our own with other cultures? We have found no time in our psychological training for advanced technical training in history or comparative sociology. If we are not prepared for the serious comparison of a variety of complex cultures, our comparison of contemporary America with a half dozen primitive cultures results in a picture ridiculously out of focus. In particular, the economic evolution of modern Europe must be thoroughly studied, and its implications for the present social psychology of Europe and America grasped, before we can frame significant problems in attitude re-

( 114) -search or work our way to the formulation of appropriate research techniques. In short, the need for serious training in the social sciences is as great as for serious training in the biological sciences.

If, for example, one reads Margaret Mead without benefit of Calvin Stone and McQueen-Williams, one easily builds up a simple cultural definition of the psychological sex differences and of the maternal attitude; if one reads Calvin Stone and McQueen-Williams without benefit of Margaret Mead, one builds up, just as easily, simple bio-chemical definitions. If one reads both types of contributions attentively, one notes the impressive class differences and individual differences in maternal attitudes and related forms of social conduct, and is the more ready to use both approaches to the limit, and to think in experimental and quantitative terms in formulating research problems which are directed to the whole biosocial reality. It is of course easier to proceed in the hard boiled manner of the bio-chemist, or to choose the simple problems which arise from the doctrine of infinite human plasticity in response to cultural patterns; but though both these roads are easy, they lead to alien territories, both of which, I think, are equally alien to the twentieth-century social order in which we have to live.

Undoubtedly a large part of our trouble has been an over-rapid development of research techniques which can be applied to the surface aspects of almost any social response, and are reasonably sure to give a publishable numerical answer to almost any casual question. The feeling has grown that experimental and quantitative method are the hallmark of science, experimentation being the name given to almost any sustained labor carried out in a laboratory, and quantification consisting of almost any kind of counting of responses. All this notwithstanding the fact that the history of the physical sciences bristles with important ideas which have borne only a re-mote relation to the existing laboratory situation, and that the history of biology has been much more a history of learning to observe, either in the woods or under the microscope, than of con-trolling every relevant variable in the manner of pure experimentation. In some problems in each scientific field, true experimentation is possible, but woe to that science whose methods are developed in advance of its problems, so that the experimenter can see only those phases of a problem for which a method is already at hand. Historically, experimentation has regularly proved to be not the

( 115) earliest, but one of the latest developments in the effective grappling with a tough problem; it is not the pathfinder but the crowning completion of long, arduous, and penetrating analysis. Especially is this true when the uncontrollable variables so vastly outweigh the controllable ones, as is the case in astronomy, geology, and our own field of social psychology. In establishing the age of the Grand Canyon of Arizona, experiments in uranium decomposition are critical exactly because thousands of hours of systematic observation have paved the way. Bartlett's extraordinary book on Remembering is about 90 per cent clear thinking and 10 per cent experimentation. Now and then, as in the work of Sherif, a problem is so defined that its very essence is quantitative, and here one brief but crucial experiment may validate a theory and liberate a principle for wide application. Exactly as in the case of astronomy, the well-planned experiment plays a crucial and vital rôle in the selection of working principles, and in the organization of hypotheses, and an ounce of careful measurement of truly basic variables is worth a ton of statistical manipulation of surface behavior items. But we cannot create an exact science dealing with the interrelations between surface aspects of behavior any more than we can create an exact science dealing with the interrelations between the shadows cast by airplanes upon mountain slopes. For the latter, the only possible approach is the study of relatively clear definite disciplines having to do with internal combustion engines, projective geometry, and optics; for the former, the study of organisms and their basic relations with their environments. These things are relatively fundamental; while most other social trends are derivatives from them and not directly reducible to clear laws. Much of social psychology today is I fear a veritable shadow science, its instruments and its gadgets revered, as they were in Gulliver's travels, because they were so far in advance of the level of understanding of those who use them.

I am sure you are sufficiently versed in the methods of psychiatry and mental hygiene to see that it is the shallowness of most of my own research efforts, the disappointing results of my own surface scratchings, which chiefly prompts the present outburst. Indeed, for those of us already caught in the mesh of the American educational system, the chance of getting a proper grounding in the essential disciplines is slight. Leisure is scarce, and brains have already become somewhat petrified. To myself and to my col-

( 116) -leagues already at or near the proverbial deadline of 45, I say nothing except to do your research and write your books in such a way as to help your students to outgrow you as rapidly as possible; for as far as social psychology is concerned, we are veritably the lost generation. To those in their twenties and early thirties I say that the insipidity and triviality of much of the social psychology of today is due to our ignorance and lack of imagination regarding the biological complexities and cultural complexities of social conduct. Social psychology will achieve maturity only when those who labor in its cause have prepared themselves for the fiendishly difficult technical job of integrating biological and social material in relation to the basic perennial problems of human motivation and the learning process as these manifest themselves under a wide range of social conditions.

