A Study of Some Social Factors in Perception

Chapter 1

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That individuals may react differently to the same stimulus situations has become a truism in psychology. There are cases in which such internal factors as drive, attitude, affect, or emotional upset play the dominating part in determining the experiences and subsequent behavior. The concern of this study in social psychology is to note some social factors participating in the production of such differential response on the part of individuals.

Social psychology has studied individual differences in response to a social environment, but it has never recognized that each one of us perceives this environment in terms of his own personal habits of perceiving; and that cultural groups may differ from one another in behavior, because of fundamental differences in their ways of perceiving social situations. In the following paragraphs some cases reported by cultural anthropologists, revealing such differential group effects, will be reviewed. The psychological problem which they raise is the starting point for the experiments reported in this paper.


Whatever society we take, no matter how primitive or developed, simple or complicated, we find standards, norms, conventions, customs, and values regulating to a great extent the conduct, and shaping the mentalities, likes and dislikes of its members along economic, aesthetic, social, moral, political and other lines.

The individual acquires a certain set of norms from childhood on, no matter whether he wishes to do so or not, and whether he is conscious of the fact or not. Sapir has given a subtle analysis of this point in a recent symposium (37). These norms determine to a considerable extent the individual's ideas of good or bad, right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, and likewise his perceptual tendencies; e.g., which aspects of a field of stimulation he will accentuate and which he will ignore. For instance (to use the illustration cited by Sapir), a foreigner looking at the activities of a "primitive" group will often single out certain aspects that will be passed unnoticed by

( 6) the natives as unimportant, or he will fail to notice certain parts that will be in the foreground from the point of view of the natives.

The norms may vary from society to society and from time to time. These variations may be comparatively slight within a given range, as is the case with societies belonging to the same culture (e.g., Western culture), or they may be astoundingly great, as is the case with societies belonging to different cultures. The variation in norms and in perceiving, thinking, and reacting, may be so great that the norms appear stupid, and contrary to all notions of "common sense," to a person whose thinking and behavior are regulated by norms of a different culture.

Some concrete cases showing wide differences from the norms of Western culture will show the point clearly. In order to emphasize the fact that these wide variations in norms are not restricted to the generally accepted variations in taste, fashion, social etiquette, standards, and manners of living, highly complicated aesthetic forms, and other affective phenomena alone, but that they are observed in cases relating to more basic psychological categories, the illustrations are chosen from the fields of space and time perception and experience of sense-quality.

We may start with a case of time reckoning. Radcliffe-Brown (34) reports:

"In the jungles of the Andamans it is possible to recognize a distinct succession of odours during a considerable part of the year as one after another the commoner trees and lianas come into flower. . . . The Andamanese have therefore adopted an original method of marking the different periods of the year by means of the odoriferous flowers that are in bloom at different times. Their calendar is a calendar of scents." (Emphasis ours.)

Here we see odors serving as reference points for time reckoning in place of the astronomical events so widely used. As Radcliffe-Brown explains, the odors play an important role, connected with magic, in the life of the Andamans. Therefore they are very sensitive to odors.

Different objects or events may be chosen to serve as reference points for time reckoning. Leona Cope (10) gives some interesting cases:

"The Indian seems vaguely aware of the discrepancy between his lunar reckoning and solar year. Many tribes have no way of correcting their year count. In the calendars which have only twelve months, the Indians may unconsciously lengthen a month

( 7) when it does not tally with the event for which it is named, or they may insert another period. That the discrepancy was felt is shown by frequent references in the literature of the Indians to discussion and quarrels about which month it is or ought to be at a given time. The arguments apparently continue in such cases until, through a comparison with the natural phenomena, matters are set right." (10, p. 137). (Emphasis ours.)

In another case sticks, standing for astronomical events, serve to supply reference points. "Often when the Indians agreed on a meeting at a particular time, they arranged bundles of sticks, from which they destroyed one for each day or night as it passed. When the last stick was gone they knew the appointed time had come. This method seems to have been common in the Southeast Woodlands and the Southwest." (10, p. 124).

A very striking case of variation in the experiencing of similarity has been observed by Malinowski. From his study of the Trobriands, Malinowski (27) reports that the idea of resemblance between parents and offspring, or between children of the same parents, is controlled by strict social norms, which controvert evidence and our expectations in two respects.

First, resemblance to the father is considered "natural, right and proper. . . . Such similarity is always assumed and affirmed to exist." But it is a great offense to hint that a child resembles its mother or any of its maternal kinfolk. "It is a phrase of serious bad language to say 'Thy face is thy sister's,' which is the worst combination of kinship similarity."

