Welcome to my home page. This is my personal website, as distinguished from my official university website, which is available at this address: http://psychology.ucdavis.edu/LabsProfile/Elms/PWT/.

Here at starcraving. com, you’ll find a wide range of content. You’ll  be able to read or download portions of two of my previously published books, plus assorted articles and papers that are not readily available elsewhere. The books are long out of print, and the original publishers have turned the copyrights over to me. Some chapters in these books and papers are of historical interest at best. But I think other chapters contain ideas and observations that are still worth reading; otherwise I wouldn’t put them here. For instance, I’ve posted the chapter dealing with obedience to authority, Acts of Submission, from my 1972 book Social Psychology and Social Relevance. This material, based on my work with Stanley Milgram, is unfortunately quite relevant to current news about torture and prisoner abuse in Iraq and  Guantanamo and elsewhere, and to news about other kinds of obedience to destructive authority in various parts of the world.  Also included are parts of a family cookbook that I put together several years ago, with recipes that are still worth cooking, and an assortment of my poems (mostly sonnets). Read the rest of this entry »

Business As Usual

The jukebox whispered jazz and deathless love:
A neon-flicker beat, a soloed clock:
The nickel died, and others bared a rock-
And-roaring-roll of rhythmed booze. Above
The snare-drummed thunder rose a swell of words:
Then, sharp and cool, a counter-pointed cry.
The beer-joint boppers let the music die
And swept the soundless room. The drifting herds
Surged round a dusk-filled booth. A girl lay there,
A switch-blade in her back, blood on her breath.
Police were called, some wondered at her death,
The waitress came to mop up blood and stare,
And start the juke again. It swung so sweet,
So cool: The drip of blood supplied the beat.


[First published in Lantern, a bi-yearly publication at

the Pennsylvania State University, Spring 1957, page 19.]


Building Alpha Ralpha Boulevard

Alan C. Elms

[Originally published in Science Fiction Studies, 2013, #120, 40, 209-227.]


“Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” (1961) occupies a central place in the future history devised by Cordwainer Smith. The novelette describes a crucial turning point in that future history, the beginning of the era he called the Rediscovery of Man. It also briefly introduces the cat-woman C’mell, who subsequently plays a major role in two other important works, “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (1962) and Norstrilia (1975/1994). It unites several recurrent concerns in Smith’s work, including the danger of seeking perfection and the moral authority of simple intuitive kindness.1 The story is often named as a favorite by sf readers and writers and has been repeatedly anthologized. Ursula Le Guin says that when she first read the story, it “revised, once for all, my ideas of what science fiction was and what it could do…. I honor this one for its romantic flamboyance, its hallucinatory imagery, its emotional intensity, and its beauty. I hope readers may discover in it what I did: the opening of a door into a new poetry” (Norton 38). More recently, Le Guin has described the story’s importance in her development as a writer:

I was fascinated by the way the author suggested through the story a world and a history much larger than the story…. Without consciously imitating or emulating Smith’s complicated implication of story with setting, I think I was permanently influenced by it, particularly in the Earthsea books.2

Smith sometimes offered a few sentences of background information to his readers or editors, explaining what he was trying to do in his distinctly unusual science fiction. For “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” as for most of his work, he provided hardly any words of explanation to anyone. Smith liked to maintain a degree of mystery in all his fiction—partly as a literary device, but perhaps also because as a professional spy for US Army Intelligence and sometimes for the CIA, he was accustomed to presenting himself as a man of mystery. Though “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is well known in the science-fiction world, it has sustained an array of mysteries for some fifty years after its first publication. What, for instance, was the derivation of its strangely resonant title? What literary, historical, and other sources fed into the story’s complex characters, themes, and imagery? For a psychobiographer, the most interesting kinds of questions are these: What role did Cordwainer Smith’s own psychology play in the story’s creation and, conversely, what role did the story play in his further psychological development?

The Title. The story’s first mystery is the Boulevard’s magnificent name, which Kingsley Amis described as conveying “that phantom sense of appropriateness we associate more readily with legends and fairy tales” than with science fiction (198). The title “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” has subsequently been appropriated for, among other things, a frequently accessed website that indexes a wide array of sf writers and their principal works; a Japanese fanzine devoted to Cordwainer Smith; an album and title song by an Italian psychedelic rock group; and a CD by a Swedish avant-garde composer of electronic music.3 The American astronaut crew of the first space station may have included at least one knowledgeable sf fan; the crew called their orbital home Station Alpha until Russian astronauts joined the project, at which point the Americans re-christened it Station Ralpha (Easterbrook 30).

Appropriately for a story much concerned with beginnings, the title starts with “Alpha.” But it does not proceed alphabetically either to the Greek “Beta” or to the NATO phonetic alphabet’s “Bravo,” nor leap Book-of-Revelation-style to “Omega.” Rather, “Alpha” is succeeded by the clang-rhyming but apparently nonsensical “Ralpha.” “Ralpha” is not a Chinese or Finnish or Bulgarian number, as with various proper names in other Cordwainer Smith stories.4 Indeed, it does not appear as a word or name in any other Earth language that I have checked. Upon further examination, however, “Ralpha” restates the broad theme of beginnings, if from a scientific perspective rather than from “Alpha’s” allusively religious First Cause.

The real name of the story’s author was Paul M.A. Linebarger. Linebarger was a political scientist, China scholar, and psychological warfare expert who served as the US Army’s liaison with both Nationalist Chinese and Communist Chinese intelligence officers in Chungking during World War II. When he developed serious health problems in China, he was reassigned to the Pentagon. After the war ended, he returned to academia as a Professor of Asiatic Politics at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies in Washington. At the same time, he actively pursued a career as a fiction writer. From 1946 to 1949, he published two mainstream novels as Felix C. Forrest and a spy thriller as Carmichael Smith.5 During this period he was also quietly elaborating the future history that provided the background for most of his later science fiction as Cordwainer Smith.

As with many sf writers, Linebarger had been intrigued with astronomy from an early age. Given this scientific interest, his omnivorous reading patterns, and his residence in Washington, DC, he probably read a front-page article in the Washington Post of April 14, 1948, headlined: “World Began in 5 Minutes.” The article describes the first detailed empirical evidence for the so-called Big Bang theory of cosmic creation, showing that the observed distribution of hydrogen and helium in the Universe conforms closely to the amounts predicted by the theory. This scientific discovery was a media sensation for several weeks, generating further stories in such publications as Newsweek and even an editorial cartoon by the Washington Post’s famed cartoonist Herblock (Singh 320-322).

The discovery was the work of Ralph Alpher, a George Washington University graduate student who was working with the famous astrophysicist George Gamow, Alpher’s dissertation adviser. Gamow, who often wrote entertaining scientific popularizations, brought other physicists’ attention to his student’s work with an ingenious joke. He arranged for the first report of the research to be published in the Physical Review on April Fool’s Day (April 1, 1948) under the collaborative authorship of Alpher, himself, and another prominent physicist, Hans Bethe. (Bethe, whose name was pronounced BAY-tuh, had not been a part of the research team but went along with the joke.) Thus this brief and highly technical journal article quickly became known in scientific circles by Gamow’s punning arrangement of its authors: Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, sounding roughly like the beginning of the Greek alphabet: Alpha, Beta, Gamma.

What does this scientific joke have to do with the title that Cordwainer Smith devised thirteen years later? Ralph Alpher did not know Paul Linebarger personally, and could not recall ever having any contact with him.6 But Alpher was employed at the time by Johns Hopkins University, as was Linebarger (though they usually worked in different locations within the university system). Linebarger was an undergraduate alumnus of George Washington University, where Alpher was getting his graduate degree. Linebarger, in addition to his long-established interest in astronomy, was privy to a good deal of academic gossip, and he greatly enjoyed wordplay. It seems likely that he not only read about Alpher’s discovery in the Washington Post but heard about—if he didn’t actually read—the Physical Review paper that equated Alpher’s name with the letter “Alpha.” Looking up Alpher’s name in a university directory or in the local telephone book, he would have found it listed as “Alpher, Ralph A.” Linebarger kept an eye open for possible names to use in his fiction, from foreign languages and other sources. When the time came for him to write a story about the creation of a new political and social world, why not name it “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” after the discoverer of exciting new information about the creation of the Universe?7

Linebarger may never have intended the origin of the Boulevard’s name to become a public joke. He loved to embed private jokes in his fiction and seldom explained them to others. He worked to layer pun upon multilingual pun, or to mix fictionalizations of vast historical movements with obscure autobiographical details. Often, he engaged simultaneously with all of the above. He typically constructed his complex fictions to leave little trace of where individual components had originated, making few notes and seldom writing a rough first draft before he typed or dictated the finished draft that went to editors. “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is actually unusual in that Linebarger inserted several new pages shortly before he sent the story off for publication.8 But as with most of his other short fiction, he apparently mulled over its main elements for weeks, months, perhaps even years, before setting down the entire story in a short period of time.

The Boulevard and the Abba-dingo. One of Smith’s frequent fictional strategies is the dramatic expansion of ordinary experiences in size and time. This is not an unusual strategy for creating the “sense of wonder” in science fiction. Some of Linebarger’s favorite authors used it: Jules Verne in Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870), H.G. Wells in The Time Machine (1895), and Olaf Stapledon in most of his sf. It can be seen in other Cordwainer Smith stories—for instance in Norstrilia (1975/1994), where flocks of gigantic sheep generate a substance that extends human lives to near-immortality, leading in turn to the fabulous wealth of the Norstrilians and eventually to the hero’s ability to buy the entire Earth. Similar quantitative exaggerations are evident throughout “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.”

The elevated pedestrian highway called Alpha Ralpha Boulevard is one of the grandest physical structures on the planet Earth. Already ancient as the story takes place circa 16,000 A.D., it rises gradually without visible support above the southeastern shore of North America until it disappears into the clouds around Earthport, a twelve-mile-high tower described as “greatest of buildings, smallest of cities” (Rediscovery 401). Earthport’s massive crown was originally designed as a landing field for enormous spaceships. What may have inspired these spectacular architectural and engineering visions?

The Boulevard, a self-moving expressway when it works properly, may owe something to Robert A. Heinlein’s (1940/1970) story “The Roads Must Roll.” As Carol McGuirk observes, however, Smith’s soaring ribbon in the sky is quite different from Heinlein’s firmly grounded commuter route (2001). She also suggests that Alpha Ralpha Boulevard may have instead been inspired by the engineering feats of the US interstate highway system, being built as Smith was writing his story. Perhaps a more salient and far more ancient inspiration was the Great Wall of China, which sweeps across the irregular landscape to within a few miles of Peking, a city central to Smith’s romantic adolescence. But an even more analogous structure, and one he had already written about in loving detail, had established itself solidly in his imagination during his childhood.

Paul Linebarger’s family moved often while he was a child—not only within the United States, but several times to China and during one two-year period to various countries in Europe. The Linebargers spent the bulk of that European period in Baden-Baden, Germany. Three days after their arrival, mother Lillian Linebarger took nine-year-old Paul, his younger brother Wentworth, and the guesthouse dog on a long walk to the funicular that climbed the area’s tallest hill to a scenic old tower at the top. The ascent to the tower and the view across Baden-Baden and the Black Forest made a vivid impression on Paul, so much so that he invested both funicular and tower with symbolic importance in his first mainstream novel, Ria, written a quarter-century later (Linebarger Ria). Fifteen years after he wrote Ria, he expanded funicular and tower enormously in size, until they became the stuff of future legend as Alpha Ralpha Boulevard and Earthport.

Likewise the fruit of expansion, though in qualities other than physical size, is the Abba-dingo, the “long-obsolete computer set part way up the column of Earthport” (Rediscovery 377). In the story, the animal-derived Underpeople and at least some human “Believers” regard the Abba-dingo as a god, or at least as “the most blessed of computers,”9 dispensing luck and accurate predictions. The only way to reach the Abba-dingo is to climb Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, a dangerous journey undertaken by the story’s three principal characters: Paul, Virginia, and a stranger named Maximilien Macht. Paul and Virginia have just fallen in love. Virginia, however, begins to question whether she and Paul truly love each other of their own free will or whether their feelings have been determined by the Instrumentality of Mankind, the all-powerful governing body that rules both humans and Underpeople. She hopes the Abba-dingo can give them the answers she seeks, although it was originally designed merely to predict (and perhaps to control) the weather. When she asks it her questions, the Abba-dingo predicts a typhoon coming, confirms her love and Paul’s love for each other, and rather more obscurely predicts her impending doom in the typhoon’s high winds.

In recent decades and apparently as far back as Linebarger’s childhood, the tower atop the tallest hill in Baden-Baden has supported a sort of prediction-machine: a mechanical weather station much more primitive than today’s computerized home weather stations, but enough for Cordwainer Smith to generate the concept of the quasi-omniscient Abba-dingo. The origin of the Abba-dingo’s name has been a subject of considerable speculation in the scholarly and fan literature, with both Australian slang and a corruption of the Biblical name Abednego as popular choices absent any real evidence for either (Lewis 17). Given the Abba-dingo’s unpredictability and its godlike status among the Underpeople, I suspect that Smith derived the name instead from the French phrase “l’abbé dingo,” or “mad priest.” A quasi-omniscient character in another of Linebarger’s favorite French novels, Alexandre Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo (1844-45), is nicknamed “the mad priest,” though Dumas used a less colloquial phrase with the same meaning, “l’abbé fou.” Dumas’s “mad priest” appears to have been a more direct inspiration for another ancient computer, likewise referred to as a “godmachine,” in Smith’s novel Norstrilia (40). Like Dumas’s supposedly mad priest, that nameless computer delivers enough treasure for the protagonist to finance an elaborate revenge plot—but the computer in the story completed first, “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” got the resonant name.

The Story. “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” takes place on a single day very early in the Rediscovery of Man. After millennia of perfect blandness, the Lords of the Instrumentality have begun to reconstruct “the old cultures, the old languages, and even the old troubles” (Rediscovery 375). In an expository passage deleted by his magazine editors, Smith laid out the problems to which the Instrumentality was responding: “Monotony and perfection had been killing mankind. A single language had ruined our poetry and our theater. We had not even had names. Now, as the old civilizations came back to life, we became people again.”10

The first-person narrator has just been assigned a new French identity and a new name, Paul. He is excited by the new dangers and the new freedoms of an uncertain world. He promptly falls in love with the newly French woman Virginia, whom he had known earlier when she too had had another name and identity. Just as promptly, she leads him into a dangerous adventure: a visit to the Abba-dingo via a trek up Alpha Ralpha Boulevard. He has never tried to go there before. She has been there once with her Believer aunt to seek “holiness and luck” (377) from the Abba-dingo, but they had arrived on a day when it was not talking (380-381).

Even before Paul and Virginia begin to climb the Boulevard, they are nearly killed by a drunken underperson. They are saved by C’mell, a voluptuously beautiful cat-woman who is herself an underperson but enjoys special status because she works at Earthport. Virginia regards C’mell as somehow disgusting, but predicts that Paul will see her again. After C’mell leaves them, Paul and Virginia meet the mysterious Macht, a “tall, lean, sunburned” man with “reddish hair,” in a new French café (383). Macht has made a successful visit to the Abba-dingo only a week earlier and insists on taking them there again. Paul is reluctant to follow Macht up Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, but Virginia, seeking a source of certainty in this newly uncertain world, overrides Paul’s doubts:

“You fool,” she said, “if we don’t have a God, at least we have a machine. This is the only thing left on or off the world which the Instrumentality doesn’t understand. Maybe it tells the future. Maybe it’s an un-machine. It certainly comes from a different time. Can’t you use it, darling? If it says we’re us, we’re us…. I don’t care if it’s a predicting machine or a god or a devil or a what. I don’t care, but I’ll have the truth.” (Rediscovery 385-386)

Paul goes along, but he remains uneasy about Macht. At the very start of their trip up Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, Macht casually crushes some eggs that a bird-like creature has laid on the boulevard. Paul intercedes before Macht breaks them all. The bird-creature thanks Paul telepathically and warns him against Macht. As the human trio continues the journey, carried along by an automatic transportation system, they barely survive an encounter with a ragged gap in the boulevard. Macht is accidentally left far behind during this episode. Paul and Virginia find the Abba-dingo on a walkway littered with human bones. It warns them of a “Typhoon coming” (italicized in text), but they ignore the warning, accustomed as they are to controlled weather (394). The machine then responds to Virginia’s quest for truth by making a pair of savagely ironic predictions. It tells Virginia, “You will love Paul all your life.” Its prediction for Paul, which he conceals from her, is: “You will love Virginia twenty-one more minutes” (Rediscovery 395. As Carol McGuirk has observed, “Smith’s ironies are always hard to parse” [“Downdeep” 475].)

As Paul and Virginia start back down the Boulevard, the typhoon strikes. Birds try to warn them against proceeding further during the storm, but Virginia insists that they find their companion Macht. At the edge of the gap in the boulevard, they see him hanging onto the bare cables below. Before they can reach him, the naked cat-woman C’mell arrives to help them. Virginia, revolted by the thought that a dirty and obscene underperson is going to touch her, twists away and falls from the boulevard to her death. C’mell rescues Paul, telling him telepathically that the birds have sent her because he saved their young from Macht:

All of us have been worried about what you true people would do to us when you were free. We found out. Some of you are bad and kill other kinds of life. Others of you are good and protect life. (398; italics in original)

As the story ends, Paul is left to wonder about the prophetic powers of the Abba-dingo and to lament his loss of Virginia.

Biblical Sources. “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is, at its simplest, the story of a fall from innocence. Indeed much of it may be seen as a retelling of the Garden of Eden myth from the Book of Genesis. The world has been created anew. Paul and Virginia, in all their naiveté, are its Adam and Eve. By restoring danger and uncertainty, the godlike Lords of the Instrumentality who rule the world have given them free will. Virginia seeks the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil —namely, the predictions of the Abba-dingo, the computer attached to Earthport’s massive tree-trunk-like column. Macht, who encourages Paul and especially Virginia to climb Alpha Ralpha Boulevard so that they may question the Abba-dingo, loosely functions as a tempting serpent. Like Satan in the Biblical account, Macht “used to be a Believer” (Rediscovery 383); at one point Paul sees him as looking like “a devil or a saint” (384). Virginia, like Eve, partakes of the Abba-dingo’s knowledge before her companion Paul does; then she attempts to avoid shame (at the touch of the naked C’mell), leading to her downfall.