An example of the type of research problem which seems to me fundamental yet soluble only in terms of the integrated approach which I describe is the linkage, in our society, of three quite distinct social motives. In our competitive order we struggle for three distinct things, namely, for material gain, for power, and for prestige. When we discuss our competitive or acquisitive society, we assume that the struggle for one of these three must inevitably mean the struggle for the other two, and that in some broad sense the abolition of one would mean the abolition of the others. Yet despite Beaglehole's exquisite organization of the evidence we know only a little more about the psychology of the craving for property than we know about the basis of the cravings for prestige and power. The degree to which the gain motives can be culturally controlled without any attenuation of prestige and power motives is well illustrated by the Soviet Union; indeed Lenin well understood and brilliantly phrased the fact that competition for prestige would be not inhibited, but liberated, in a classless society. But neither he nor any one else seems to have thought in research terms regarding the degree to which the prestige and power motives must forever dominate society, pitting one man against another and perpetuating the bellum omnium contra omnes. We simply do not know. We have scarcely begun to investigate the limits and forms of the ego mechanisms, prestige tensions, power drives, as they exist in various cultures, or indeed even in the nursery school populations within our own culture. We have not carefully studied the genesis of

( 118) these motives either in biological or in cultural-science terms. We borrow what Freud has to say about self-love and what Piaget has to say about egocentrism; but are we ready to study the varieties of ego attitudes in various societies in such a way as to contribute a little to the planning of a society in which there will be less profound and terrific ego frustrations than there are in ours? Similarly, are we equipped to study systematically the genesis of the power motives, with equal attention to the biochemical and muscular factors and to the dominance patterns of different societies? Have we any research program which will give us an understanding of the power demands and of the reasons for the enormous individual differences in intensity and direction of these demands? Here Maslow's comparative studies of infrahuman primates' and of college students' patterns of dominance behavior are a first step in the direction I am attempting to define.

Now I believe that all we have been saying about the need for vastly better biological and social science training would be true even if we faced a static and unchanging world order, a fixed and invariable schedule of social demands confronting each individual and group. Actually we face, however, a task twice as complicated, an economic transition which with incredible rapidity whirls before our eyes through this and the coming century. Three or four centuries ago we began to find out how to use nature's forces on a grand scale instead of relying on the sheer muscle power of individual man, and partly in consequence of this fact all human societies are being wrenched to pieces and put together again in unrecognizable form. These same old questions of gain, security, power, and prestige will be there, but in a guise recognizable only by those who have discerned deeply the inner idiom of the human organism. Here we shall be told that we must just wait and see. This I think is very much like proposing that the vessel set forth without compass or heliometer, just to find out what's across the sea. As students of human behavior, we have the right and the duty to contribute to the art of navigation. It is exactly my point that this is the kind of psychology that we need in an age of frantic endeavor to utilize intelligence in planning our future in the economic, social, and political spheres.

But here a great query halts us. Suppose we find out the vital things about human nature and the social order that would really

( 118) help in social planning, have we any assurance that our findings would be used? Psychology will approach, indeed is already approaching the position of various other kinds of technical information which, if used, would disturb society. There exist in the patent office thousands of inventions which upon their liberation would enormously improve the lot of the American population, but these inventions cannot be liberated because they would interfere with income from invested capital. Social Psychology will in the same way offer detailed and accurate information relating to human needs and motives, different ways of ordering interpersonal relations, which a small number of powerful persons will necessarily regard as dangerous and subversive. It is likely for example that research will show that our social order is unnecessarily stupid and wasteful; if so, complete and documented pictures of its stupidity would be as disquieting as the liberation of disturbing new inventions. I say this even in relation to various existing types of attitude research which suggest that the shams and hypocricies of society are being more and more clearly discerned by college students and even by grade school children. This type of social research will be of slight importance until it becomes so competent and so comprehensive as to lead into social action, and at exactly this point more and more vigorous steps are certain to be taken to prevent the continuation of our studies and the publicizing of our results. If science makes any difference to society, society will be concerned about it. The Pharaohs of Egypt made social changes and used the expert advice of architects and stone cutters, irrigators, and money lenders. The -Elector of Saxony used his primitive knowledge of economics to predict the outcome of the storm against Luther. Napoleon systematically cultivated physics and chemistry because they assisted his engineering and artillery officers, and when firmly in the saddle tried to develop economics, sociology, and statistics, in the service of his empire. It is as sure as destiny that psychology will become the tool of the community, just as every useful discipline has been the tool of the community. The society of the coming centuries will be a society constructed in the light of a technical psychology which does not yet exist. By the same token, as that technical psychology goes beyond sheer common sense, and becomes dynamite to society, those dominant in society will try to protect themselves against the explosion. It seems to me that this