Second, it is a dogma, with almost the strength of a taboo, that even brothers do not resemble one another, although each is said to be exactly like the father. Malinowski relates an incident illustrative of this. When he commented on the striking likeness of two brothers, "there came such a hush over all the assembly, while the brother present withdrew abruptly and the company was half-embarrassed, half-offended at this breach of custom." In another case, five sons of a chief were said to be exactly like the father. When Malinowski "pointed out that this similarity to the father implied similarity among each other, such a heresy was indignantly repudiated." (27, pp. 87-92).

Here we see the influence of a taboo removing a perceptual relationship that might have been experienced otherwise, and a positive norm emphasizing a similarity which might not otherwise have been noticed.

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The observations of the anthropological field workers indicate that there is no strict finality about the psychological color pyramid. Cultural norms may determine at least slightly different color pyramids for different groups of people, showing once more that there is no such thing as a generalized "normal adult human psychology." A quotation from Boas and some cases from other field observers will make the point clear.

"For instance, it has been observed that colors are classified according to their similarities in quite distinct groups, without any accompanying differences in the ability to differentiate shades of color. What we call green or blue are often combined under some such term as 'gall-like color,' or yellow and green are combined into one concept, which may be 'young-leaves color.' The importance of the fact that in thought and speech these color-names convey the impression of quite different groups of sensations can hardly be over-rated." (5, p. 199). To give a concrete case, Margaret Mead reports of groups whom she studied, "Their color classifications are so different that they saw yellow, olive-green, blue-green, gray and lavender as variations of one color." (28, p. 638). Likewise Wallis reports : "Not infrequently the savage ignores distinctions observed by us or cross-sections our distinctions. This frequently happens in color designations. The Ashantis have distinct names for the colors black, red, and white. The term black is also used for any dark color, such as blue, purple, brown, etc., while the term red does duty for pink, orange and yellow." (38, p. 421).

From customs, traditions, and values which standardize our social attitudes one could furnish innumerable striking cases. But we shall restrict ourselves to a single example.

"Sombre colors and depressed feelings are closely connected in our minds, although not in those of peoples of foreign culture. Noise seems inappropriate in a place of sadness, although among primitive people the loud wail of the mourner is a natural expression of grief." (5, p. 228).

In such a group it would show lack of understanding and be almost abnormal if one kept quiet and did not participate in the wailing. The famous Japanese smile at situations where the Westerner would show distress is pertinent in this connection. Therefore, there may be a great deal of truth in the statement of Benedict (4) that "the definition of abnormality is to a great extent culturally determined," which follows as a corollary of the cultural determination of norms.

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As any person who has observed two different cultures will agree, we could multiply these examples indefinitely. These are not weird and exceptional cases. They are articulate examples of differences in outlook due to variations in cultural norms. Neither are they anecdotes from the fond observations of curiosity seekers. To an individual who is brought up in accordance with a particular sort of norm about time, color resemblance, or family resemblance, these experiences are as "natural" as Arabic numerals are to us.[1] On the other hand, many norms or reference points observed in Western culture may look strange to a person who has not been brought up in it.

These variations in norms raise the problem whether the minds of primitive peoples operate in the same or in a different way from those brought up in Western culture. Some authorities like Levy-Bruhl think the primitive mind is in the "pre-logical" stage. This concept is futile, for when we examine the facts closely, the nucleus of all perceiving and thinking lies in established norms or reference points. What seemed pre-logical or illogical at first sight, ceases to be so. The whole problem is reduced to the relativity of established norms.

Reference points may change in the same individual. Some recent studies on attitudes (2) have verified the common observation that a person in this culture may give altogether opposite judgments about the same question. The same person says that he is opposed to playing cards and that he is not opposed to playing cards. If we take this rigidly and do not notice the connections in which they are given, these judgments appear illogical. But when we note the connections in which they are given, we see beyond the apparent contradiction. As a member of a certain church he is opposed to playing cards, but as an individual he has no objection, indicating two different reference points. In the same way, even the case Malinowski cites, which may look so absurd at first glance, may reduce itself to the existence of two sets of frames of reference. In both cases the culture provides the major premises. In one case it is the established tradition which dictates that a man resembles his father, and hence this sort of relationship is sought for and even assumed.

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To secure objectivity in studying these social psychological matters, the social psychologist or sociologist has to acquire a certain "distance" from the norms which are implanted in him as a member of a group; otherwise his judgments will not be anything more than a collection of normative verdicts.