Yet “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” diverges from Genesis in important ways. Though Macht often seems suggestive (at least in Paul’s eyes) of a Satanic figure, he also attempts to save Paul from falling through the gap in the boulevard (392). For her inattention to the Abba-dingo’s pronouncements, Virginia is not merely cast out of Eden but dies. Paul, whom Virginia has persuaded to taste the fruit of the Abba-dingo’s knowledge, survives with the aid of C’mell—but there is no cat-woman in Genesis. Paul loses his paradise of love and innocent freedom after a single day, but he has learned something important: being good consists of showing consideration for even the least of God’s creatures. That lesson may be Biblical in origin, but it is not from Genesis.

Artistic and Literary Sources. One non-Biblical source for certain components of the story was identified early on. Smith’s widow Genevieve, who presumably got the information from her husband, told editor J.J. Pierce that “a painting by Pierre-Auguste Côt inspired the scene on Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.”11 Genevieve provided no details about the painting, a popular nineteenth-century romantic work now owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.12 It includes little content that would have been an obvious inspiration for the general direction of the story. The painting, which Côt titled “L’ Orage” (“The Storm”), depicts a young man and woman trotting side by side along a dirt path in a flowery countryside, as they hold a billowing golden cloak or cape above themselves for protection against the storm in the background. The young man is dressed in animal skins; as he looks at the young woman beside him, he appears to be experiencing pleasurable excitement. The young woman, who turns her head toward the approaching storm with an expression of mild anxiety, wears a diaphanous white garment that fully reveals her body. Several ovoid stones on the path near the couple’s feet might be seen as roughly formed birds’ eggs.

The painting’s role in inspiring “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” was actually more complicated than Genevieve seems to have realized. Both the painting and the story derive in part from a third source, the very popular eighteenth-century French romantic novel Paul et Virginie, by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Côt’s painting has been regarded since its first showing in l880 as an illustration of a scene in Paul et Virginie, though it may have incorporated other influences as well (Metropolitan 193-194). Cordwainer Smith undoubtedly knew of the connection between painting and novel. When he first mentioned “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” in his correspondence with an editor, he described it as “an s-f version of Bernardin de St. Pierre’s Paul et Virginie,” without mentioning the painting that his widow later remembered as his principal inspiration.13

The similarities between “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” and Paul et Virginie are numerous and detailed. Most obviously, the leading characters in Smith’s story are French and they are named Paul and Virginia. In the novel as in the story, Paul and Virginia dwell in a kind of paradise, in which at first they play the roles of a supremely innocent Adam and Eve. (In the novel their paradise is the French colonial island then called Ile de France, now known as Mauritius.) Bernardin de St.-Pierre is explicit about his characters in this regard:

They were in the morning of life and had all its freshness: so must our first parents have appeared in the garden of Eden when, coming from the hands of God, they saw each other and drew near and talked for the first time as brother and sister; Virginia, modest, trusting and mild like Eve, and Paul, another Adam, having the stature of a man and the simplicity of a child. (Bernardin 70-71)

In Paul et Virginie, it is Virginia who without hesitation does the good deed of helping another creature in distress—a black female slave who has been cruelly whipped by her master. As in “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” the good deed is rewarded by subsequent rescue. The original Paul and Virginia become lost in the woods while on the way home; they are saved from danger by a band of runaway slaves who have already heard of Virginia’s intercession with the slave-master. Virginia’s lament in the French novel—“Oh Heaven! how hard it is to do a good deed! It is only evil that is easy” (Bernardin 54)—is transformed by Smith into Paul’s response at being praised for saving the birds’ eggs: “Thought I, is that all there is to good and bad?” (Rediscovery 398).

In both versions, it is Virginia who first tastes the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. In the novel, she does so by leaving her Edenic island to be educated by a wealthy aunt in “licentious” Europe (Bernardin 91). In Smith’s novelette, she does so by asking the Abba-dingo to predict her future with Paul. In both versions, Virginia then dies in a storm. In the novel, the ship on which she returns to the island is wrecked in a hurricane just offshore. She resists rescue by a “completely naked” sailor, who tries to help her to strip off her clothing so that they may more easily swim to shore. Instead, she keeps “one hand on her billowing clothes, place[s] the other on her heart,” and is swallowed up by the waves (Bernardin l20-121). Later she is imagined to say, “from the abode of the angels … ‘I preferred to lose my life rather than violate modesty’” (l31-132). Similarly, the Virginia of “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is dressed in a gown that during the typhoon “pull[s] at her like a dog worrying its master.” The naked underperson C’mell tries to rescue her from the wind, but Virginia twists away in revulsion, judging C’mell as “dirty” and immodest. Paul sees only “the gleam of a golden gown flash over the edge” of the Boulevard as the wind catches the modest Virginia’s clothing and carries her to her death (398).

These and other similarities between novel and novelette suggest that Cordwainer Smith worked with great care to develop a science-fictional story of the far future from a sentimental tale written 170 years earlier. Was this effort merely a literary conceit? Why did he feel it necessary to mix elements from Paul et Virginie with the basic story of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve? If he was so intent to incorporate so many elements of Paul et Virginie into “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” why did he omit certain other important elements of the French novel, such as the early death of Paul after Virginia’s drowning, while adding significant elements to the story that do not appear in the novel, such as innocent Virginia’s fascination with the sinister Macht?

When I wrote the earliest drafts of this paper in 1984, I had no clear answers to such questions. I got a partial answer almost by accident a year later, when I visited Paul Linebarger’s favorite aunt, Alma Hixon, at her home in Ash Grove, Missouri. She had lived in the house all her life (it was built by her father); Linebarger had visited her there on numerous occasions, beginning in his early childhood. As I sat interviewing the 94-year-old Mrs. Hixon in her living room, I noticed on one wall a pair of small framed black-and-white tapestries. One reproduced the most prominent details of the painting “The Storm”; the other showed the same couple sitting side by side in a swing. Both pictures were identified in small print at the lower right as being “After P.-A. Côt.”14 On the adjacent wall was a framed painting or lithograph of an innocent-looking young woman leaning against a column; a man dressed in red, almost cartoonishly Satanic in his features, stands smiling beside her. Mrs. Hixon’s daughter later identified the work for me as a depiction of Mephistopheles tempting Marguerite (also known as Margaret or Gretchen), from the story of Faust. She said all three works of art had been brought from France by one of Alma’s sisters, probably in the 1920s; the pictures had hung on the living room wall ever since.15

The contiguity of Côt’s painting “The Storm” with that depiction of Mephistopheles tempting Margaret immediately struck me as explaining a good deal about why Cordwainer Smith later thought to introduce the suggestively Satanic figure of Maximilien Macht into the otherwise heavily Bernardin-de-St.-Pierre-influenced world of Alpha Ralpha Boulevard. The presence of Margaret and Mephistopheles behind the story’s scrim, as it were, tied all three of the major on-stage characters much more closely than I had realized to the personal history of the story’s author.

Personal Sources. Many details of Smith’s stories can be seen as efforts to mythologize aspects of the author’s own life and broad-ranging interests. This recurrent recourse to personal mythology, I think, came not so much from any unusually strong narcissistic impulses on his part as from his finding the process both productive in literary terms and therapeutically useful. In part, he accomplished the mythologization by conflating elements of his personal history with aspects of well-known literary works—such as, in the case of “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” his drawing upon various aspects of Paul et Virginie to represent features of his first marriage and his divorce.

As already noted, Cordwainer Smith’s real name was Paul Linebarger, and the narrator in “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is also named Paul. This is the only story in all of Cordwainer Smith’s fiction where a first-person narrator is also the central character. These features suggest the likelihood of a strong personal component in the story. Linebarger’s widow, his second wife Genevieve, confirmed that this was indeed the case. As she told me, “‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ was his last cry for his first wife. The physical description of her [Virginia] is definitely Margaret. That one hurt my feelings a great deal because it was written way after our marriage.”16

Paul had married Margaret Snow when she was 20, he barely 23. According to one of their daughters, “My mother was extremely innocent when they met. He was drawn to innocents.”17 They were reasonably happy in the first several years of their marriage. Then Paul left for wartime service in India and China, where he felt intensely lonely. As part of his correspondence with his wife, he began to send back chapters of a novel he was writing. The novel was told from the viewpoint of a female character, and during the course of writing he felt creatively empowered by imagining himself as a woman author.18 He wrote a second novel in similar fashion while still on duty in China. He originally intended to publish both novels under his wife’s name, but they eventually appeared as by “Felix C. Forrest,” a pun on the Chinese version of his name.19

Margaret Linebarger was disturbed by Paul’s pretending to be a woman in those circumstances. She was even more disturbed when, after his return from Asia, he insisted on cross-dressing at times in her presence and that of their young daughters.20 By then Paul too was unhappy with certain aspects of the marriage. When he had departed for war duty, he left Margaret in the family home, a large house near Dupont Circle in downtown Washington. Without consulting him, she took their baby daughter and moved to Los Alamos, the high-security government town in New Mexico where her father (a mathematician) was working on the Manhattan Project to build and test the first atomic bomb. According to his brother, Paul was perplexed and distressed when he began to receive heavily censored letters from Margaret, postmarked New Mexico, without adequate explanation.21

Paul and Margaret tried to re-establish a positive relationship when they moved in together again after his return from the war. But serious differences between them remained unresolved. According to Genevieve’s later account, Margaret became interested in another man and expected to marry him after divorcing Paul.22 Paul sought psychotherapeutic help, hoping he could somehow make himself more acceptable to Margaret and thereby save the marriage. But at the same time he became more and more angry at her rejection of him and began to threaten violence or suicide. Margaret responded by insisting on a separation, followed by divorce. The divorce took place in 1949. Within a year Paul met and married Genevieve, one of his graduate students.

“Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” was written ten years later. Yet as Genevieve told me, major elements of the story metaphorically represented his first marriage and the circumstances of the divorce: “He was very hurt. He was still in love with her when she left.”23 The story’s young and innocent couple find their relationship disturbed first by the woman’s yearning to travel to a strange place, then by the temptations of another man—although in the story, as in real life, Paul Linebarger did not identify that temptation as the primary cause of the couple’s breakup. Rather, the woman is upset by what she sees as the odd erotic interests of her companion, and she pulls away as the result of what he regards as an excess of traditional morality.

Paul Linebarger survived the divorce and felt that he had learned something from the experience, though at great psychological expense. Whether he felt he had learned any broadly moral differences between good and bad, as does the story’s Paul, is open to question. He did try to communicate to others some of the lessons he had learned about good and bad personal relationships in a manuscript on “mutual psychological aid” that he wrote during the year after he remarried.24

“Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” may also be seen in part as an ironic representation of Paul Linebarger’s broader personal hopes upon his post-war return to America. He had suffered not only psychologically but physically from his wartime experiences in China. Much as the story’s Paul emerges from a hospital into a new world, so did the real Paul. He was rushed home to Washington with a severe case of hepatitis and with his one good eye in danger of going blind. He was happy to leave behind the mixture of boredom, excitement, and fear that he had experienced as an Army Intelligence officer in Chungking. But he found himself facing greater boredom at a desk job in the Pentagon. Instead of a new world of freedom and unlimited possibilities, postwar America presented him with new kinds of psychological stress and new sources of despair. In “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” Paul and Virginia go from vast optimism to total disaster in less than a day. For Paul Linebarger, the process was neither that quick nor that complete. But it was close enough.

Another set of beginnings, and another disastrous relationship with a woman, also left their mark on “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.” Linebarger’s second wife may have been unaware of this other set of influences, which dated from five years before he met and married his first wife. In 1931 the 17-year-old Paul, having completed two years of college at George Washington University and several months of basic Chinese language instruction at the University of Nanking, entered the North China Language School in Peking. He felt somewhat out of his depth in his classes, but he gloried in living away from his rather dysfunctional family for the first time. He loved the cultural splendor and the creature comforts available to a well-to-do American in Peking. And he experienced his first love affair with an adult woman.

The woman he loved was a White Russian émigrée named Irene. She was considerably older than he, in her late twenties, cultured and beautiful. Many of the White Russians in Peking had been forced into disreputable activities in order to survive.25 But Irene, reportedly the daughter of a general in the Czar’s army, managed what Linebarger’s brother later recalled as “a very exclusive and expensive Chinese antique shop there in the Grand Hotel.”26 She also belonged to a literary club in Peking, through which she met Paul. They became romantically involved despite the difference in their ages.

In his diaries at the time, Paul first treated the romance as a joke, saying that Irene had agreed to marry him fifty years hence. But the relationship became so serious that Paul refused to leave Peking when his term at the Language School ended. Paul’s father intervened, asking the American Consulate to put him on a train and send him home. Paul and Irene, in a suicide pact, took overdoses of sleeping pills. “Paul was found sitting on a landing in the Grand Hotel in a stupor,” according to his brother; Irene was nearby in a similar state.27 Paul and Irene were given emergency medical treatment that involved having their stomachs pumped. When they were released from the hospital, Paul was quickly sent home to Washington as his father had ordered.

Paul continued to correspond with Irene for a time. But that fall, back at George Washington University, he described himself as “more self-consciously lonely than ever before in my life.” He lamented the fact that Irene was “still ten million miles away.” By the following spring he was recalling those “lost golden days in Peking” with intense nostalgia as the happiest period of his life. Several years later Irene came to America with a man named Herman Wu, who had been a friend and rival of Paul’s in Peking. But by this time Paul’s life had moved on. There is no record that he ever met Irene again.28

What connections exist between this biographical episode and “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” other than the very basic similarity of a love affair ended by a loss? For one thing, Irene is named in the story. Virginia, before she was made French, “had been called Menerima, which represented the coded sounds of her birth number” (Rediscovery 376). Although Paul Linebarger derived characters’ names in various other stories from numbers in several languages, his description of the source of Menerima’s name appears to have been deliberately misleading. Spelled backward as with some of Linebarger’s other fictional names, “Menerima” gives us this message: “am irene m.”29 Whether the “M” represents Irene’s Russian patronymic (though not her last name, Olendorf30) or was merely added for euphony, the “Irene” part is clear. Linebarger was saying in effect that Irene was the precursor of Virginia (or of her real-life equivalent, Margaret) in his life. Irene is named directly in another Cordwainer Smith work, Quest of the Three Worlds, inspired in part by Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). The Deep Dry Lake of the Damned Irene is a “dry, calm valley which had a clean blessed quietness”; it is a temptation that the hero must resist in order to continue a higher quest (Rediscovery 564).

Historical and Political Sources. In discussing the life of Paul Linebarger, it is often difficult to separate the personal from the political. He was born into a thoroughly political family, and he maintained his family-based political involvement to the end of his life. But we can still identify certain aspects of his fiction in which Linebarger’s political concerns went far beyond his immediate personal relationships. The opening sentences of “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” though they vividly depict sudden and dramatic changes in the individual lives of Paul and Virginia, also allude to a massive governmental structure that has kept the entire population of Earth under tight control for many millennia: “The nightmare of perfection had taken our forefathers to the edge of suicide. Now, under the leadership of the Lord Jestocost and the Lady Alice More, the ancient civilizations were rising like great land masses out of the sea of the past” (Rediscovery 376).

In certain regards the novelties and excitements of this “Rediscovery of Man,” as experienced on its first day by Paul and Virginia, probably reflect Paul Linebarger’s feelings in the postwar years. Having dreamed during his military service in China about what life might be like in a victorious postwar US, he returned to find that victory and democracy did not fulfill his fantasies nearly as well as he had hoped: “Everywhere, men and women worked with a wild will to build a more imperfect world” (Rediscovery 375). But Linebarger had experienced greater political disappointments before, and in ways that resembled the political context described in “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard.” Those disappointments were played out largely in his adopted land of China.

Linebarger’s father had been a legal adviser to Sun Yat-sen, and in that role had been heavily involved in the successful 1911 revolution against China’s 2,000-year-old dynastic political system. Though Linebarger was not born until two years later, he grew up to think of himself as continuing the revolution against that ancient and oppressive regime. He also learned to idolize Sun, whose Western-oriented ideas about democracy were mixed with traditional Confucian concepts of filial piety and hierarchical government. Unfortunately, Sun Yat-sen was not a very skilled politician, and the political revolution of 1911 devolved into a struggle among warlords and Communists.

Yet a major initiative toward progressive cultural revolution emerged in China shortly after young Paul and his family moved there for the first of several lengthy periods of residence. Beginning in 1917 but reaching its height on 4 May 1919, the May Fourth Movement urged the construction of “a New China through intellectual and social reforms….Traditional Chinese ethics, customs, literature, history, philosophy, religion, and social and political institutions were attacked” (Chow 1). The movement’s most charismatic leader, Hu Shih, proclaimed in 1918 that “Chinese literature produced by the literary men during the last two thousand years is a dead literature, written in a dead language. A dead language cannot produce a living literature…. If China needs a living literature, we must write in the vernacular, in the national language” (qtd. in Chow 277-278). After the May Fourth Incident of 1919, Hu later said, “vernacular literature spread [in China] as though it wore seven-league boots” (qtd. in Chow 279).

Like the optimistic anticipations of Linebarger and many of his compatriots about America’s future after World War II, the cultural revolution initiated by Hu Shih and others fell far short of complete success. But it was, in its time, a much more dramatic analog of Cordwainer Smith’s Rediscovery of Man than anything in modern American history. Its effects were still being strongly felt in Peking when the teen-aged Paul Linebarger enrolled at the North China Language School and found his Irene, his Menerima, to share the new world with him. Even after he left Peking and Irene, Linebarger continued to venerate Hu Shih, whom he described as China’s “greatest modern poet and philosopher, who has also shown himself a patriot.”31

Religious Sources. Cordwainer Smith has come to be thought of in some circles as an especially religious writer of science fiction. He was actually an agnostic, if not an atheist, until his mid-forties; neither his mainstream novels nor his early sf reflect any distinct religious leanings. But during a time when he suffered from severe physical illnesses and observed how the religious faith of Genevieve Linebarger’s mother sustained her during her final months, he began to introduce significant religious components into his future history. These components (mainly involving the adoption of the “Old Strong Religion” by the human-appearing dogs, cats, and other animals of the underpeople) were not yet fully developed at the time he wrote “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”; indeed, they never much resembled a state of Christian religious orthodoxy. The simplest core of Jesus’s most humanistic teachings—“As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me”32—is what the good people of Cordwainer Smith’s world agree upon, whether they are underpeople or humans. That moral lesson is acted out by Paul in the story, in contrast to Macht’s casual evil, and it is endorsed by C’mell.33

Psychotherapeutic Aspects. When Paul Linebarger began to write “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” he was not only not over his first marriage (as his second wife attested); he was not over the profound psychological distress he experienced from the divorce. Having written both fiction and nonfiction at a furious pace all through the 1940s, he found his creative output suddenly at a standstill in 1948 and did not write another story until 1955. Even then, he found himself unable to write or type any fiction himself; instead, he had to hire a typist or court reporter to transcribe it from dictation. On 7 February 1961, he wrote both to his agent and to his favorite magazine editor, H. L. Gold, proclaiming his new freedom to type his own creative work. To Gold he wrote that

The last fiction I typed was April, 1948; my then-wife was getting herself psychologically mobilized to leave me, taking our daughters, and the top of the world fell in. Now, at least, I am typing again, after 13 years of dictating to machines, to court reporters and to all sorts of gimmicks. Wish me luck.