( 120) is a sufficient answer to the ivory-tower remark that we should stick to science and let public practice alone. The answer is that public practice will not and cannot let psychology alone. If we are to protect the claims of science, we are committed to an educational task which is just as imperative as any other task we confront. You and I cannot decide now exactly what steps will have to be taken. But the things which we can decide are these: first, how to gather research material which is so vitally significant that it can-not help being socially useful, not merely at the moment, but in the very task of proceeding onward through the great transition; second, to make sure that our factual discoveries are made available for the benefit of the masses of humanity and not for the exploitation of some by others. We must be good enough psychologists to put our material in the hands of society in such a way as to help it defend itself against reaction and to assist it in seeing that the full import of scientific findings is translated into action. These two steps involve what is currently called the blue-printing of the future. I believe that this blue-printing is beginning to be possible here and now, and that if we can prevent our discoveries from being held out of use, psychology will be just as ready to share in the planning process as economics or sociology. It is within the grasp of twentieth-century Americans to plan the course of their own future, and social psychology can play a vital part in the process.

But to insure that our findings will be used, we shall have to do an infinitely better job than we are now doing in the study of the basic psychology of resistance to social change, and in systematic research into the ways of making people aware of their own needs and interests. One of the outstanding tasks, if this view is correct, is a patient and comprehensive analysis of middle class psychology, to enable members of this class to understand fully their own situation, and to forestall the otherwise inevitable fascist trends. When progressive or radical doctrines are naïvely applied, as in America almost constantly during the last twenty years, the result has been the alienation of the middle classes, the farmers, and indeed many of the working class, with consequent brutal repression of labor's demands and the spread of fascist sentiment. Practically all of the contemporary American progressives and radicals think in terms of economic analysis, not in terms of psychology, failing to see the huge research problems that have got to he solved before the public can be reached. Blueprinting of the future is not the same thing

( 120) as autistic thinking regarding the desirability of a new society; it is realistic mapping of issues in such a way that the mountains in the way can be crossed. A fragment of research which it is hardly wise to ignore is the Gallup material on the reaction of the middle classes to CIO tactics; we await today a full analysis of the meaning of recent political events from Detroit to Seattle, suggesting some boomerang effects of the very understandable but very short-sighted activities of a radical leadership which has not yet become research-minded. Most Davids forget that most Goliaths are going to be able to return the first blow.

I may illustrate, I think, from the history of loyalist Spain. High morale and large man power early gave the loyalists opportunity for many successful local attacks upon enemy positions. The near-impossible was done again and again. The loyalist officers, however, were not well enough trained to foresee all the consequences, and the result was that they found it physically impossible to hold the positions which they had taken, against the air and tank attacks which followed. The reaction which follows one's own forward step is precisely the thing that needs to be fully understood and blueprinted. Almost all American progressives have made the mistake of putting pins in the map to show their progress, forgetting in their excitement that the forces of reaction must be studied and intelligently handled if such gains are not to be swept away. This study of action and reaction, and specifically, of the ways to make clear to the public the nature of its own need and its own predicament, is I believe as important as any other research task which confronts us.

Thus second only to the need of profound and vital research is the need to discover the means of making our work directly available to the public; it is the only possible means of safeguarding public interests and at the same time the only possible basis for the continued progress of social psychology. We shall have to struggle to make our services really profound and valuable, and we shall like-wise have to struggle to make them available to the public. But if we are trained for the task, see the problem clearly, and gird our-selves for the adventure, it is not too late.

4 Sussex Avenue
Bronxville, New York


  1. Address of the Chairman, Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, September, 1938.

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