Now we are prepared to raise our problem in a more specific form. Since the variations in customs, attitudes, fashions, and standards can be summarized partly in terms of the relativity of social norms or frames of reference, the problem becomes essentially: What is the psychological basis of these norms or frames of reference, and how do they work? The specific task of this study becomes a psychological study of frames of reference. It is not the writer's aim to reach a short-cut generalization concerning the extremely difficult problem of the psychological basis of social norms. The task he sets for himself is to survey the results of some major psychological experiments having a bearing on the concept of reference points and to demonstrate experimentally the way in which the conclusions derived from these studies may be profitably extended to the formulation of problems in social psychology. Therefore, the work claims only to be an approach, which may be one of the steps toward a psychological explanation of the functioning of social norms.

If social psychology is to be psychological, it has to base itself on the results of experimental psychology and thus connect itself with the main bulk of psychology. Unfortunately this has not been the case with social psychology for the most part. It may be sufficient for the cultural anthropologist and sociologist to show the variations in individuals due to differences in culture and let it go at that. But it is just at this point that the main task of the social psychologist begins. It is his task to study the genetic development of these social and cultural effects in the individual, the perceptual problem of how the individual responds to the stimulus situations which involve social factors, and the learning problem as to how they become organized in him.

Already some real progress has been made towards a sound social psychology in the work of Piaget (30, 31). Tracing the transition from the predominantly autistic stage to the "logical" stage by following the language development of the child in a natural setting, he has shown us the development of "communicable," logical thinking, which becomes a problem of social psychology. For, as Piaget points out, what is considered socially logical, chiefly con-

( 11) -sists of sticking consistently to a point of view throughout, and these points of view are the socially accepted norms, which become also norms for the child through cooperation with others and through imposition on the child of definite responsibilities after he passes a certain age. In the "Moral Judgment of the Child" (32) Piaget shows how the child, who does not at first draw a line between himself and his environment, whose behavior follows chiefly the "pleasure principle," and who at the start does not see that there are rules of the game, comes to realize that there are rules of the game if he wants to play with others, and that he stands in certain relationships to others, implying definite responsibilities. Such contributions make the development of logical thinking and the development of moral judgment into genuine psychological problems.


If one reviews experimental results from many different laboratories over a long period of time with the concept of reference point, or frame of reference, in mind, one cannot help noticing a convergence of findings. A brief review of these results is the special task of this section.

Before presenting these, it will be a useful introduction to mention another line of experiment, the work of Külpe and his followers on abstraction. We refer to the experiments in Külpe 's laboratory beginning in 1900, on the influence of Aufgabe (task or instruction) on perception of stimuli presented (24). In these experiments he tachistoscopically presented to his subjects different stimuli, such as printed syllables, about which different aspects or "dimensions" could be reported; e.g., the number of letters involved, the locations of the colors, or the total pattern composed by them. Külpe found that more items were noted and more correct judgments were made by the subject about that aspect of the stimuli which was called for in the Aufgabe. In other words, individuals notice more fully and more in detail the aspects of the stimulus-field that they set themselves to see or that they are set to see by instructions. Subsequently Yokoyama (6) and Chapman (9) verified Külpe's results. All these experiments indicate that "the efficiency of report for all tasks is lower under an indefinite Aufgabe than under a definite instruction."

The set or attitude plays an important part in the field of perceptual organization, picking up certain parts in the field of stimu-

( 12) -lation as reference points. This is especially true in cases where the field of stimulation is not well structured. This is well illustrated in the following passage from Köhler:

"There are cases in which all attempts to destroy, in actual analysis, a given form in favor of a certain other form are in vain. But distribute the furniture of a room in an irregular manner through this room; you will have rather solid and stable units, the single objects, but no equally stable and firm groups will be formed spontaneously with those objects as members. You observe that one group formation is easily displaced by another, depending upon slight changes of conditions, probably in yourself. It is evident that, under such circumstances, the influence of changes in the subjective attitude towards the field will be much higher than in the case of the solid units or stable groups. Even forces of no peculiar intensity will now be strong enough to produce new groups in a field which—with the exception of the objects in it—does not resist very much because its interior tendencies of group formation are too weak." (23, p. 155). (Second emphasis ours.)

Such cases are of practical value in social psychology. When we observe with historical perspective, we notice that different people living in the same geographical area, facing the same nature, at different periods, may have, as we have seen, different sorts of time and space classifications, because different parts of nature were ''standardized" as their frames of reference.