To his agent, Harry Altshuler, he wrote in a similar vein: “I hope I’ve broken through the psychological impasse which made me dictate all these years, but I am keeping my fingers crossed and promising neither you nor myself anything.”34

Linebarger had indeed broken through that impasse, and in a spectacular way. He usually wrote the date of completion of each story on the back of the final page. He dated “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” as completed on 29 January 1961; “A Planet Named Shayol” (originally titled “People Never Live Forever”), 4 February 1961; and “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” (originally “She Got the Which of the What-She-Did”), 5 February 1961. Beside the latter date Linebarger wrote, “one day” – apparently meaning he typed the whole story out in a single day without notes or previous drafts. He did add one more page the next day and made some further revisions later in the year. He also slightly revised “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” before he sent it to his agent on February 7, and perhaps he had been working on that story for a while before his January 29 notation of completion. But once he found that he could actually type the whole story with his own fingers, he seems to have exploded with creative energy, drafting those next two stories within a single week. None is a weak story; indeed, all three are considered by most critics to be among his strongest.

At the end of “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” the narrator Paul is left asking himself, “But hear, oh heart of mine!—how can you ever visit the cafe again?” (Rediscovery 399). In the novel Norstrilia, begun before that story was written but completed two years after, we again find Paul, “a real man once acquainted with C’mell,” sitting in a restaurant—perhaps that same cafe. He now seems to have lost most of his innocence and much of his verve. He reacts sarcastically to a middle-aged woman’s naive questions, which resemble those Virginia might have asked. The book explains that “He had had an unhappy love affair which he still remembered, a climb to the Abba-dingo over Alpha Ralpha Boulevard which he would never repeat, and very little patience with fools who had never dared and never suffered anything” (Norstrilia 164). Paul shows a little compassion toward the woman before his one brief scene in the novel ends, but only enough to wipe her brain free of its troublesome thoughts and to send her off in tears. He has too many troubles of his own to enjoy life any more.

Paul Linebarger himself did not end that way. “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” was not simply the loving reminiscence of his first wife Margaret that his second wife Genevieve seemed to think. Rather, it was a way for him to finish working through the unresolved emotions of the first marriage, and perhaps of his unresolved earlier relationship with Irene as well. It highlighted the contributions made by the woman in each case to the end of the relationship, and reassured him that he was capable of a human compassion that might count in his favor when an ultimate accounting was made. Linebarger’s subsequent male protagonists (as in “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” and Norstrilia) went on to love more compassionately than the Paul of “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” and they were loved more generously in return. Paul Linebarger himself went on to a more comfortable marriage with Genevieve and to an intense imaginative relationship with C’mell, one of the great heroines of science fiction. The writing of “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” was not all that got him to that happier place in his life, but it was one of the principal thoroughfares that carried him there.



Earlier drafts of portions of this paper were presented at the annual conferences of the Science Fiction Research Association, Rolla, Missouri, June 1984, and Kansas City, Missouri, July 2007. I am grateful to all the relatives, friends, and colleagues of Paul Linebarger, still living or now deceased, who shared their memories of him with me. I am also grateful to the many staff members of the Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, and the Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, for their assistance during repeated visits over some 30 years. I am especially grateful for the sustained cooperation and assistance of Paul Linebarger’s daughters, Rosana Hart and Marcia Linebarger.

All references to “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” are to the corrected reprint that appears in the NESFA volume on Smith, The Rediscovery of Man. It was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in June 1961: 5-29.

  1. Several scholars have given special attention to the role of kindness (human and non-human) in a variety of Smith’s stories: e.g., Wolfe and Williams (1983), Hellekson (2001), McGuirk (2001, 2010).
  2. Personal communication, 30 October 2005.
  3. The website, maintained by Espana Sherif, is located at http://www.catch22.com /SF/ARB. Mahito Nomura, who has translated numerous selections from Smith’s work into Japanese for the fanzine, sent or personally delivered to me several of its handsome issues. The Italian group is I Numi; their album, “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” was released by Vinyl Magic Productions in 1993. (My thanks to Espana Sherif for giving me a copy of the CD.) The Swedish composer is Ralph Lundsten; his “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” album was released by EMI Harvest in 1979.
  4. See Lewis for many examples.
  5. Forrest, Ria (1947) and Carola (1948); Carmichael Smith, Atomsk (1949).
  6. Ralph A. Alpher, personal communication, 29 April 1984.
  7. Alpher’s own judgment was: “It would be difficult to accept the notion that the title is pure coincidence. Linebarger must have constructed it from my name” (personal communication, 23 May 1984). Alpher notes that when he was younger, some friends nicknamed him “Alpher Ralpher,” others called him “Alphalpher,” and still others simply “Ralpher”—though he does not suggest that Linebarger had any way of knowing these nicknames. My special thanks to Thomas R. Oliver, who first suggested that I look into Alpher’s name as a possible source for the Boulevard’s name (personal communication, 1 April 1984).
  8. In a 7 February 1961 letter to his agent, Harry Altshuler, Linebarger warned that “the pagination of ‘Alpha Ralpha Boulevard’ is tricky, since I inserted 4 pages after p. 4 and then made pp. 13-17 a single page to allow for it.” Cordwainer Smith Collection, MS D187, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, Lawrence.
  9. Original draft of “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” under the title “She Got the Which of the What-She-Did.” Cordwainer Smith Collection, MS D187 576, Spencer Research Library.
  10. Original copy-edited manuscript of “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” Mercury Press Archive, Syracuse University.
  11. J. J. Pierce, story note to “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” Best 283.
  12. The Metropolitan Museum has varied in its treatment of the painting, sometimes removing it from public view for lengthy periods, at other times presenting it as an example of bad art in advertisements for mail-order art appreciation lessons, at still other times selling many copies of it as one of the Met’s most popular works.
  13. Letter to H. L. Gold, 7 February 1961; Cordwainer Smith Collection, MS D187, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, Lawrence.
  14. The painting of the couple in a swing, which became almost as popular as “The Storm,” is usually called “Le Printemps” or “Springtime.”
  15. Interview with Alma Hixon, 13 September 1985; interview with Suzanne Eaton, Kansas City, KS, 5 August 1992.
  16. Interview with Genevieve Linebarger, Washington, DC, 26 September 1979.
  17. Interview with Marcia Linebarger, 11 May 1983.
  18. It is not unusual for male writers to identify with women in order to draw forth their own creativity; see Williamson (2001) for various examples. Passages in Linebarger’s partially autobiographical novel Carola (e.g., 45-48, 52-53) also suggest that he may have enjoyed experimenting in childhood with dressing as a girl. Such feelings may then have re-emerged during his self-exploration of gender roles as a novelist.
  19. Ria and Carola were published by the respected publishing house Duell, Sloan and Pearce. They were widely reviewed, with mixed judgments as to their quality and as to the gender of their author.
  20. Information on Linebarger’s cross-dressing is drawn in part from several personal communications I received from the psychotherapists who treated him during this period in his life, Benjamin Weininger and Helen Tepper.
  21. Interviews with W. Wentworth Linebarger, 17 June 1983 and 24 March 1984.
  22. Interview with Genevieve Linebarger, Washington, DC, 26 September 1979. Outside of Genevieve’s second-hand account, surely based on what Paul had told her, there is no documented evidence of Margaret’s interest in another man at that time. One perhaps relevant passage in the story “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is the Abba-dingo’s prediction, as reported by Macht: “that I, Maximilien Macht, would live or die with a brown-haired girl who was already betrothed” (384) – a description that could apply to Margaret Linebarger as well as to Virginia.
  23. Interview with Genevieve Linebarger, Washington, DC, 26 September 1979.
  24. See Elms, “Creation” 275-276, for a description of that still-unpublished manuscript.
  25. See Blofeld 24-25 and 117 ff.
  26. Interview with W. Wentworth Linebarger, 24 March 1984.
  27. Interview with W. Wentworth Linebarger, 17 June 1983.
  28. Linebarger’s accounts of his relationship with Irene are contained in several of his diaries and other manuscripts in the Cordwainer Smith Collection, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas. A photograph of Irene, autographed for Paul, is in the Paul M.A. Linebarger Collection, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University. Much of the dramatic personal history of the central character in Carola appears to have been based on Irene’s life, interwoven with gender-reversed episodes from Linebarger’s own childhood and adolescence.
  29. In “On the Sand Planet,” for instance, Smith borrowed elements from mid-twentieth-century Egyptian political history, disguising the name “Farouk” as “Kuraf” and “Naguib” as “Gibna” (Pierce, Introduction to Quest v.).
  30. As Wentworth Linebarger remembered it.
  31. Note in Paul M.A. Linebarger’s handwriting on back of a 25 September 1933 letter; Paul M. W. Linebarger Collection, Box 10, File 12, Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University.
  32. Matthew 25:40, Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version.
  33. The history of Linebarger’s religious development is discussed in more detail in Elms, “Creation” 182-185 and “Canberra” 53-54.
  34. Both letters are in the Cordwainer Smith Collection, MS D187, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas, Lawrence.



Amis, Kingsley. Foreword to “The Game of Rat and Dragon.” The Mirror of Infinity: A Critics’ Anthology of Science Fiction. Ed. Robert Silverberg. NY: Harper, 1970. 197-200.

Bernardin de St.-Pierre, Jacques-Henri. Paul et Virginie. (1788). Transl. John Donovan. Paul and Virginia. London: Owen, 1982.

Blofeld, John. City of Lingering Splendor. London: Hutchinson, 1961.

Chow Tse-tsung. The May Fourth Movement: Intellectual Revolution in Modern China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960.

Easterbrook, Greg. “NASA’s Space Station Zero.” Newsweek, 11 April 1994: 30-33.

Elms, Alan. C. “The Creation of Cordwainer Smith.” SFS 11.3 (Nov. 1984): 264-283.

))))). “Origins of the Underpeople: Cats, Kuomintang and Cordwainer Smith.” Fictional Space: Essays on Contemporary Science Fiction. Essays and Studies 1990. Ed. Tom Shippey. Oxford: Blackwell: Humanities, 1991. 166-193.

))))). “From Canberra to Norstrilia: The Australian Adventures of Cordwainer Smith.” Foundation 29 (2000): 44-58.

Heinlein, Robert A. “The Roads Must Roll.” Astounding Science Fiction, 1940. Science Fiction Hall of Fame, vol. 1. Ed. Robert Silverberg. New York: Doubleday, 1970, 52-86.

Hellekson, Karen. The Science Fiction of Cordwainer Smith. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2001.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Introduction.” The Norton Book of Science Fiction. Ed. Ursula K. Le Guin, Brian Attebery, and Karen Joy Fowler. New York: Norton, 1990, 15-42.

Lewis, Anthony R. Concordance to Cordwainer Smith. 3rd ed. Framingham, MA: NESFA, 2000.

Linebarger, Paul Myron Anthony. [as Felix C. Forrest]. Ria. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1947.

))))). [as Felix C. Forrest]. Carola. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1948.

))))). [as Carmichael Smith]. Atomsk. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1949.

))))). [as Cordwainer Smith]. The Rediscovery of Man: The Complete Short Fiction of Cordwainer Smith. Ed. James A. Mann. Framingham, MA: NESFA, 1993.

))))). [as Cordwainer Smith]. Norstrilia, 1st rev. ed.. Framingham, MA: NESFA, 1994.

McGuirk, Carol. “The Rediscovery of Cordwainer Smith.” SFS 28.2 (July 2001): 161-200.

))))). “The Animal Downdeep: Cordwainer Smith’s Late Tales of the Underpeople.” SFS 37.3 (Nov. 2010): 466-477.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. French Paintings II: XIX Century. New York: Metropolitan Museum, 1966.

Pierce, J.J., Ed. The Best of Cordwainer Smith. New York: Ballantine, 1975.

))))). “Introduction.” Quest of the Three Worlds. Cordwainer Smith. New York: Ballantine, 1978. v-viii.

Singh, Simon. Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe. New York: Fourth Estate, 2004.

Williamson, Alan. Almost a Girl: Male Writers and Female Identification. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 2001.

Wolfe, Gary K. and Carol T. Williams. “The Majesty of Kindness: The Dialectic of Cordwainer Smith.” Voices for the Future 3. Ed. Thomas D. Clareson and Thomas L. Wymer. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green U Popular P, 1983. 52-74.



Cordwainer Smith’s novelette “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” is a central component of his future history, marking the onset of the period he called the Rediscovery of Man. Though it has come to be regarded as a classic, the story’s title, the behavior and fate of its central characters, and its underlying autobiographical sources have all retained an air of mystery. The title is identified here as a first statement of one of the story’s main themes, referring to both religious and astrophysical accounts of how the universe began. Other story elements draw upon such literary sources as the eighteenth-century French romance Paul et Virginie, Goethe’s Faust, and Dumas’ Count of Monte Cristo. In addition, the story’s architecture and its principal actions mythologize such autobiographical components as Smith’s childhood experiences in Baden-Baden, Germany; his intense adolescent romance in Peking; and the failure of his first marriage, as related both to his suspicions about his wife’s interest in another man and her objections to his cross-dressing. The divorce initiated a 13-year writer’s block in which Smith was unable to put any fiction on paper with his own hands (though he could dictate it to secretaries or record it for later transcription). In writing “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” he confronted his feelings about his divorce, stressed the value of simple human kindness in his treatment of others, and thereby dissolved his writer’s block. He promptly wrote two more now-classic stories, “The Ballad of Lost C’mell” and “A Planet Named Shayol.” He was also able to settle more comfortably into his second marriage.

Personal Account of a Depression Era Log Home Near Batesville, Arkansas


Alan C. Elms

[Author’s note: This paper was published in the journal Ohio Valley Historical Archaeology, Volume 24, 2010, pp. 77-82. The paper was edited by Donald B. Ball, the journal’s editor, who added the informative details in the photo captions. I am very grateful to Dr. Ball, as well as to my father, Vernon C. Elms, who took the photographs and provided me with most of the information in the paper, as well as building the cabin.]

[Editor’s note: The following brief and informal account of the construction of, and life in, a Depression era log home erected near Batesville, (Independence County) Arkansas, in 1939 provides invaluable insights into the necessity-driven resurrection of a dying construction technique brought about by the financial conditions of those times. The author of these comments – now a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California at Davis – was born in December of 1938 and the accompanying photographs date from early 1939 to late 1943.]


My father, Vernon C. Elms, was the youngest boy among eight children. My mother, Letona Mitchell, was the youngest girl among seven children. They both grew up on family farms, he in Comanche County in north central Texas, she in Independence County in northeast Arkansas. When they married in January 1938 in the depths of the Great Depression, they had almost no resources of their own and their extended families could offer them little financial help. But my father was determined to give his young bride and his new baby son a sturdy home. (She was 16 when they married; he was 25. I came along nearly a year later.) In his seventies, he wrote me an account of how he went about the task:

In 1939 we decided to build a log cabin the old fashioned way. Your grandpa, Pierce Mitchell, gave us three acres of land from the 140 acres he had homesteaded years ago. It was on the bank of Rocky Branch which ran to the White River about half a mile away. There was lots of young pines on the three acres, so I got Alvin [Letona’s eight-year-old brother] to help me and we cut enough I figured to build the cabin. We peeled them and drug them up to the cabin site with Mr. Mitchell’s old mule.

I just had $29.00 to build with, that I had sold an old Chevrolet for. Bill Williamson, who owned hundreds of acres adjoining our 3 acres, gave us a big red oak tree for making boards to shingle the house with and Mr. Mitchell made the boards. He was 70 or so then [actually around 75] but could make about twice as many boards as I could.

I bought new flooring lumber & 3 windows, made a door out of part of the lumber and that was all I bought except nails and hinges for the door.

We decided to have a house raising like in the olden days and invited kinfolk and neighbors to help. We completely built it in one day. We had a house-warming  party a few  days  later with  lots  of people coming.

That winter Wayne Raney[1] & Louie Clark came over Dean Mountain and crossed White River in the dark. I don’t see how they ever found where we lived. Wayne came over to see if he could persuade me to go on the road with him. I think he had a contract with some radio station and needed another musician. I wasn’t about to go on the road. You were a tiny baby and road life never appealed to me anyway. Wayne & Louie slept on the floor with quilts for a mattress. The cabin had two rooms. Was 10 by 20 feet or 12 by 20 feet, I forget which.

Daddy carefully typed his account on the back of an enlarged photograph of the log cabin where I spent nearly five of my first seven years (Figures 1 and 2). The cabin was the scene of many of my earliest and happiest memories. Unfortunately the three acres surrounding it were neither extensive enough nor fertile enough for profitable farming. Daddy continued to pick up a little cash occasionally by playing mandolin, fiddle, and other instruments at barn dances or medicine shows. He did farm work when needed by my maternal grandfather and other nearby farmers. He also made and sold black walnut fudge at an uncle’s small store. He worked with a WPA road construction crew for a while until they cut into a nest of ground-dwelling yellow-jackets. He came home covered with so many stings that he was in bed for several days.

Daddy and Mother went to Texas to live with his relatives for several months while she was in an advanced state of pregnancy. (His mother had died when he was 16, his father several years later.) In December 1938, I became the first member of the extended family to be born in a hospital. We returned to the cabin in Arkansas and stayed there for the next two years, until my mother was pregnant with my sister Jeanine. We went back to Texas and Jeanine was born in May 1941, in the same hospital and with the same obstetrician (Dr. Stubblefield); the previous hospital experience must have been encouraging! Then we all went home to the cabin and stayed for most of another year.