In the following paragraphs a brief historical review of the concept of reference points (or frames of reference) in experimental psychology will be given. The relationship implied in reference points is at the basis of the experiments reported in this study. "Reference point" is not a hypothetical concept. We find it involved in the comparatively simple forms of perception such as localization of a point on the skin and in visual perception of the localization of a short line. We find it involved in judgment, in psychophysics proper, in affectivity, and in personality, as some recent studies show. Let us review them briefly.

Henri studied localization on the skin over a period of years, 1892-1897. He carried on his experiment at the Sorbonne first in 1892-1894, under the direction of Binet, and continued his experiments at Leipzig in 1894. Among his subjects were Külpe, Judd, Meumann, and Kiesow. He concluded that there are certain definite places that form a frame of localization. Spots are localized nearer these points of reference. The errors of localization take

(13) place accordingly. In Henri's own words, "presque toujours l'erreur de localisation est commise dans la direction des points de repère que le suject a employés pour localiser le contact." (18, p. 177). (Emphasis in the original.)

Henri carried the work further. In his dissertation at Göttingen (1897), he reports that when the subject uses one reference point (point de repère or Anhaltspunkt) within a cutaneous area, there appears a constancy in the direction of errors. With the shift of Anhaltspunkte there appears a corresponding shift in the direction of the errors of localization. This work is so basic in localization that it seems necessary to quote Henri at some length in connection with his description of the variations in the error of localization with the shifts o f reference points (Anhaltspunkte).

"Wenn man die Lokalisationsfehler betrachtet, so fällt sofort eine Konstanz in der Richtung der Fehler auf ; in der grossen Mehrzahl der Fälle ist der Punkt zu nahe an irgend einer hervorragenden Stelle (Leiste, Knöchel, Rand, Gelenk, etc.) angegeben, und wenn die Versuchsperson für einen Punkt immer dieselben Anhaltspunkte braucht, so entsteht eine Konstanz in der Richtung der Fehler. Es giebt aber Punkte, für die es keine konstante Richtung der Fehler giebt ; diese sind Punkte, welche die Versuchsperson in Bezug auf verschiedene Anhaltspunkte lokalisiert. Wenn z. B. der Punkt in der Mitte des Handrückens liegt, so schätzt die Versuchsperson manchmal die Entfernung zum Handgelenke, manchmal aber zu den Metacarpalköpfen oder zu den Sehnen der Finger, daher wird der Punkt in manchen Fällen zu nahe zum Handgelenke, in anderen Fällen zu nahe an die Finger verlegt. Im allgemeinen wird die Richtung des begangenen Fehlers durch die Unterschätzung der Distanz des Punktes von gewissen Anhaltspunkte bestimmt." (17, pp. 37-38).

In subjective preferences we find the establishment of a standard or reference point, which is peculiar to each individual. Wells found this in an experiment in which he asked his subjects to arrange a series of pictures in order according to their preferences. Wells sums up the point thus : "If A and B arranged 10 pieces of music in order of preference, the orders would center about each individual's own standard; but if A, B, C, D, etc., arranged ten graduated weights, the orders would theoretically all center about a common standard, the objective order of heaviness." (39, p. 172). (Emphasis ours.)

Hollingworth found the establishment of a median value in the comparison of sizes. "In the experiment on sensible discrimination

( 14) we become adapted to the median value of the series, tend to expect it, to assimilate all other values toward it, and to greater or less degree to substitute it for them. " (19, p. 468). (Emphasis ours.)

Gestalt psychologists furnish an infinite number of instances of Verankerung (frame of reference) by their insistence on the member-character of a part within an organized structure. Wertheimer (40) in 1912 demonstrated that a line is experienced as horizontal or vertical in reference to the position of other things in the field of stimulation. Thus if the observer's visual field were objectively slanted by means of a mirror, a similarly slanted objective line tended to appear vertical, indicating that the position of an object is not perceived in respect to that object alone, but by its relation to the whole organized field.

Koffka made a special issue of the notions of "member-character" and "Verankerungspunkte" (anchorage points), and the importance of the ground for the figure. He summarized the facts and the argument on this point by saying, "all this means that a definite single position exists only within a fixed spatial level. I f the conditions for the formation of such a level are absent, localization is no longer possible; for just as the level grows unstable, so does the single point within it." (22, p. 570). (Emphasis ours.)