I’m not sure how my mother felt about living in the cabin but I don’t recall hearing her make any complaints about it later in her life. Judging from his several written accounts of it, my father remained enthusiastic about the whole experience of building it and living in it. Until recently I hadn’t paid attention to two intriguing phrases in the account he wrote for me: “In 1939 we decided to build a log cabin the old fashioned way,” and “We decided to have a house raising like in the olden days.” I knew that in his later years my father was fascinated with “the olden days” not only of his youth but of previous generations, as reflected in the books and music and artifacts he collected – but evidently his interest was already there when he was a young man. Thus I spent my early childhood in an authentic log cabin, even though none of our relatives had log cabins. It was not treated as a “retro” sort of experience by anyone, least of all by me. I loved the cabin, and indeed it seemed to me more sturdy and comfortable than the standard wood frame farmhouses of everyone we knew.

Several photographs (Figures 1-6) taken by my father in 1939 and later illustrate distinctive external features of the cabin. I can largely describe its internal features from memory. It was divided into two rooms by a log wall of the same construction as the exterior walls, with a solid wooden door between the two rooms. The rooms were approximately equal in size, about 10 x 12 feet each, reduced by the thickness of the logs. (By the time Daddy wrote about the cabin for the Batesville Daily Guard newspaper a few months after he typed its story for me, he had settled on 12 x 20 feet as its external dimensions.) Entering through the front door, the room to the right was the kitchen; the room to the left was the bedroom. The bedroom was furnished with a double bed for my parents and with folded quilts that were spread on the floor at night as pallets for me and my sister. The bedroom had no external door but featured two external windows.

Figure 1. Elms home and adjacent yard near Batesville, Ark. (All photos by Vernon C. Elms.)

Figure 1. Elms home and adjacent yard near Batesville, Ark. (All photos by Vernon C. Elms.)

The kitchen (the center of our daily family life) was furnished with a small wooden table and four chairs, a dish cabinet against one wall and perhaps some other kind of free-standing storage space, and a traditional black iron cooking stove that was also the principal source of heat in the winter. The stove burned wood and a supply of dry logs was usually stacked nearby. Atop the dish cabinet, at waist height for adults and at shoulder height for a five-year-old, sat a metal water bucket with a long-handled dipper and a metal washbasin, used both for dishwashing and for washing faces and hands.

I remember the water in the basin as always cold in the morning, when I was expected to wash my face to begin the day. Sometimes I had to break the ice in the basin to reach liquid water. We didn’t have a well; my parents carried water from Rocky Branch out back or from the nearby creek (technically a part of White River). We may also have had a rain barrel to accumulate rain water, but my memory summons up only later rain barrels in other locations. I do remember the cooking stove quite clearly; a pot of boiling water was sitting on it when I was just tall enough to reach up and bring the pot down on the side of my head. The scabs from that incident, lasting for weeks if not months, are visible in several early photographs of me.

The front door went directly into the kitchen. In Figure 2, a round hole is visible at the door’s center right for the drawstring that lifted the inside latch; the door swung open against the interior dividing wall. Opposite that door was a window onto the back yard. When I began to write this description of the cabin I couldn’t recall whether the kitchen also had a window or perhaps a door facing onto the side yard; my father didn’t mention either one in his written accounts. But a thinly fictionalized short story that I wrote for a college class 11 or 12 years after I last saw the cabin refers to a “back door” out of the kitchen, and describes the little boy at the center of the story as opening it “to jump from the porch-stone over the puddle of morning dish-water.” That jogged my memory enough for me to look more closely at the photograph (Figure 6) showing the back of the cabin and the side wall where the kitchen was located.

Figure 1. Elms home and adjacent yard near Batesville, Ark. (All photos by Vernon C. Elms.)

Figure 2. Enlarged image of Elms family home. Note use of round logs, rectangular floor plan, atypical log interior wall, asymmetrical front door, shake roof and roof style, and log outbuilding behind house.

Now I can see in the side wall what looks like a long vertical window or, more likely, the frame of a screen door. That photograph was taken late in 1943, nearly five years after the cabin was built, so the second door (if that’s what it is) may not have been part of the cabin’s original structure. Adding a second door and screen door later would have been a difficult task, but the logs on that side of the house do look more jumbled than the rest. My mother spent a lot of time in the kitchen, which would have become insufferably hot as she cooked on the wood-burning stove in the summertime without a good deal of cross-ventilation. Of course the front door also went into the kitchen, but it was not suitable for tossing out dishwater or for various other household tasks. My father worked to please my mother – indeed, that was his main purpose in building the cabin in the first place – and I’d guess he added the side door for her comfort and convenience, if it wasn’t included in the original plan.

The cabin lacked an attic or even a finished ceiling; the roof beams were visible when we looked up. Nor did it have a cellar or any substantial foundation. The floor was made of fairly smooth wood; I crawled around on it as a baby with no splinter problems that I heard about later. (I think that was my father’s idea when he spent good money to buy “flooring lumber” – that and, again, the idea of pleasing my mother.) The floor was raised off the bare earth; the ends of the cross-supports for the flooring are visible just above the bottom log in Figures 1, 2, and 4. Red clay – from the nearby creek, I’m pretty sure – was used to close the spaces between the logs along the sides of the cabin; it’s most visible in Figures 4 and 5. The front doorstep (Figure 4) was a level extension of the interior floor. It was high enough above the ground that I once fell off it and knocked myself unconscious. We had no fireplace; as can be seen most clearly in the “Cabin in snow” photo (Figure 3), just one metal stovepipe exits the roof, and that’s from the cooking stove.

I don’t recall where our privy was located on the property – outdoors, of course, and no doubt somewhere away from our water supply (branch and creek), but also far enough from the cabin for its odor not to drift our way. My father’s senses of humor and of aesthetics excluded photo-graphs of any outdoor toilet (for which our euphemism was always just “the outhouse.”)

The outbuilding visible in several photos (Figures 1-3) was not a privy, and I’m fairly sure it was not a chicken coop. Our chickens slept in nearby trees. Though my memory is tentative here, I seem to recall that the structure was referred to as the smokehouse. My father participated with a number of male relatives in an annual day of pig slaughtering in the dead of winter. I don’t remember that we had pigs of our own, but my grandfather had plenty of them, and so did several other relatives. Anyone who helped with the strenuous process of slaughtering and immediately processing the pigs for consumption and storage got a share of the meat. (I was present at one slaughtering, and got to kick around an inflated pig bladder with the other kids.)

In the absence of other means of preserving meat, a smokehouse would have been very useful. Pork was an essential part of our diet then and later. We often had pork sausages and sometimes bacon for breakfast, along with eggs and biscuits. My grandfather produced many gallons of sorghum molasses every year from his own sorghum cane, and he shared some of it with us. I delighted in the taste and texture of molasses and fresh soft butter, swirled together to spread on my mother’s biscuits. Our midday meals (called “dinner”) and our evening meals (called “supper”) fairly often featured pork chops or some other cut of pork along with black-eyed peas, fried potatoes, and boiled collard or turnip greens. I also enjoyed squirrel dumplings, sautéed frogs’ legs and crawdad tails, and other dishes of small wild game that my father brought back from hunting. (Later on, when we were living in town, Daddy sometimes rented a meat locker to keep frozen meat – or, I suspect, used one of the lockers onsite for free when he worked at the Batesville ice plant.)

Early in World War II, when Jeanine was still a babe in arms, we moved to San Diego for several months. We lived in a new housing project there, my first sustained experience of electric lights and indoor plumbing. Daddy got work as an aircraft mechanic at Convair (he had already done a lot of work on cars, his own and others), while my mother “bucked rivets” for the military planes being constructed in the same plant. But it was soon evident that she was pregnant again (though of course I was not told anything about that), so we returned to the cabin in Arkansas once more. As the war intensified, Daddy volunteered for the Navy. Before he left, he got us situated in a large old mansion in downtown Batesville that had recently been subdivided into apartments. There my mother and Jeanine and I, and soon baby Larry, remained during the rest of the war.

The photograph of me and Jeanine feeding chickens (Figure 6) was likely taken shortly before Daddy left for the Navy. I was then almost 5 and Jeanine was 2. When he returned at war’s end, we did not move back to the cabin for long. Instead we settled into a house on Lower Main Street in Batesville, close enough to school for me to walk there by myself. The cabin was then sold for the value of the logs and was disassembled and hauled away by the purchaser. I remember standing there as the disassembling began and feeling very nostalgic – at age seven!

I returned to the site of the cabin in 1976 or 1977 with my father and my daughters, so the girls could see where we had lived and so both he and I could refresh our memories. We found several fence posts still standing – and out of them we drew several square nails. My father was especially pleased to find those nails. I don’t recall that he explained where he originally got them, but for him they seemed to serve as another connection to an older technology and to earlier generations whose work he appreciated. In the commentary he typed for me on the back of his main photo of the cabin, he mentions buying “nails and hinges for the door,” but he doesn’t mention those in his later newspaper article. He may have obtained the square nails from my grandfather, who had a large farm with extensive shop equipment for all sorts of farm repairs, and whose early generosity had made the cabin possible. On that visit I was surprised to find (though as a psychologist I shouldn’t have been) that Rocky Branch was not the deep rushing stream that I had remembered from childhood. It was still flowing, but it was hardly more than a trickle, and its shallow banks showed that it had never been much more than that. The cabin, however, remains solid and substantial in both the photographs my father made and in my memory.


Reference Cited

Elms, Alan C.

2002      Responsibilities. In Between Fathers and Sons: Critical Incident Narratives in the Development of Men’s Lives, edited by Robert J. Pellegrini and Theodore R. Sarbin, pp. 69-76. Haworth Press, Binghamton, New York.


[1] Wayne Raney (1921-1993) was a local musician (harmonica player, singer, and song writer) who later achieved some renown in country and gospel music. Although outside the scope of this narrative, his visit to the cabin is further discussed in Elms (2002).


Cabin in snow 1940

Figure 3. Cabin in snow, 1940.  Note window on short axis wall of the house.



Figure 4. The author as a toddler near cabin’s front door. Note rudimentary pier foundations, floor joist placement atop sill plate, ends of logs forming the interior wall, and chimney flue (upper right corner).



Figure 5. Author as a child in front yard, 1939. Note the V-notch construction in the cabin wall.



Figure 6. The author and his sister feeding chickens near rear of house in 1943. Note large window in kitchen area of house, the suggestion of a second door at side of house, and the addition of a palen fence.


Alan C. Elms


A central concept among Henry A. Murray’s theories is the idea of multiple components of personality—the global personality’s composition as a collection of subsystems, any one of which may become temporarily regnant. Intellectual and literary antecedents for this conceptualization can be identified, but Murray’s responsiveness to such ideas is likely to have had more personal origins. Certain aspects of his developmental history, including his relationships with significant others, his visual problems, and a rapid succession of occupational identities in his early career, appear to have sensitized him to theoretical and methodological issues neglected by theorists with dissimilar backgrounds.

In the wild woods of personality psychology, Henry A. Murray has for 60 years been both hedgehog and fox. According to the maxim first recorded by Archilochus 2,700 years ago, “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one big thing.” Henry Murray knows one big thing: that personality is an integrated whole and must be studied as such. In that regard Murray is far more hedgehoggish than most psychologists, even those who describe themselves as holists. He has insisted on studying the whole person not just here and now but across vistas of time and circumstance. Murray is also much foxier than most, for in looking at the whole of personality his main task has been to discern its many component parts and their varied combinations. He has conceptualized, enumerated, and pursued those components with an insistence that raises a thoroughly Murrayan question: What in Murray the person makes Murray the psychologist focus so keenly on that particular set of theoretical, methodological, and descriptive issues?

In theoretical terms, Murray has been personality psychology’s Great Eclectic—borrowing openly and freely from an incredibly wide variety of established perspectives, as well as developing further perspectives of his own. Murray objects to being called an eclectic theorist, feeling that the term suggests a process of promiscuous purloining. But eclecticism is surely the best word to describe the encompassing scope of Murray’s integration of old and new ideas from all over. As Murray told an interviewer who asked him to describe his theory of personality, “First, I would call it a personological system—a family of concepts and theories . . . because, of course, there is no single theory which can explain everything that happens in a person’s life” (Hall, 1968, p. 62).

Just as Murray has not been willing to settle for the one truth of a single theory, so he has not settled for the one truthseeking device of a single methodology. In his masterwork, Explorations in Personality (Murray et al., 1938), he chose instead to use a radical diversity of measurement techniques and assessment strategies. These “multiform assessment methods” were applied and their results synthesized by a “diagnostic council,” which included an array of theoretically and methodologically diverse researchers. The goal was to perceive each personality whole; but Murray did not pursue that goal by sitting back and contemplating wholeness. Rather, he and his collaborators industriously assessed the component parts that ultimately constitute wholeness: not only id, ego, and superego, or four psychological functions and two directions of libidinal expression, but twenty manifest needs and eight latent needs, plus numerous traits, behaviors, and other variables. While his colleagues and students made careers of studying one or a few of these variables, Murray persisted in his concern with the whole lot.

Murray thought and thinks of personality as consisting not merely of assorted component parts all lumped together, but of subsystems and systems of those components:

A personality at any designated moment of its history … is the then-existing brain-located imperceptible and problematical hierarchical constitution of an individual’s entire complex stock of interrelated substance-dependent and structure-dependent psychological properties (elementary, associational, and organizational). Each elementary property is a differentiated (selectively focused), situationally oriented disposition (readiness) and capacity (power) to participate as a process in conjunction with other processes (each in its own way) in a variety of functional exercises or endeavors. (Murray, 1968, p. 6)

In particular, Murray has written of regnancies and regnant processes:

It may prove convenient to refer to the mutually dependent processes that constitute dominant configurations in the brain as regnant processes; and, further, to designate the totality of such processes occurring during a single moment (a unitary temporal segment of brain processes) as a regnancy. … It may be considered that regnancies are functionally at the summit of a hierarchy of subregnancies in the body. . . . Because of the position of regnancies at the summit of the hierarchy of controlling centers in the body, and because of certain institutions established in the brain which influence the regnancies, the latter (constituting as they do the personality) must be distinguished from the rest of the body. (Murray et al., 1938, pp. 45-48)

Murray’s emphasis on regnant processes as the component systems of the personality has not been widely influential. Other personality psychologists have granted at least a face validity to holism, to the study of lives across time and situation, and to multiform assessment methods, even when lack of opportunity or inclination has prevented them from adopting those Murrayan approaches. Specific needs from Murray’s lists of variables have often been tested by others in ways that yielded convincing empirical evidence. But regnant processes lacking in obviousness, ease of measurement, and clearly observable neural bases, have remained among his least discussed concepts. Murray’s persistence in advocating regnant processes as essential qualities of personality (even when, as in his 1968 encyclopedia entry, he uses an alternate terminology) thus suggests that the concept rests upon a firmer foundation in his own personality than simply his high need for endurance.

Murray’s metaphorical descriptions of personality go even further toward presenting it as a system or systems of many smaller components than do his abstract definitions of regnancies. He has written, for instance, that “the self-consciousness acquired in the brain is like a tiny coral isle growing in a sea of dreams” (1940, p. 159). There he appears to describe a stable psychological structure composed of precipitates of many individual components joined together over time. But later in the same paper, Murray describes a typical personality as a much more fluid conglomerate,

a flow of powerful subjective life, conscious and unconscious; a whispering gallery in which voices echo from the distant past; a gulf stream of fantasies with floating memories of past events, currents of contending complexes, plots and counterplots, hopeful intimations and ideals. . . . A personality is a full Congress of orators and pressure-groups, of children, demagogues, communists, isolationists, war-mongers, mugwumps, grafters, log-rollers, lobbyists, Caesars and Christs, Machiavels and Ju-dases, Tories and Promethean revolutionists (1940, pp. 160-161).

With this imagery Murray has gone beyond his more cautious depictions of swelling and fading regnancies, to arrive at a vision of the ordinary personality as a kind of multiple personality. Rhetorically exaggerated as that passage is, it dramatizes a significant difference between Murray’s view of personality and virtually all other centralist positions. Like other centralists, Murray sees personality psychology as “primarily concerned with the governing processes in the brain” (1938, p. 8). Unlike them, he sees these personality processes as constantly shifting, lacking a single stable core. Individual combinations of components reign briefly and are then dethroned by new rulers. Only recently has such a multiple-subsystem view of personality begun to attract the attention of a diverse array of theorists (e.g., Benjamin, 1984, pp. 162-163; Hofstadter, 1985, pp. 781-796; Rosenberg & Gara, 1985). Without attempting to reach a final judgment as to its worth, we may reasonably ask: What accounts for Murray’s development of this extraordinary view, so long held by him though so reluctantly adopted by others?


The traditional approach at this point would be to look at intellectual influences on Murray. He has acknowledged many such influences on his work in psychology, and indeed several of his predecessors did comment upon the fluidity and/or multi-componential nature of personality. William James, for instance, described the “stream of consciousness” in terms somewhat similar to Murray’s discussion of “a flow of powerful subjective life.” Indeed, James sometimes even referred to the personality as consisting of a “stream of selves” (1890, p. 335). Murray had read portions of James’ work before going into psychology, but he was not greatly impressed at the time. (Over 50 years later, however, in offering a younger colleague ideas for a psychobiographical paper on James, Murray suggested the very apposite title, “The Several Selves of William James” [Anderson, 1979].)

Murray was even less impressed by the ideas of a man who had much more opportunity to influence him than James did, and who was very much concerned with issues of multiple personality—Morton Prince. Prince gave Murray his first job in psychology, as his assistant at the Harvard Psychological Clinic. Prince’s best-known work was The Dissociation of a Personality (1906/1978); he remained interested in questions of multiple personality through the rest of his career. But Murray found Prince’s ideas about personality already antiquated in 1926, and thought his work on multiple personality depended in large part upon the patient’s efforts to please the therapist by developing more and more alternate personas. According to Murray, Prince’s influence on his own theoretical ideas, particularly with regard to personality structure, was minimal. Prince’s name appears in Explorations in Personality only on the dedication page.

The works of James and Prince were read attentively by another theorist, who in turn made a very strong impression on Murray—Carl Jung. Jung regarded each personality as compounded of opposites, and he saw the usual conscious personality pattern as replaceable by its unconscious opposite under certain specific circumstances and in later life. Jung also suggested, in the book that first stirred Murray’s interest in psychology. that although

a plurality of personalities can never appear in a normal individual. . . . The possibility of a dissociation of personality must exist, at least in the germ, within the range of the normal. And, as a matter of fact, any moderately acute psychological observer will be able to demonstrate, without much difficulty, traces of character-splitting in normal individuals. One has only to observe a man rather closely, under varying conditions, to see that a change from one milieu to another brings about a striking alteration of personality, and on each occasion a clearly defined character emerges that is noticeably different from the previous one. “Angel abroad, devil at home” is a formulation of the phenomenon of character-splitting derived from everyday experience. (Jung, 1921/1976, p. 464)

Further, Jung conceptualized a collective unconscious in each individual, out of which various independent entities (the archetypes) influence dreams and conscious behavior. Murray never directly incorporated the archetypes into his theoretical system, though he did make heavy use of the anima construct in his detailed analysis of Melville’s novel Pierre (Murray, 1949). The latter use appears to have been influenced at least as much by Murray’s personal affinities with the Melville book as by any theoretical utility of the anima construct. As Murray has acknowledged, he found Jung useful not as a source of specific hypotheses but rather as “a hive of great suggestiveness” (Murray et al., 1938, p. v). Jung’s elaborate rationale for the development of archetypes as precipitates of events experienced by thousands of human and pre-human generations, though it might appear to support a multicomponential view of personality, did not appeal to the biologically sophisticated Murray.

Asked to recall when he began to think of personality as a constantly shifting multi-componential system, Murray recently cited another intellectual influence: “I can date it, I can tell you just where 1 was standing. . . . I was talking to Whitehead, standing in the hall [at Harvard in 1926]. He said, ‘Why, an atom—that’s just a society of electrons . . . in violent agitation’ ” (Elms, 1983b). Beyond the metaphorical-inspirational value of this pronouncement on atoms, Alfred North Whitehead influenced Murray broadly in his adoption of a systems theory approach and more specifically in his use of the regnancy concept (Laughlin, 1973). But Whitehead himself said little about the components of personality, and Murray’s published citations of his work deal with other matters.

Herman Melville could also be regarded as a major intellectual influence on Murray. Murray has studied Melville’s writings in fine detail, and regards him as an important anticipator of both Freudian and Jungian insights. On various occasions Melville used multiple-personality imagery, some of it later cited by Murray (e.g., “Like a frigate, I am full with a thousand souls,” quoted by Murray, 1951, p. 441). But Melville, of course, never developed a persuasive rationale for representing personality systematically in this way, and plenty of psychologists have read Melville without arriving at the sort of multiple-subsystem, temporary-regnancy approach favored by Murray. As with the “influences” of James, Jung, and Whitehead, much of Melville’s influence on Murray appears to have depended upon nonintellectual factors: i.e., upon aspects of Murray’s own personal history that heightened his receptiveness to specific perceptions. As Murray has put it, “science is the creative product of an engagement between the scientist’s psyche and the events to which he is attentive” (1967, p. 288).

Before examining the more personal aspects of Murray’s psyche that made him particularly attentive to issues of multiple personality components in the work of James, Jung, Whitehead, Melville, and others, let us consider one other cognitive source for his own ideas about such issues. For several years prior to his entry into psychology, Murray was extremely attentive to certain nonpsychological events that by his own testimony later influenced his personality-theoretical views. He spent

the greater part of three years in an incubator with several dozen eggs, observing and measuring the chick embryo’s earliest manifestations of vitality. . . . Peering through a microscope, through a little fabricated window in the egg’s shell, spellbound as any libidinous voyeur, I witnessed the procession of momentous transformations that mark the hours when the embryo is no bigger than an angel perching on a pin point (Murray, 1959, p. 13).

Murray says these observations led him to consider intrinsic potentials of growth and creativity in human personality. But it may also be conjectured that as he worked in the incubator, peering in at the processes rapidly unfolding within one egg after another, Murray experienced firsthand an early model for a personological system in which one after another of many small units in the incubating brain is briefly exposed to consciousness and is for that short time the focus of attention in the functioning mind.


Murray’s interest in psychology was first aroused by the question we now consider with regard to Murray himself: What is it about different theorists that leads them to adopt their distinctive theoretical positions? In Jung’s Psychological Types, the first book on personality that Murray read, he found the makings of a satisfying answer: The theorists’ own personalities predispose them to adopt congenial positions. Jung did little to elucidate this answer, other than identifying Freud as an extravert and Adler as an introvert (1921/1976, pp. 60-62). Jung had no interest in examining Freud’s and Adler’s life histories for experiences that might have increased their sensitivity to one theoretical issue or another. Murray did have such an interest; as he later wrote, he felt that “the history of the personality is the personality” (1960, p. 27). Let us, then, examine a little of Murray’s history to see whether we can identify at least some of the personal sources of his interest in multiple components of a fluid personality.

Jung’s ideas about the bifurcation of the personality appear directly traceable to his own development of “Number One” and “Number Two” personalities in late childhood (Jung, 1963, pp. 33-34). Did Murray too suffer from a clinically diagnosable “split personality” or “multiple personality” at an early age? There is no evidence to support such an assumption. As an adult, however, he has occasionally used multiple-personality imagery to describe himself. The opening sentence of one of his major theoretical statements begins: “It seems that the majority of my voices are in favor of this enterprise.” He continues that passage in the same vein by referring to “a minority of me” and to the lack of applause by “some members of my household” (1959, pp. 7-8). Similarly, he interrupts his brief autobiography to report that “the protests of the caucus of friends who frequent my boardinghouse drowned out the feeble voice of conscience” to make him include an account of his parents and his childhood (1967, p. 295). Since Murray has not for at least 60 years inhabited a physical boardinghouse, he is presumably referring to the “caucus of friends” in his own head. In a short paper titled “Bartleby and I,” on a story by his favorite author Melville, Murray spends two pages toying with the meaning of the word “I” in the paper’s title, then switches abruptly to a series of statements by nine different characters, organized as a kind of inner symposium. He returns only in the final paragraph to “I, the commentator,” who says that “all these I’s, as I foretold you, were



spirits, and are ‘melted into air, into thin air’ ” (1966, p. 24). If not literally spirits, perhaps they were regnancies.

These multiple-personality images, jocular as they all are, appear to express more serious self-perceptions, which have been confirmed by outside observers. For instance, his friend Hiram Haydn described Murray as “this man of multiple moods and faces” (1970, p. 124). But when Murray was pressed to consider the accuracy of his descriptions of himself and others as harboring multiple personalities, he finally said, “I exaggerated” (Elms, 1983a).

Murray’s childhood was comfortably ordinary for the most part, and he describes his life as having continued that way until he was well into adulthood. Certain predisposing experiences may, however, be discerned in retrospect. Murray’s father was apparently not a source of such experiences; Murray recalls him as having been “unself-centered, even-tempered, unpretentious, undemanding, acquiescent, firm yet nonau-thoritarian, jolly.” Murray saw his mother, however, as an “ambivalent parent. . . . the more energetic, restless, enthusiastic, enterprising, and talkative . . . also the more changeable, moody, and susceptible to melancholy” (1967, p. 297). Murray observes that “I resemble my mother in all but one of these aspects,” namely her “endogenous anxieties and worries.” He also had an older sister, “fascinating, mischievous . . . with flashes of ungovernable temper,” and a younger brother “with a repertoire of precocious tricks indicative of real brilliance in the future.” Both may have given him further glimpses of personality’s potential fluidity.

With a father who was neither “a charismatic hero” nor “a threatening, awesome, high and mighty judge” (1967, p. 297), Murray found his identifications mainly elsewhere. His mother was one focus of identification; but his relationship with her was early and often a difficult one for him, partly because of his perception that in her eyes he was “third best” out of three children (1967, p. 299). For strongly positive figures of identification he turned to current newsmakers (such as the explorer Nansen), figures of popular mythology (e.g., American Indians), and literary or historical heroes of various sorts. In Murray’s theoretical system, such identifications are added to the Freudian idea of parental identifications as sources for the child’s superego. In Murray’s own case, successive identifications of this nature may have helped to prepare him for his conceptualization of a multiple-component, rather than a single-component or bipolar, personality system. However, other than exhibiting what may have been a rather early onset of nonparental identifications (3.8 years), Murray’s experiences in this regard probably differed little from those of many other children.

Two much less common events, occurring close together in time, suggest a possible neural foundation for Murray’s multi-focused theoretical view-

The Personalities of Henry A. Murray    9

point. At age nine, he underwent surgery to correct an increasingly noticeable crossing of his eyes. Unfortunately the operation produced “the opposite effect, an external strabismus, which, though far less obvious than the previous condition, left me nonetheless as incapable as ever of focusing on a single point with more than one eye at a time, and hence incapable of stereoscopic vision” (1967. p. 301). A life-long stammer began soon after. The stammer might be assumed to have originated from psychological stresses associated with the overcorrective surgery, particularly given that Murray later learned to control the stammer on important public occasions (Elms, 1978). But the stammer was never completely cured, even when it became a focus of his psychoanalysis. As an alternative to the psychic-trauma hypothesis, one might speculate that Murray’s sudden external strabismus, which would have transmitted different perceptual patterns to his two cerebral hemispheres, reduced his previously established pattern of cerebral dominance or worsened an existing condition of incomplete dominance, provoking the stammer in turn. (Central processing phenomena and duplication of neural pathways ordinarily overcome the sensory divergence produced by mild strabismus. Murray’s strabismus, however, became quite pronounced—to the point where one oculist wanted to exhibit him before a professional society’s meeting [Elms, 1983b].) As with factors already mentioned, this possible neurological anomaly does not appear sufficient by itself to have induced Murray’s unusual theoretical perspective. In concert with other factors, however, it may have prepared the ground for subsequent formative influences.

Murray has stated that “there is nothing back there [in childhood] that qualities as an aid to our understanding of his mind when it came to wrestling with the problems of psychology” (1967, p. 295). His adolescence and young manhood were of even less psychological interest, according to his description: no identity crises, no compelling intellectual interests, nothing of much importance to him except for “his unremitting youthful passion for athletic achievement” (expressed in competitive rowing; 1967, p. 287) and his three-year courtship of his future wife Josephine. (Both of those passions involved endurance in seeking a specific goal, and so provide no evidence on the origins of his concern with multiplicity or fluidity in personality.) According to Murray, “my trouble was it was all too smooth, and 1 didn’t wake up till later on. . . . I knew what Harvard would be like, and it was just like what 1 thought it would be like . . . it was a narrowing experience” (Elms, 1978).

But dissatisfactions with his “playboy life” at Harvard apparently had been developing beneath the surface. They combined with certain of his earlier identifications to produce a decision to go to medical school. That decision changed his personality as well as the course of his career.



When I went to medical school, then everything opened up . . . that was one big awakening . . . delivering children in Hell’s Kitchen, and various places of ill repute, and so forth. 1 wasn’t awake intellectually [at Harvard]. Say if I’d read Dostoyevsky or something like that while I was at Harvard . . . but that would have been too much for me, too deep for me. Not till I got to medical school did Dostoyevsky become a favorite author. (Elms, 1978)

Bellevue [where Murray did part of his medical training] is a wonderful experience, two thousand of the destitute people of the world; you learn a lot from that. When I came out I could look at what an awful guy I used to be. Usually I go through a phase of being against what I just came out of. I left Harvard to go to P & S [Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons] to get away from the people there [at Harvard]. (Elms, 1977)

To the former playboy whose only compelling interest was crew, the successive waves of enthusiasm during Murray’s medical years were surprising in number as well as in power and seriousness of purpose. They were not only intellectual enthusiasms but affective ones, as his autobiographical terminology suggests: “A staunch affectionate affair with anatomy and surgery was succeeded by a brief flirtation with physiology, which led to a fairly stable, amorous dyad with biochemistry, a relationship that deepened when the two of them became involved with the wonders of embryological metabolism” (1967, p. 289). But however far these shifting interests within medicine and biology carried him from his previous life, they still left Murray short of full intellectual and emotional satisfaction.

Even before he had embarked upon his surgical internship and then his biochemical research, Murray had discovered the work of Carl Jung. That discovery was quickly followed by “an omnivorous and nourishing procession of readings through the revolutionary and astonishing works of Freud and his disciples, heady liquor for the young chemist” (1967, p. 289). In 1926, during a three-week vacation from his Ph. D. work in biochemistry at Cambridge University, Murray went to Zurich to talk with Jung, “supposedly to discuss abstractions” (Murray, 1940, p. 153). But

within an hour my life was permanently set on a new course. In the next few days “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open” and I experienced the unconscious in that immediate and moving way that cannot be drawn out of books. I came to see that my on-going life was small adventure and the world as I had known it no conclusion. Instead of remaining framed by the standard judgments of my locality and time, I saw myself as the inheritor and potential bearer and promoter of mute historic forces struggling for emergence, consciousness, fulfillment, and communication. (Murray, 1981, pp. 80-81)

Murray later told an interviewer, “During those days, my unconscious delivered itself of many wild and utterly surprising dreams and fantasies” (Hall, 1968, p. 60). As if that were not enough, Murray had read Moby Dick for the first

The Personalities of Henry A. Murray


time shortly before meeting Jung. Melville’s novel confirmed for him the psychodynamic insights of Freud and to a lesser extent of Jung; it also embodied in its main characters many of the emotional forces contending in Murray’s own psyche. The extent to which Murray was aware of his psychological resemblances to Herman Melville at that time is unclear. But as with his study of Freud and his meeting with Jung, his reading of Moby Dick was powerfully revelatory.

At least one other crucial formative experience from the mid-1920s cannot fairly remain unmentioned: Murray’s first encounters with Christiana Morgan. She soon became his closest professional collaborator and remained his “femme inspiratrice” for four decades. According to Murray, “it was Jung’s book, Psychological Types, which . . . started me off in earnest toward psychology. There were, besides this, another book, a woman, some German music and several other fructifying influences that made me feel and think at once, instead of separately” (1940, p. 153). The German music was by Beethoven and Wagner; that other book was of course Moby Dick; the woman was Christiana Morgan.

Morgan had entered analysis with Jung shortly before Murray did. She became a favorite of Jung’s among his many female patients (Murray, 1976, p. 519). She was hired by Morton Prince to work at the Harvard Psychological Clinic soon after he hired Murray. There she remained for Murray an important link to the Jungian world, worked with him to develop the Thematic Apperception Test, and collaborated in several extended research projects (e.g., Murray & Morgan, 1945). She shared Murray’s literary interests, especially in Herman Melville and in the work of their personal friend, Conrad Aiken; and she made the Jungian archetype of the anima personally meaningful for Murray.

That period of a dozen years between Murray’s graduation from Harvard and his apprenticeship at the Harvard Clinic were thus crucial for his psychological development as well as for his professional career. His decision to enter medical school might be seen as one aspect of a delayed identity crisis. Murray himself has suggested that his decision to become a psychologist was part of an early midlife crisis (Elms, 1983a). In between, shift after shift occurred not only in Murray’s career choices but in his outlook on life. His successive reading of Jung, Freud, and Melville transformed him personally as much as they influenced him professionally. His relationship with Christiana Morgan did not determine his final career choice, but it expanded his perceptions of the emotional worlds of others, and gave him a new perspective on his own psyche.

By Murray’s own description, this sustained sequence of experiences, following upon a fairly mundane earlier existence, presented him with a series of dramatic changes in his inner as well as his outer life. This series of changes, personally experienced almost as a sequence of distinct per-

12    ALAN C. ELMS

sonalities, is likely to have made Murray particularly responsive to theoretical constructs involving a multiplicity of diverse personality components. As he developed his own theoretical system during the subsequent decade, he did not stress a stable inner core, an ego or self, but a temporal succession of personality subsystems or regnancies. His own inner and outer changes—from Harvard playboy to Columbia medical student to surgical intern to Ph. D. biochemist to junior psychologist; from psychological innocent to enthusiast of Freud, Jung, and Melville; back and forth from the traditional social world of his wife and family circle to the stimulating adventurousness of Christiana Morgan and their new literary friends—were much more extensive and sustained than the momentary shifts in regnancies that he later described in his theories. In the progression of regnancies that constitutes psychic life in Murray’s per-sonological system, however, we may discern his own personality-developmental progression writ small.

Without Murray’s earlier sensitization (through his mother’s variable personality, his lack of firm positive identification models within the family, his literally cockeyed outlook on the world and its possible attendant neurological effects), his later experiences of sharp change in social context and self-perception might not have borne theoretical fruit. Without opportunities to undergo such sharp changes later, the early sensitization experiences might have left Murray no more perceptive of personal fluidity and multiplicity than thousands or perhaps millions of other people. These early sensitivities and later experiences need not be seen as having distorted Murray’s concepts of personality; rather, they left him with an increased alertness to certain aspects of personality that other theorists, differently prepared, might well overlook. Few personality psychologists appear to think of themselves as harboring a host of sub-personalities or a ceaselessly shifting array of regnancies. But the rest might do well to entertain the possibility that Murray, with his very different life history, has seen something in personality structure and dynamics that they have missed. They might do even better to entertain the conceptual companions to that structural-dynamic model, Murray’s concerns with studying whole life histories through multiple theoretical and methodological approaches.

Finally, the possibility should at least be noted that a narcissistic personality disorder, with attendant psychological splitting, may have been a basis for Murray’s orientation toward multiplicity in personality. That possibility will not be considered in detail here, although Murray freely admits to narcissism and though some of his closest friends and colleagues confirm his admission. (His 1967 autobiographical sketch was originally titled, “Narcissism Re-exhibited.”) Stolorow and Atwood have presented a persuasive case that Carl Jung’s discovery or invention of archetypes derived to a large extent from his defensive response to pathologically

The Personalities of Henry A. Murray


narcissistic trends (1979, pp. 73-109). Murray, however, has never given evidence of such pathological extremes, and his theoretical position appears correspondingly more sensible than Jung’s. It is also true that Murray’s sensible position has never attained the fame or broad influence of Jung’s nonsensible one. Perhaps that is the price one pays for sanity in personality theory.