In discussing the ground (in relation to figure) he states, " . . the ground has a very important function of its own ; it serves as a general level (niveau) upon which the figure appears. Now figure and ground form a structure, consequently the former cannot be independent of the latter. On the contrary, the quality of the figure must be largely determined by the general level upon which it appears. This is a universal fact, observed in such products of culture as fashion and style. The same dress which is not only smart, but nice to look at, almost a thing of beauty, may become intolerable after the mode has passed." (22, p. 566).

The ground is especially important in social psychology. Studies on social facilitation would gain much more sense if the subtle relationship between figure and ground were taken into consideration. For example, when two people are talking in a public place, their conversation and behavior are tinged by the properties of the whole "atmosphere."

In a recent article Lewin (26) shows the strength of the tendency to be "anchored" to a frame of reference ("ground"), of which the most important part is the social group to which one belongs. He also shows how every action one performs has some specific "background" and is determined by that background.

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Beebe-Center (3), who has done comprehensive work on affectivity, reports the relativity of affective judgments with a striking case. The observers were to judge pairs of stimuli. They were instructed to state in the case of each pair not only which stimulus was the more pleasant, but whether each was pleasant, indifferent or unpleasant. One observer reported that both stimuli were indifferent, yet one was more pleasant than the other. A sheer case of "illogic "—the same thing, indifferent and pleasant at the same time! The experimenter investigated the case further. He found that the observer had visualized a scale in his mind. The upper part represented pleasantness, the middle part (not the middle point) indifference, and the lower part unpleasantness. He placed the two stimuli in the middle within the indifference range, so reported "indifferent." Yet within the indifference range, one stimulus was above; i.e., nearer to the unpleasantness range, and accordingly he reported it as pleasanter. So the "illogic" turns out to be a perfectly natural case of member-character. In relation to the whole scale, both are indifferent; in relation to each other, one is more pleasant. Therefore, it is perfectly good logic, if the frames of reference are taken into consideration. This relational effect is not restricted to a few individual cases of affectivity alone. It applies to a whole array of facts that come under hedonic contrast.

The notion of the level of reference is becoming effectively utilized in the field of personality. Hoppe's (20) work using the concepts of aspiration level (Anspruchsniveau) and ego level, and Frank's (13) more quantitative work on the basis of these concepts are already steps in this direction.

From the point of view of its bearing on our own experiments, the general conclusion reached on the basis of the recent work on "absolute judgment" or single stimuli in psychophysics is important. This method goes back to Fechner, and to Woodworth and Thorndike's (42) joint work. Wever and Zener (41) revived it recently, and subsequent work has been carried on by Fernberger (12), Bressler (7), Pratt (33), and others. These investigations show that in psychophysical judgments the use of a standard stimulus is not a necessary condition to permit the observer to give a judgment about any stimulus in the series. After a few rounds of presentation, the observers establish a scale. The position of a stimulus is judged against the background of that scale. Again we see a basic field of work in which frame of reference is involved.

In closing this review a case reported by Wever and Zener (41) is pertinent. Using the method of "absolute judgment" or single

( 16) stimuli, they gave an observer a "light" series of weights (8-4, 84, 92, 96 and 100 grams) ; after this series became an "established'' scale for the observer, they suddenly introduced a "heavy" series (92, 96, 100, 104 and 108 grams). "The effect of the first series on the judgments of the second was quite evident for 20 or 25 presentations; i.e., for four or five rounds judgments of the "heavy" predominated for all the stimuli; from this point on, however, the judgments showed a redistribution conforming to the second stimulus series." In other words, when for a stimulus (e.g., 96 grams) the "light series" (84-100 grams) is the frame of reference, the stimulus is experienced as heavy, but when the same stimulus is related to a heavy series, it is experienced as light.

From this review one may conclude that a frame of reference is involved not only in perception or localization, but also in other psychological phenomena. Perhaps it may be involved in all psychological phenomena. If facts support this view, as there is reason to believe as the problem now stands, the psychologist will find in this tendency to experience things in a relational way, a sound foundation on which to build his social psychology.

After surveying several observations from the anthropological field workers, we had come to the conclusion that the diversity of patterns in different cultures may be expressed partly as differences in norms, or frames of reference. In the review that we have just made we have found the frame of reference a very important concept, the implications of which ran through many experimental findings. The relativity of norms in the social field on the one hand, and the implications of the frame of reference in psychological phenomena on the other hand, form the background for our experiments. They are useful for us at least in furnishing hypotheses for experimental test.


  1. There is a profitable discussion of the development of number concepts in C. H. Judd's Psychology of Social Institutions (21), which is appropriate in this connection for the fact that man did not find the numbers we use today, but developed them in the course of long history.

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