I am grateful for Henry A. Murray’s willingness to subject himself to numerous interviews over a period of six years, and for his thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. He is, however, not responsible for my interpretations or conclusions. James W. Anderson generously permitted me to consult and to quote from unpublished transcripts of his own interviews with Murray. Several other friends and colleagues of Murray also provided valuable background information. Although none of that information is directly employed here, it will be incorporated into a subsequent study of Murray, at which time the assistance of these individuals will be explicitly acknowledged.


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behavior (pp. 121-174). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Elms, A. C. (1977). Interview with Henry A. Murray. Cambridge. MA: August 8.

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Elms, A. C. (1983a). Interview with Henry A. Murray, Cambridge. MA: June 23.

Elms, A. C. (1983b). Interview with Henry A. Murray. Cambridge, MA: July 30.

Haydn, H. (1969-70). Portrait: Henry A. Murray. American Scholar, 39(1), 123-136.

Hall, M. H. (1968). A conversation with Henry A. Murray. Psychology Today, 2(4). 56-63.

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New York: Basic Books.

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NJ: Princeton/Bollingen, 1976. (Original work published 1921.)

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(Ed.), Psychology: A study of a science (Vol. 3). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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Brengelmann (Eds.), Perspectives in personality research. New York: Springer.

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symposium: Bartleby the scrivener. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press.

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psychology in autobiography (Vol. 5). Boston: Appleton.

Murray, H. A. (1968). Components of an evolving personological system. In D. L. Sills

(Ed.), International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Vol. 12, pp. 5-13). New York:

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Perspectives in Personality. Volume 2, pages 1-14. Copyright © 1987 by JAI Press Inc. All rights of reproduction in any form reserved. ISBN: 0-89232-645-X

Cordwainer Smith’s centenary

The Atlantic today published a well-informed piece on Cordwainer Smith, mentioning my work in passing:


The author of the piece, Ted Gioia, is well-known for his books and articles on jazz and other kinds of music. But his blog also deals with a variety of literary topics, often including science fiction.

The 100th birthday of Cordwainer Smith (or Paul Linebarger) is July 11. On about that date, the scholarly journal Science Fiction Studies will publish a fairly extensive paper by me on one of Cordwainer Smith’s best stories, “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”. The paper will eventually constitute most of one chapter in my biography of Paul Linebarger; the biography is still in progress.

The Crisis of Confidence in Social Psychology


University of California, Davis

[Originally published in the American Psychologist, October 1975, Vol. 30, pp. 967-976. Copyright 1975 by the American Psychological Association.]


Social psychologists once knew who they were and where they were going. The field’s major scientific problems were obvious, and means to solve them were readily available. Particularly during World War II and the two subsequent decades, the total number of social psychologists increased rapidly, exciting new research discoveries were often reported, and theoretical developments seemed to promise dramatic advances in the understanding of human behavior.

One observer, after visiting a number of researchers, noted,

My impression is that as a group they are tremendously interested in what they are doing, are sure of the value of their work, and are confident of their ability to achieve worthwhile results. They have a contagious enthusiasm and a loyalty to their purpose which will carry them to achievement. (Dennis, 1948, pp. 12-13)

“The contributions are both profound and numerous,” another wrote of a series of war-related studies that initiated many postwar lines of research (Katz, 1951, p. 512). “The powerful weapon of systematic theory is now more nearly within the grasp of the wise psychologist than formerly,” we are told in the preface to the Handbook of Social Psychology (Lindzey, 1954, p. viii). Though there were indications by the early 1960s that “much of the excitement has died down” (Cartwright, 1961, p. 11), the same article comments, “During the past decade social psychology has grown in size, expanded its facilities for research and graduate instruction, broadened in the scope of problems investigated, and penetrated more deeply into important social phenomena” (p. 28). The preface to the second edition of the Handbook still reports confidently that “the field of social psychology has evolved at a rapid rate,” and notes “the increased quantitative and methodological sophistication of social psychologists” as well as the need for five summary volumes rather than two (Lindzey & Aronson, 1968, p. viii).

The Handbook’s second edition may now be seen as the high-water mark in social psychological sanguinity. During the past decade, beginning even before the revised Handbook’s publication, many social psychologists appear to have lost not only their enthusiasm but also their sense of direction and their faith in the discipline’s future. Whether they are experiencing an identity crisis, a paradigmatic crisis, or a crisis of confidence, most seem agreed that a crisis is at hand.

Several leaders in the field have expressed their concerns publicly, in terms far different from those of  10 or 20 years ago. According to Leonard Berkowitz (quoted in Smith, 1972),

social psychology is now in a “crisis stage”, in the sense that Kuhn used this term in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. We seem to be somewhat at a loss for important problems to investigate and models to employ in our research and theory. (p. 86)

M. Brewster Smith has repeatedly registered his agreement; for example: “Our best scientists are floundering in the search for a viable paradigm. It is hard to tell the blind alleys from the salients of advance” (Smith, 1973a, p. 464). William McGuire (1973) has noted that “social psychology is currently passing through “a period of more than usual uneasiness, an uneasiness which is felt even more by researchers inside the field than by outside observers” (p. 456). European social psychologists reflect the same troubled concern: “From time to time the interests of the researcher are mobilized by themes or areas which appear new and important at the moment; but sooner or later these prove to be sterile or exhausted and they are abandoned” (Moscovici, 1972, p. 32). Indeed, confidence has ebbed so dramatically that some critics within social psychology (e.g., Gergen, 1973) have returned to questioning whether the field is really a science—a question that critics outside the field have never abandoned.

These widespread self-doubts about goals, methods, and accomplishments are by no means unique to social psychology. Similar doubts have been expressed recently within many other areas of psychology, particularly the closely related fields of personality research (Carlson, 1971; Fiske, 1974), developmental psychology (Wohlwill, 1973), and clinical psychology (Albee, 1970; Farberow, 1973). Serious self-questioning has developed simultaneously in the other social sciences, including sociology (Gouldner, 1970), anthropology (Hymes, 1972), and economics (Roberts, 1974).

Perhaps the self-questioning seems particularly intense and pervasive in social psychology only because the author is a social psychologist. But though various shared influences have contributed to a crisis of confidence in all these fields, certain factors may have made the crisis particularly acute in social psychology; and certain other factors may make its resolution in this field unusually difficult. If reasonable resolutions are found for the current difficulties in social psychology, perhaps they can be adapted in part by other fields suffering similar problems.

The origins of the crisis—indeed, even the existence of a crisis—do not readily appear in a survey of the research literature itself. The literature continues to grow at a fast rate; new theories are proposed, new research areas are investigated. The classic problems and theoretical approaches remain alive and reasonably well. But when social psychologists describe their personal reactions or those of their colleagues to the present state of the field, three major sources of discomfort are often cited: difficulties in conducting research; discrepancies between researchers’ expectations and the field’s actual course of development; and pressures arising mainly outside the profession, but reflected in social psychologists’ attitudes and behaviors regarding their own research. Each source of discomfort appears to demand somewhat different means of coping with the resultant sense of crisis.

Research Difficulties

Social psychologists have felt almost from the field’s beginning that theirs is an unusually difficult area in which to conduct precise scientific research. This feeling has grown much more acute in recent years as research studies have increased in number and in complexity without, apparently, much improvement in our grasp of human social behavior. Janis (in press) describes the frustrations involved:

Time and again the social psychologist’s laboratory findings on main effects and simple interactions that are expected to be dependable generalizations turn out to be will-o’-the-wisps, because they fail to stand up in conceptual replications or turn out to be the product of higher interactions with relatively trivial variables that are specific to the experimental setting. The same demoralizing fate can sometimes beset the field experimenter, since nature will continue to be ingenious in finding new ways to fool even the most wary of investigators.

Campbell (1973) similarly observes,

If we take the one social science that uses the analysis of variance approach, experimental social psychology, the general finding is of higher order interactions in abundance, and main effects but rarely. Even where we get main effects, it is certainly often due to the failure to include dimensions E, F, G, etc., which would have produced interactions. (p. 74)

Campbell contrasts this situation with the history of the physical sciences, where “many strong main effects were found,” and where these strong effects served as “a rich nourishment of ‘laws of nature’ which could be stated without specifying the conditions on the infinitude of other potentially relevant variables” (p. 74).

This contrast between social psychology and the physical sciences has impressed Gergen (1973) so much that he denies social psychology the status of science and suggests that its practitioners might best limit their goal to providing “a systematic account of contemporary affairs” (p. 316). Gergen argues that the facts with which social psychology deals are “largely nonrepeatable and . . . fluctuate markedly over time” (p. 310). The variables that interact with presumably “basic” social psychological phenomena are often culturally determined; and because cultures vary so greatly across both space and time, Gergen asserts, social psychology can never make any lasting or truly generalizable discoveries: “The observed regularities, and thus the major theoretical principles, are firmly wedded to historical circumstances” (p. 315). 

As if this growing awareness of the true scope of human complexity were not enough, social psychologists have also recently become much more concerned with the difficulties created by interactions between researcher and research subject. These difficulties are nonexistent or much less serious in scientific fields that deal with nonhuman entities or that do not collect primary data from human subjects. Though the potential effects of demand characteristics (Orne, 1969) and experimenter bias (Rosenthal, 1969) are by now well known to social psychologists, such phenomena have by no means lost their power to unnerve the cautious experimenter. Gergen (1973, p. 314) has added to this list the broader influence of “enlightenment effects”: changes in behavior as the result of subjects’ increasing awareness (and, indeed, increasing awareness by most members of our society) of social-scientific hypotheses and findings. According to Gergen, individuals who are knowledgeable about social psychology will intentionally alter their behavior in unpredictable ways; and as psychologists seek to offset such reactions, subjects will devise other means of asserting their individuality or their freedom from psychological laws, in an infinite regress of ploys and counterploys.

Researcher Expectancies

Difficulties would remain inherent in the conduct of social psychological research regardless of the researcher’s expectations about the research. But the malaise in the field is compounded by many researchers’ apparent expectation that research should be relatively easy to conduct, should readily produce clear-cut and statistically significant results, and should lead directly to the development of theories that are both sweeping and elegant.

The expectation that research should be easy to perform despite the field’s overall complexity may derive both from the typical socialization patterns of researchers and from bases of comparison taken from outside the field. For ease of presentation, most undergraduate textbooks select only the simplest of the major research studies in an area and describe the procedures sketchily and schematically, if at all. Even in graduate education, the greatest emphasis (other than on the instructor’s own research) is likely to be placed on relatively simple procedures and neat (if possible, 2 X 2 or 2X3) experimental designs. This emphasis is promoted by the recency of the earliest important studies in most areas of social psychology. For instance, the basic attitude-change studies of the Hovland group (Hovland, Janis, & Kelley, 1953) or the initial dissonance research of Festinger and his students (Festinger, 1957) are still of considerably more than historical interest. A new researcher in the field is likely to model his research on just such simply designed studies, as most researchers have done throughout the postwar era in social psychology.

A false idea of research simplicity may also be conveyed by comparisons of social psychology with such fields as physics or chemistry. Social psychologists are typically familiar with only the simplest (and often, again, the earliest) research in these fields. Though they are sure human social behavior is more complicated than chemical processes or gravitational attraction, they often seem not to realize how complex modern physical research must be in order to control all the important interacting variables and to make the accurate and subtle measurements required to produce meaningful results. Gergen (1973), for example, refers to “the velocity of falling bodies or the compounding of chemical elements” as “events that can be recreated in any laboratory, 50 years ago, today, or 100 years from now” (p. 309). He then uses these examples to argue that social psychology is not a true science because the phenomena it studies are much less reliable and much more subject to modification through interaction with other variables. If he were discussing instead contemporary research in biochemistry or particle physics—or if social psychologists typically devoted as much care to the preparation, conduct, and analysis of their research as do modern biochemists or physicists—the contrast would ring much less true.

Social psychological researchers do eventually discover, of course, that research demands a great deal more effort and ingenuity than seemed necessary during their undergraduate or graduate education. But having established these early expectations, they may either abandon research altogether when it becomes more difficult than they had anticipated, or they may begin a pattern of shifting from one apparently simple research area to another, until the required research complexity in the latest area again becomes too great to tolerate.

Similar patterns may establish themselves with regard to research outcomes. The early modern research in social psychology often produced what at first seemed to be readily interpretable findings—revealing the power of social conformity, the development of sleeper effects, the existence of task-oriented and social-emotional group leaders. Certain lines of research even established as a criterion for a good research outcome that it dramatically contradict popular assumptions about human behavior. Textbook filtering further exaggerated the apparent clarity of such research outcomes. To a researcher thus trained to expect a major contribution from every study, a mere increment in knowledge or a simple replication of a previous finding may be profoundly disappointing. But as the field grows, as more and more areas are studied by more and more people, the simpler relationships and the more dramatic phenomena are likelier to have been preempted by earlier research. The identification of a “new” variable involved in counterattitudinal role playing, for example, no longer has much chance of appearing to be the decisive resolution to that now extensive line of research, either to the researcher or to his professional audience.

The same is true with regard to theoretical formulations. The most influential theories in modern social psychology have been sweeping single-factor or two-factor propositions, attempting to account for a wide range of variables with as little acknowledgment of human complexity as possible. These theories have not fared well when subjected to intensive empirical study. As Smith (1973a) laments, “Where, today, are the exciting frontiers of dissonance theory in which so much experimental ingenuity was invested?” (p. 464). Where, indeed, are the exciting frontiers of any consistency theory, or of any other grand theory applied to social psychological phenomena early in the field’s development (Deutsch & Krauss, 1965)? They have either been forced into much narrower confines or have been replaced by theories intended for limited application. These narrow-focus theories too tend to be framed in terms of one or two explanatory variables, and they too are likely to be severely buffeted by data as empirical work on them increases. Today’s would-be theorist will find it difficult to propose any level of integrative theory with reasonable confidence in its usefulness or long life.

One interesting product of all these high expectations contradicted by harsh reality, other than the field’s general malaise, is the active search for signs of a paradigmatic crisis. Thomas Kuhn (1970, pp. 74-75) has argued that major scientific advances in a field are likely to emerge “only after a pronounced failure in the normal problem-solving activity” within the field, that is, only after a crisis. The frequent mention of Kuhn’s name in connection with the current crisis of confidence in social psychology suggests the occurrence of a good deal of wishful thinking along these lines: Real sciences advance through crisis. Social psychology is a real science, but obviously needs to make major advances. Therefore, let’s hope that what we’re feeling now is a real crisis, because that would both validate our scientific status and presage the advances we need.

Such hopes are described as wishful because regardless of whether Kuhn’s analysis is correct, it clearly does not apply to social psychology. A crisis of confidence is not the same as a paradigmatic crisis. To experience the latter, one must first have a paradigm, and there is scant evidence for the existence of a Kuhnian paradigm in social psychology.

Kuhn (1970) has given two nonexclusive definitions of a paradigm:

On the one hand, it stands for the entire constellation of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community. On the other, it denotes one sort of element in that constellation, the concrete puzzle-solutions which, employed as models or examples, can replace explicit rules as a basis for the solution of the remaining puzzles of normal science. (p. 175)

In some ways, the expectations we have discussed about what constitutes an appropriate experimental design or the scope of a valid theory may qualify as aspects of an incomplete paradigm, or as mini-paradigms. But no theory or methodology in social psychology has ever attained the general acceptance and even dogmatic status accorded the physical science paradigms cited by Kuhn. Research methods were, if anything, more diverse during the years preceding the crisis than now (Fried, Gumpper, & Allen, 1973; Higbee & Wells, 1972). A study of the frequency of reference citations in social psychology, which might indicate the existence of widely shared theoretical orientations, concludes that “a small fraction of this field is comprised of coordinated efforts within common conceptual frameworks” (Shulman & Silverman, 1972, p. 235).

The wide availability of alternative theories and methods in social psychology suggests that the field is still at what Kuhn calls a preparadigmatic stage. (Kuhn himself applies that term to the social sciences generally; 1970, pp. 160-161.) Social psychology does not appear ready for the development even of its first overarching paradigm, let alone for the crisis-ridden replacement of one paradigm by another. Social psychologists may have lost some of their faith in laboratory experimentation, or in dissonance theory, or in significance levels. But they never approached unanimity in sharing those faiths in the first place—and such unanimity of orthodoxy is the basic criterion for a Kuhnian paradigm.

Outside Pressures

Although troubled by the difficulties inherent in the field and disappointed by the nonrealization of their own expectations, social psychologists might have gone on tending their own gardens in their own ways for years to come, had not powerful pressures begun to be felt from outside the field. Not all of these pressures have remained outside; some have gained added power through internalization by social psychologists. But probably none would have developed any genuinely discomfiting strength within the field by this time, had they not been initiated or intensified by forces in the society at large.

The most obvious pressure has been the demand for relevance. At least a substantial minority of social psychologists have always been concerned with the relationship between scientific knowledge and social application, but the student movements of the 1960s elevated social relevance to a major criterion for social psychological research. That would not in itself have necessarily contributed to a crisis in confidence, but as the decade neared its end, the inadequacy of social psychology in meeting immediate social needs became more and more obvious. Theodore Newcomb (1951) had much earlier expressed concern that the field’s “too rapid inflation” might be “based upon expectations which are greater than anything which we can deliver in the near future” (p. 31). His fears proved more soundly based than the generally elevated expectations of the 1950s—expectations perhaps elevated even further in the mid-1960s by leftist students’ and professionals’ argument that social psychologists had produced few truly relevant findings mainly because they were being intentionally irrelevant. When social psychologists in substantial numbers tried to be more relevant, the lack of major social breakthroughs produced by their research was all the more disappointing.

At roughly the same time, and in some instances from the same sources as the insistence on social relevance, came two other demands: for serious consideration of the psychologies of women and racial minorities, and for greater concern for the rights of research subjects. In both instances, social psychologists widely acknowledged guilt for past neglect and began moving toward more responsible positions; but meeting these new demands made the conduct of research more difficult than ever.

The insistence on proper attention to women and minority members had an even broader effect than advocates of those groups intended. It literally brought home, to many social psychologists who had discussed the issue abstractly for years, the need to assess the impact of cultural variables on social psychological research. When “cultural variables” meant “how the French or Zulus differ from Americans,” social psychologists could feel fairly comfortable as they continued to conduct research on their undergraduate students, assuming that one day someone else would show how different or similar the French or Zulus were to their subjects. But when black students at one’s own university began to insist that they often held different and perhaps superior values to whites, or when women activists began to argue that they had been exposed to different but not inherently inferior socialization processes than males, social psychologists were forced to reconsider the generality of their often narrowly based findings, as well as their own biases in interpreting and applying those findings.

Complaints about ethical abuses may have been initiated as much by social psychologists’ own experimental excesses as by generally increasing concern, particularly among student activists, about violations of individual rights. Whatever inclination social psychologists felt to ignore such complaints was discouraged by government involvement in the enforcement of professional ethical standards. The result was not so much a serious and widespread examination of ethical principles among social psychologists, as it was a constriction in the kinds of research they felt willing to conduct. Once again, whatever the merits of specific ethical arguments, social psychologists were given cause to worry about what they had been doing in the past and what they would be able to do in the future.

In addition to citing the role of several previously mentioned factors in the growth of “disillusionment” within social psychology, Smith (1973b, p. 63) has noted one other external pressure: the “cold winds from Washington” that signaled the end of relatively easy research money. Basic research in social psychology not only aroused governmental concerns about ethical shortcomings, it also shared in the general reductions of federal scientific research funding and suffered from the redirection of remaining funds toward highly specific problem-solving research. A social psychologist could perhaps still obtain financial support by relating his research to the energy crisis or to safe streets, but he might well feel at the same time that his efforts to contribute to the field’s scientific foundations were being constrained.

The contributions other factors have made to the crisis of confidence are less clear: for instance, the publish-or-perish pressures and shrinking job market within the academic world; the kinds of individuals recruited into social psychology at various stages of the field’s development and their reactions to later changes in the field (Berkowitz, 1970). The factors already discussed are sufficient to account for much of the current sense of crisis. If a substantial portion of them can be dealt with effectively, the crisis should be considerably alleviated if not resolved.

Coping with Crisis

Previous discussions of the crisis or its components have generally argued that significant deficiencies exist in social psychological theory or research, which must be corrected by appropriate changes in theory development and/or research conduct. This is certainly one essential line of response. But the sense of crisis has not developed from these observed deficiencies alone, and it will not be relieved entirely by dealing with them. Social psychologists must reconsider the ways in which they think about the discipline as well as the ways they practice it, and they must develop more confident responses to outside pressures.


Social psychology is clearly in need of new and better theories. Probably the most persistent complaint in the field’s history, from within and without, is that it is largely empirical, with little theoretical guidance. But the fate of previous theoretical “advances,” such as the various consistency theories, should be sufficient warning not to seek premature theoretical closure when the available data are too skimpy to guide intuitive conceptualizations. Even more importantly, social psychologists need to forego the theoretical imperialism that has long been practiced in personality theory and that has occasionally obtained a foothold in this field as well (Berkowitz, 1970). Here the best model from the field of personality may be the work of Henry Murray (1938, 1959). His personal modesty is perhaps too great for most theorists to emulate, but his willingness to tolerate the existence of a diversity of other theories beyond that which seems most immediately useful, and often to incorporate significant aspects of those other theories into his own thinking, is surely worthy of wide adoption. Robert Merton’s (1957) warning against “the sacrilegious and masochistic error of assuming oneself to be omniscient,” of believing that “to admit less than universal knowledge is to admit failure” (p. 7), provides a similar lesson from a different direction. Murray and Merton do not propose that all theories should be given equal weight regardless of their logical and evidential base, but that because of theorists’ own human limitations, any one theory of human behavior will be insufficiently comprehensive to merit exclusive allegiance.

We cannot here suggest the probable lines of future theoretical development in social psychology; in McGuire’s (1973) vividly mixed metaphor, they “will be hammered out by theoretically and empirically skilled researchers in a hundred eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations of thought with data” (p. 450). But it is reasonable to insist that these confrontations not be treated as winner-take-all battles, with the hardest hammerer obliterating his opponents. Theoretical pluralism may be disturbing to those who feel they need certainty, and it may appear inferior to the unitary paradigms enjoyed in certain areas of the physical sciences. But at the current stage in the history of social psychology, such pluralism is likely to impede the field’s progress much less than a temporary all-out adherence to one model. It may also prove in the long run to be a more adequate way to treat human thought and behavior than the near-absolute reductionism of the physical sciences.

Pluralism is appropriate with regard to methodology as well. No doubt laboratory experimentation procedures, including techniques for coping with subject-experimenter interactions, will continue to be improved. (The subject-experimenter problem will probably not be as difficult to deal with as Gergen’s concept of “enlightenment effects” suggests; see Schlenker, 1974.) Field studies, both experimental and relatively nonreactive, will surely increase in sophistication as well as frequency, though they have not yet become nearly as popular as professional homilies or textbook anthologies often indicate (Fried et al., 1973; Higbee & Wells, 1972). Wider dissemination of statistical innovations may permit increased use of time-series data and various kinds of multivariate analysis (McGuire, 1973). But these diverse methodological approaches should not be seen as somehow replacing each other in a paradigmatic succession or as being generally inferior or superior. Not every problem can be studied effectively in the same way, and any attempt to eliminate a research procedure by fiat, for whatever reason, is likely to sow more confusion than clarification. Shaw (1974) urges that social psychologists really try the scientific method implied in the traditional philosophy of science before they conclude that it has failed. The same could be said for any particular methodology now in use, in the sense that it very likely has not been explored to its fullest or applied to all those problems about which it can contribute useful data.

One method rarely used in social psychology, though it has been strongly recommended both within the field (McGuire, 1973) and in related areas (e.g., LeVine, 1973; Murray, 1938), is that of longitudinal study. Traditional social psychological techniques, whether applied in the laboratory or in the field, typically involve a researcher’s brief contact with each of many subjects. Such techniques, though they can be powerful ones for certain problems, are likely to restrict the scope of investigations, may mislead the investigator as to the important variables in the situation, and can deaden his sense of dealing with real human beings, in turn negatively influencing both his development of explanatory concepts and his ethical sense. Longitudinal study can be pursued in many ways, but the general effect should be to increase the probability that the psychologist focuses on processes of human rather than merely statistical significance.

Another technique much more often encountered in other fields than in social psychology (e.g., in anthropology and nonhuman primate research) is the behavioral census. (A broader term is needed in social psychology, because various internal states are often of as much interest as behavior; perhaps Armistead’s, 1974, “experiential map” [p. 117] would be more appropriate.) If an area of human social behavior attracts social psychological attention, it would seem desirable to collect preliminary—but, as much as possible, systematic and objective—data on the distribution of variants of that behavior within a given population, as well as information on apparently associated variables. Barker (1963, 1968) and his associates have conducted wide-ranging surveys of human behavior in “natural” habitats, but they have seldom focused on particular classes of variables (e.g., behavioral-attitudinal inconsistencies, social conformity) that are of current social psychological interest. Such information would be valuable in itself, especially in making long-term comparisons of behavior patterns (Barker, 1965). It could also serve as a useful basis for the formulation of hypotheses and the development of more precise research designs. The typical procedure in social psychology, in which hypothesis or even theory development is based on casual observation or speculation, followed by pilot studies designed to select a specific procedure likely to generate statistically significant differences, often seems more effective in producing professional publications than in locating and explaining important aspects of human social interaction.


Such methodological shifts as increased use of behavioral surveys may have the added advantage of lowering social psychologists’ expectation levels. Knowledge of the full range of likely behaviors in a research area, as well as of a representative array of the variables that influence those behaviors, may chasten the researcher who begins with the idea that one univariate theory, one line of research, or even a single experiment, is going to change everything. Such expectations may also be made more realistic by revisions in our educational procedures, though there are obvious difficulties in conveying simultaneously to students the appeal of the field and the confusion of variables and outcomes to be observed there. Perhaps, in view of past distortions in expectations and the resultant disappointments, honest confusion is to be preferred over misleading confidence.

Most social psychologists who have engaged in research for several years will not need such lessons. But they may still be able to benefit from lessons in the philosophy and history of science. Seekers after a new paradigm should first carefully study Kuhn’s (1970) definitions and examples of paradigms, as well as the somewhat discrepant viewpoints of his critics (Lakatos & Musgrave, 1970). Those who persist in comparing social psychology with physics should be aware of the principal characteristics of modern-day physics and its historical development, as well as of the major similarities and distinctions between psychology and the physical sciences (Schlenker, 1974). Those who argue either that social psychology has made no real advances during this century, or that dramatic advances await only some brilliant methodological innovation or radical reform in professional education, often could profit from closer attention to the history of social psychology than the field has usually received (Baumgardner, Note 1). Such lessons need not be restricted to graduate school courses; self-education and the education of others through journal articles are also of value. At least temporarily, such educative articles might represent a more valuable use of journal space than the usual empirical research reports, though Moscovici’s (1972) suggestion that data collection halt in the meantime seems a little extreme. Limitation of empirical journal papers to those involving a coherent series of studies or several strategic replications could simultaneously free space for these evaluations of the field’s scientific and philosophical foundations and diminish the misleading effects of impressive single studies that never pan out in sustained contributions.

Another area of professional education whose improvement is essential to crisis relief is that of ethics. Psychologists are not unusual in considering their individual moral code, typically built up from early childhood on in unsystematic fashion, as the ultimate arbiter of ethical issues; but they should know better. It is striking that as yet we have not even one full-length treatment of ethical issues in social psychology, nor any fully developed statement of even a single view of ethics that rests upon foundations more substantial than an appeal to everyone’s good will and presumably shared assumptions of right and wrong. The American Psychological Association’s (1973) Ethical Principles are based on just such appeals, and are therefore useful mainly in discriminating fairly innocuous research from truly blatant violations of community standards. An earlier draft of this document (APA Ad Hoc Committee on Ethical Standards, 1971) recommended a risk/benefit model of ethical decision making, reflecting a sound concern with the interests of all the parties affected by a research decision, including members of society at large as well as the individual researcher and his subjects. The risk/benefit model is at least as defensible as any other ethical position in modern philosophy and is particularly applicable in a field in which the needs of society are in fact a major concern. But the final draft adopted by the APA largely removed specific references to this risk/benefit model, in favor of generalities upon which everyone could agree but which offer little guidance to the researcher confronted with difficult problems in research ethics.

According to legend, Davy Crockett’s motto was “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” The motto of some current-day critics of ethical standards within social psychology seems instead to be, “Be sure you’re right, then stop dead.” Social psychologists are obligated to be attentive to ethical issues, especially because their research is largely directed toward other humans. But their attentiveness should be of the kind that allows them to work through an ethical issue, to arrive at a satisfactory resolution in their own eyes and as much as possible in the eyes of other informed observers, and then to go ahead with ethically sound and meaningful research. As McGuire (1969) has argued, the decision to stop doing research has its own serious ethical problems. For those whose sense of crisis comes in part from an ethically dictated decision to do nothing (or to seek out only the weakest methodological approaches), a more extensive exploration of possible ethical positions within the field and their philosophical bases might be sufficient impetus for a move off dead center. Social psychologists do not need as much contention or as much abstract hairsplitting as the moral philosophers who devote their lives to such issues; but they could benefit from confrontations among a diversity of strongly stated, closely reasoned positions going beyond the question of whether a specific experiment is evil or whether a specific research practice (e.g., deception) is always wrong on its face.


Once having themselves arrived at a set (or sets) of defensible moral positions, social psychologists should be better able to educate those outside the field concerning appropriate ethical criteria by which to judge the field’s work, rather than simply to allow others to impose upon them either the medical informed-consent model or the antivivisectionist stance that it is better to do nothing than to attempt balancing diverse ethical interests. Even if social psychologists never achieve complete success in improving the general public’s ability to make moral discriminations, their own more fully developed ethical position should reduce their discomfort at public criticism.

Student demands for relevance have for the time being slackened; those from the federal government have not. With regard to students, social psychologists can again best meet any future pressures by working through their own feelings about what sorts of research are of the greatest long-term relevance, and their own expectations about the reasonable size and speed of research payoffs. They can then devote more of the educational process to a discussion of these issues, and perhaps proportionately less to the “fun-and-games” social psychology that may keep students entertained but at the same time paints them a picture of the social psychologist as Machiavellian rather than as a socially concerned scientist (Ring, 1967). Governmental funding agencies, as well as congressional and executive sources of agency funds, have in the past proven rather resistant to such education. Social psychologists will therefore either have to prove more resourceful in relating their theoretical interests to specific programmatic concerns or (as McGuire, 1973, suggests) will need to accept the “virtues” of research asceticism.

Social psychologists are already allocating substantially greater attention than in past decades to the concerns of minorities and women. Increased attention to these concerns should benefit social psychology, not only by expanding the subject populations normally studied but by increasing the degree to which subjects’ individual cognitions are taken into account. Recently Armistead (1974), Smith (1974), and Argyris (1975) have all argued strongly that social psychologists should seek more information on the subject’s conceptualization of the social situation than has traditionally been collected. As Armistead observes, such information is most needed when the researcher attempts to study “the experience of people in completely different situations from himself” (p. 118), though he is by no means safe in assuming that those whose social situation looks similar to his own also share his interpretation of it. More extensive cross-cultural research is likely to grow out of this focus on individual and subcultural divergencies; and such research, combined with the longitudinal and behavioral-survey research mentioned earlier, should considerably clarify the scientific status of social psychology.

Finally, social psychologists must find ways of adjusting to or moderating academic pressures to publish, at the same time that they reduce their own rate of publishing findings that are so incomplete as to be misleading. This is a problem widely shared with other academic fields, but it could present particular difficulties if social psychologists unilaterally began to restrict their own output. Publication pressures may be expected to increase in many institutions, as the undergraduate student population declines and as relatively short-term contracts begin to replace academic tenure. Further, most university promotion systems appear not to make fine discriminations about reasonable rates of publication among various disciplines. Perhaps increased publication of the sorts of papers suggested previously, including discussions of social psychology’s scientific foundations and of the bases for various ethical positions, will for a time take up some of the slack. But an educational effort will probably be needed here too, including clear public statements by the social psychological journals of their intent to accept for publication only those broad-scope and/or multiple-study research papers that would have previously been published in several units. Individual faculty can then communicate such statements to their institutional hierarchies and hope for sympathetic treatment.


The crisis of confidence in social psychology should be readily understandable by social psychologists, because it is based on familiar phenomena: social comparison processes, levels of aspiration, disconfirmed expectations, etc. Unfortunately, social psychologists have spent more time identifying the existence of such phenomena than devising reliable procedures to negate their undesirable aspects. Advice to be more tolerant of others’ views, to work harder at developing a sound moral and philosophical stance, to lower one’s aspiration level, and to be less insistent on immediate payoffs, would surely be considered by most social psychologists as ineffectual intervention procedures for use on their own research subjects. Such advice is, however, often communicated in one form or another by the psychotherapist who wishes to strengthen a client’s ego or to raise the client’s self-esteem level.

Social psychologists are currently facing certain difficulties in scientific methodology, which with typical resourcefulness they will probably find ways of resolving. But they are also facing serious self-esteem problems, which at this time may be resolved most effectively by following just such kinds of therapeutic advice. Fortunately, most social psychologists are ideal psychotherapeutic clients: intelligent, verbal, capable in many ways, and, most of all, increasingly miserable as the crisis of confidence continues. They will have to be their own therapists, and that is a major challenge in itself. But it is a challenge that they should be able to meet, and well-met challenges are the best tonic of all for crises of self-confidence.


I wish to thank all those who commented upon earlier drafts of this paper. Irving L. Janis, Carl Jorgensen, Karen Ericksen Paige, Barry R. Schlenker, M. Brewster Smith, Robert Sommer, and Cheryl Brown Travis were particularly helpful.


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Starting The Elmsblog

I’ve been working to set up starcraving.com (with Knox Bronson’s help) mainly as a website with stable categories and content that won’t change much over time. The WordPress format does that nicely. But I may also do occasional blogging, with brief comments that are not intended to stay online for long. For now, however, the Elmsblog will be used mainly to display temporarily here the essays, poems, recipes, etc., that wll also be assigned to particular categories and kept there indefinitely.  Read the rest of this entry »

Social Primatology (Social Psychology and Social Relevance, Chapter 2)

Alan C. Elms

dumbbull monkeys: the howlers of Barro Colorado

These Creatures keep together 20 or 30 in a Company, and ramble over the Woods; leaping from Tree to Tree . . . chattering and making a terrible Noise; and a great many grim Faces, and shewing antick Gestures.

— Captain William Dampier Voyages and Descriptions (1700)

One night when he was twenty-five, my father went out into the hills of north central Arkansas with a giant dumbbull. A dumbbull may be made from an ordinary tin can, but he had stretched a dried groundhog skin over one end of an empty nail keg, A rosined string, with a knot at one end to hold it in place, was threaded through the center of the skin and out the open end of the keg. Sliding his fingers tightly along the string, he could make the dumbbull roar like a wildcat or a bull elephant; in clear weather, the noise would carry for a mile.

That first night, my father moved out along a ridge several miles from town, pulling a scream from the dumbbull every few minutes. Horses and mules began to snort all over the countryside. A family living at the foot of the ridge ran half a mile to a neighbor’s house, afraid the monster was breaking into the stable to eat their cow. The next night my father traveled in another direction. A farmer tried to sic his coon-hounds on the monster, but at one fearsome roar from the dumbbull, the dogs turned tail and ran under the house, while the farmer ran inside and locked the doors. After that, people began to talk about getting up a posse to hunt the crittur down, and word came from other counties about seeing strange beasts. When people got so scared they wouldn’t go out at night to help sick neighbors, my father admitted that he and his dumbbull were the “monster.” He stayed out of public view for a while, but most people took the hoax good-naturedly. They were happy it had been only a dumbbull.

The first time I heard a howler monkey clan roaring at the dawn on Barro Colorado Island, I remembered my father’s dumbbull. The howler’s full-throated vocalization is almost mythological in quality, the kind of echoing cry you’d expect from a banshee or a maddened minotaur. It makes the Panamanian rain forest sound like a real jungle. The howl has been recorded on small tape recorders, but it demands the sound system of a modern hard-rock group. If you’ve never heard a nail-keg dumbbull, try to imagine the noise of a pack of increasingly agitated beagles cornering a great barrel-chested lion, with an electronically synthesized Tarzan yodeling to the rescue.

The howler monkey is not barrel-chested but barrel-throated. An adult male weighs twenty pounds or less, but he has a built-in resonator, an unusual development of the hyoid bones of the throat. As the early evolutionist A. R. Wallace wrote (1878), “It is remarkable that this one group of monkeys should possess an organ not found in any other monkey or even in any other mammal, apparently for no other purpose than to be able to make a louder noise than the rest.” It’s more remarkable still, in that howlers have no obvious reason to make a louder noise than the rest; they usually live in an environment very like a Monkey Eden. This is particularly true of the howlers who have been most studied — the black howlers of Barro Colorado Island, in the Panama Canal Zone.

Barro Colorado has too much rain for paradise; when the rain comes, the howlers hunch their backs and bend their heads and roar at it, as if it were an animate evil. But when the rain stops, little else troubles them. Leaf and fruit eaters, they find it hard to starve in the midst of Panama’s heavy vegetation. The high trees in which they live protect them from most potential enemies. The cecropia leaves that are a favorite food would serve better than fig leaves, were the howlers blessed with modesty; they are not. The adult male’s scrotum shows a clear unmistakable white against his dark fur and the green foliage; the female, although she lacks the vivid sex skin of certain old-world primates, manages to make her needs known unashamedly by waggling her tongue in and out of her mouth, in a sort of remote French kiss. The usual ratio of adults (more than two females to each male), plus their unjealous promiscuity, guarantees a male for every female when she’s in heat, and a female for every male when the urge moves him from lethargy.

As the waters of the Panama Canal rose around the mountain ridge that is now Barro Colorado Island, trapping the monkeys there for good, most large predators escaped, and almost none remain. The most serious threat to howlers, the human hunter, is banned from the island, which is a United States Government preserve. Botfly larvae swell the necks of infants, and older monkeys often wear botfly scars; yellow fever dropped hundreds of howlers during the late 1940’s. But since then, the Barro Colorado howler population has exploded dramatically.

Curiosity, a serious threat to any paradise, seems minimal in howlers. They are imperturbable in the presence of sloths and antcaters, and usually look merely anxious, not inquisitive, about human observers. The effectance motivation described by Robert W. White (1963), which moves humans and perhaps certain apes to explore and manipulate their environment, hardly if ever moves the howler; when he is not eating, he mostly rests or sleeps. To his physical near-Eden, he has added (via evolution) an important element — not better means of need satisfaction, but the restriction of his own wants. Eden is not Eden when Adam desires what he cannot have.

But it is not their nearness to the angels which has made the howlers so attractive to social psychologists. Rather, it is the fact that they are social beings. Other creatures are social as well, from ants to springboks. But howlers and other primates seem to humans particularly social because — as they loll in the trees, snack frequently, grumble at each other occasionally, discipline the children when necessary — they look so human.


The howlers of Barro Colorado Island are especially attractive to the scientist because their natural social life is protected from the destruction that hunters have delivered to their mainland brothers. Since being made wards of the Smithsonian Institution earlier in this century, the Barro Colorado howlers have been protected, like the United States residents of the Canal Zone, from the whims of fortune and the attacks of the Panamanians. Barro Colorado Island is, in this way, a somewhat unnatural environment, but perhaps less so than the howlers’ mainland habitat, with its recent (in the evolutionary time scale) addition of guns and traps and poisons.

This protected status docs not exactly make Barro Colorado a paradise for human researchers. A boat dock, laboratory buildings, and sleeping quarters have been built on one little cove, and several trails have been cleared; but the rest of the 4,000 acres remains undisturbed tropical rain forest. In some areas the trees overhead are so thickly interlaced that little underbrush can grow, and travel away from the trails is easy. In other areas, the brush or the meaty serrated spears of pita are so thick that passage even with a machete is nearly impossible. The howlers have the better idea of how to travel: at treetop level, they miss the occasional coral snake or boa constrictor, the scorpion or tarantula, and all the little bright-colored spike-backed spiders who hang their webs between the tree trunks.

Fortunately, the howlers move through the trees with much caution, so it’s usually easy for an earthbound human observer, even as he dodges spiderwebs, to keep up with them. Their slowness, their noisiness, and their togetherness make it possible to study howler behavior under natural conditions more extensively than can be done with many other primates.

The first important effort to unite the study of comparative psychology with social psychology began on Barro Colorado Island in 1931. Animals have been much used for research by psychologists, but usually only in studying elementary responses — reflexes, simple learning, basic drive-reduction behavior. Until 1931, information about the social behavior of man’s closest surviving relatives, the nonhuman primates, was either grossly unreliable, overly simplistic, or descriptive only of abnormal behavior in zoos. Some writers leapt to make generalizations about man and society from these atrociously inadequate data. Others showed their wisdom by keeping quiet.

Late that year a young psychologist, C. Ray Carpenter, went to Barro Colorado to study howlers. Rather than looking around haphazardly for what seemed momentarily interesting or supportive of a current theory (as in previous “scientific” primate observation), Carpenter spent hours a day observing a single group at a time. For several months he systematically surveyed the island’s entire howler population. An indication of his thoroughness is that although an expert naturalist had estimated the Barro Colorado howler population as seventy animals in 1929, Carpenter was able to identify about four hundred howlers by the end of his survey in 1932, and added a hundred more during further study in 1933. Carpenter not only counted the animals (a harder task than it might seem, when you’re classifying adult males and females, plus six categories of juveniles), but also made careful behavioral observations, largely through field glasses, and studied the howler’s environment (Carpenter, 1934). He returned again briefly in 1935, then turned to studying other primate species. The howlers were left to themselves until the 1950s, when they were twice studied by other scientists; then Carpenter returned once more in the summer of 1959, with several associates and student assistants, including myself (Carpenter, 1965). Others have come since.

So the howler’s social life has been studied scientifically over a longer period than any other primate’s except man’s. Observations of its behavior have raised complex questions that remain unsettled among behavioral scientists, but we can start with a few simple ones. How social is the howler? How does it show its socialness? And is the howler distinctive among primates for anything besides, possibly, its noisiness?


First, howlers are definitely clannish. An adult male can occasionally be seen sitting alone on a high branch in the midst of the jungle, distant from any group, but such isolated animals are rare. Even their isolation may be temporary; one may sometimes be seen tagging after a group, as if he were trying to get in, or to get back in. Most howlers are born, live, and die within the same small group — provincials who are much disturbed by encounters with strangers or loners of their species. (At the most recent full census, Barro Colorado Island held forty-four groups, totaling over 800 howlers; but only a half dozen or so isolated animals were counted.)

The groups are stable, and seldom split. Splitting must sometimes occur, since the number of groups on the island has increased along with overall population growth; but the fission process has never been observed by humans. Groups do not appear to exchange members, unless those rare isolated males are in the slow process of transfer. In general, group composition changes only through birth and death. Varying group sizes have been observed, from 2 to 45; the mean is roughly 18 monkeys. Carpenter has calculated the average composition of a Barro Colorado howler group to be 3 adult males, 8 adult females, 3 dependent infants, and 4 juveniles. These proportions have remained roughly the same for over thirty years, longer than the probable life span of any howler, though mean group sizes have varied as a result of disease and environmental change (Chivcrs, 1969).

Talking about a howler “group” (or “clan,” as Carpenter prefers) may imply both more and less than it should. A howler group isn’t just a random collection of animals in a particular area. The group is usually relatively compact, every animal within a few yards of every other animal in the same tree or adjacent trees. When the group is moving, individuals may sometimes be strung out over several dozen yards; but like a progressing amoeba or a ball of silly putty, the group will contract again into a relatively tight knot of monkeys at feeding or rest time. If most of the group begins to move before one monkey finishes eating, the one will usually follow the group rather than eat.

On the other hand, the group is not overly organized. More often than not, adult males lead and bring up the end of a group progression through the jungle; males consistently initiate moves from one tree to another. But the adult males within a group seem to share this “responsibility”; firm patterns of dominance and submission, or exclusive sexual relationships, or indeed any stable relationships (except between a mother and her immature offspring) have been hard to find. Further, the group is not in constant close social interaction, even of an unorganized nature. This is partly because howlers don’t engage in veiy frequent action of any kind. Carpenter kindly refers to “low energy expenditures,” but the plain fact is that in relation to many other species, howlers are lazy. In general they toil not, neither do they spin — except sometimes slowly, while hanging from their prehensile tails. The action in which they do engage is mostly self-oriented: they feed themselves, they scratch themselves, they sun themselves and take long naps, with little overt reference to other members of the group.

A group’s typical day would involve a dawn awakening; a few howls at the sunrise, or at the howls of distant clans; scattered feeding and then perhaps a slow move to a new food tree; concentrated but leisurely feeding during mid-morning; a long midday siesta, during which the adults sleep or rest and the juveniles may play sporadically; possibly another move, probably another two or three hours of feeding in mid-afternoon, unless heavy rain interferes; then a period of settling down in a lodge tree for the night, with virtually complete inactivity from 7 or 8 p.m. until the next morning. The most remarkable aspect of all this behavior, for an animal who is distinctly a social being, is how little of it can really be called social. Much of it might best be described as conjunctive: the behavior of maintaining a fairly close proximity with other animals of the group, without directly orienting one’s behavior toward them or acting in response to their behavior. Conjunctive behavior could be compared to a quiet human evening at home — the husband reading his newspaper in his easy chair, the wife sewing or knitting on the couch, and both getting a certain satisfaction from being in the same room, though they may hardly speak to each other for several hours. The howlers, however, don’t even go off to bed with each other at evening’s end. They may sleep in the same tree, but they sleep on separate branches.


Occasionally, during all this passive and rather disinterested existence, the individual howler monkey may initiate or be on the receiving end of a specific social act. If it’s in any way positive, the action will most likely come from his mother. If it’s somehow negative, it’s likely to come from another howler group, rather than from within his own clan.

I use the vague word “positive” because so little howler behavior can be called truly “cooperative.” The howler mother gives her infant sufficient attention to keep him alive, and that’s about it. She lets him hang to the hair on her belly or back; as he grows older and begins to explore the tree-world, she’ll retrieve him; when she’s ready to move on, she lets him know with a small noise, so he can climb on. If he gets left behind, she’ll come back for him; when he gets too big to ride on her, but not big enough to make every tree crossing safely, she’ll even stretch herself between two branches to make a monkey bridge for him. The small infant is nursed, of course; but when he’s old enough to eat solid food, his mother will only rarely (and perhaps even then only accidentally) pull a branch or leaf down to let him feed.

Mothers also protect their infants from the attentions of other females, who engage in what has informally been called “nursemaid” or “auntie” behavior. The newborn howler is of great interest to the group’s infant-less females. They may simply remain close to the mother for hours at a time, watching; they may nose or touch the infant; they may try to pick it up. Usually all this attention is quite unhelpful and even annoying to the mother, who never asked for a nursemaid in the first place. But once I did sec an infantless female place her arm around and her body partly over a mother and infant as a summer rain grew harder.

Juvenile howlers occasionally play with each other, in a simple-minded way — chases, wrestling, tail-pulling. Adults are involved in play onlv when they’re the butt of a juvenile joke. Most nonhuman primates, particularly those of the Old World, socialize extensively by grooming each other (picking bits of dirt, dead skin, and so on out of each other’s fur with mouth and fingers). Howlers seldom groom; even mothers groom their infants very little. Since the grooming serves in other primates to remove parasites, its absence in howlers may explain why the howlers have such a hard time with botfly larvae infestations. Extensive social interaction may be unnecessary for howlers in most regards; but in this case, it appears they could use more than they have. (Melvin K. Neville [personal communication] observed an apparently higher incidence of grooming among red howlers in Venezuela, and also observed no botfly problem. There may, however, simply be fewer botflies in the Venezuelan habitat.)


Hostile (or, more technically, agonistic) behavior occurs within the clan even less often than positive behavior — sporadically at most. The low incidence of hostility may result partly from the way it’s handled at first appearance, in juvenile play-fighting. Juveniles usually stop nipping and slapping when they begin to get hurt; but if their fighting becomes serious, an adult male will usually emit a sharp grunt, at which point the juveniles cease all action. It isn’t clear whether their response to the male’s grunt is entirely learned or has an innate basis; but frequent repetitions of the grunt-and-stop sequence among juveniles may be sufficient to instill in howlers learned limits to adult aggression against their own clansmen.

Among the group’s adults, the most frequent of infrequent hostile responses occurs when an animal accidentally leaps onto another’s back, or onto an already occupied limb that can’t support two. Howlers seem properly sensitive about their balance and stability of support, since the ground may be 100 or 150 feet down; an upset howler will often snap at the intruder. A mother may also snap at or cuff a too-attentive “auntie”; I’ve even seen an adult male do the cuffing. In contrast to this unusually “fatherly” behavior, I’ve also seen an adult male squeeze a young juvenile until it screamed, with no apparent provocation. Collias and Southwick (1952) once saw a male bite an infant’s tail in half and hurl the baby to the ground.

These latter incidents are unusual behaviors. Some students of primate psychology object to the citation of unusual behavior, on the grounds that it misrepresents the usual behavior of the species. Homicide and suicide are comparative rarities in human society, too, but they’re considered significant in framing personality theories, particularly as they bear on the question of innate aggressiveness in humans. Just so, examples of howler aggression within the group are mentioned to indicate that these animals aren’t entirely peaceful, but have the potential for aggression under certain conditions.

The isolated males mentioned earlier may represent an even stronger case of within-group aggression. No one has ever observed a howler being driven from a group by his fellows, but there he is, out in the jungle, all by his lone. This occurrence of isolated males is doubly surprising, because howlers don’t show the sharp competitiveness and rigid dominance structure displayed by certain other monkeys. No one has witnessed any fights to the death, or even any spats leading to serious injury among individual adults; no struggles for mates, no squabbling for food. Such behavior seldom occurs in primates having clear dominance hierarchies, either; but the howlers attain this relatively peaceful state without even an apparent rigidifying of social structure. Chivers (1969) suggests that howlers may be getting more combative toward their fellow clansmen as the island population increases; he reports a 15 per cent incidence of “scarred, or freshly torn, lips” among adult males as evidence. But he doesn’t report having seen any battles in which these split lips presumably originated.

Altercations between howler clans, however, are not hard to find. Although a physical clash between two clans, with hand-to-hand combat, has never been reliably reported, howlers do react violently when another group approaches anywhere within several hundred feet. The reaction and counterreaction consist mainly of what howlers do best: they howl.

Robert Ardrey (1961) makes the encounter fit for a Disney film:

When two groups sight each other, each on the fringe of its territory, all break into total rage. Males, females, juveniles and infants become ants on a hot plate, leaping through the branches, scudding through the tree-tops, screeching, barking, chattering in frenzy. The forest cathedral becomes a green asylum for its insane inhabitants, and the howls of apparent melancholia become the shrieks of the truly demented.

This is a pretty example of Ardrey’s literary talent, but it doesn’t describe usual howler reactions. When one group’s nearby presence does become known to another (by smell, by incidental noises, or by the first group’s howls at another provocation), the second group is likely to stop any activity, rather than leap about furiously. Then one or more adult males will begin the bark leading to the roar and howl of the full-throated vocalization, joined in by the other males. Adult females and occasionally older juveniles may add their barks and high-pitched chatter. The males of the second group will usually respond, and the cries of both groups may alternate or continue simultaneously from several minutes to an hour or more. During this time, monkeys in each group may move about cautiously, sometimes closer to and sometimes farther away from the other group; but their vocalization is likely to be their only clear sign of disturbance. If two clans accidentally find themselves unusually close together, some monkeys may shake branches or move about in apparent agitation; but they usually manage to stay so far apart that howling suffices to express their distress. Ultimately, both groups will subside into grumbling and feeding, or one group will turn in its path of progression and make a slow retreat. The remaining group may vocalize for several minutes more without reply from the retreating group; then it will either move into the trees just vacated, remain where it is, or itself retreat in the direction from which it came. In no case will one group pursue another.

These vocal exchanges between groups leave no casualties, but they do help to keep strange howlers out of the territory inhabited by each group. Much has been made of the territoriality concept recently, because it seems to offer a biological basis for certain cultural phenomena among humans; but considerable confusion exists about the howler’s version of territoriality. Howlers don’t act as though they’ve built a fence or drawn a border, and then go tearing around the perimeter looking for invaders. Rather, they’re born into a group that is familiar with a certain part of the jungle; in following the group, they presumably learn the location of food trees, lodge trees, and arboreal pathways in that piece of jungle, and turn back from unfamiliar territory. These pieces of familiar territory overlap somewhat, so that two or more howler groups occasionally come into contact. When they do, their reactions give no observable sign of territorial possessiveness but rather a display of irritability like that shown by a human when someone invades his “personal space.” As Carpenter (1965) has said of howlers, “they defend the place where they are” — an idea quite distinct from defending a big hunk of real estate.

Much has also been made of the observation that howlers “defend” their territory only against other howlers, and don’t react to intrusions by other species, such as white-faced cebus or capuchin monkeys. This isn’t quite true. Howlers do usually save their best howls for other howlers; but in several instances I’ve seen howlers move away from capuchins in the same tree, stop a group progression from one tree to another when capuchins came near, and sometimes even vocalize at capuchins. This isn’t really surprising. Even if capuchins don’t compete much with howlers for food, they are distinctly unpleasant animals in their natural habitat. They chatter altogether too noisily; they shake tree limbs, and sometimes break off and drop branches with an annoying crash; they do not respect howlers’ branch-rights, and will sit down on the same limb even if it’s in danger of snapping. If you lived in a tree, would you want a band of white-faces to move in next door?

Ivan Sanderson (1957) has suggested of the howler that “If the countries of South America ever decided to federate or wished to choose a common emblem, this might well be the best animal to select as typifying the continent, roaring his individualistic defiance at the world, emblazoned in red-gold on a green jungle treetop against an azure tropical sky.” Sanderson is either unaware of, or too embarrassed to mention, the howlers’ alternate means of defense, though it might make the animals even more appropriate for certain national emblems. Very simply, when a threatening figure such as a human being is on the ground, the howler will move directly over him and then release a load of urine and watery dung. The first time an observer is the object of this treatment, he feels insulted and betrayed — he feels the howlers’ meanness has no limit. After a while he becomes accustomed enough to the practice to move out of the way, and begins to wonder how this easily avoidable maneuver can be of any value to the howler. He wonders until the day he discovers a howler’s hidden presence overhead by the gentle rain of excrement all around him.

Several writers have argued that this foul behavior is not intentional, that the howlers let go only because thev’re nervous or excited. Anyone who believes this should be placed unprotected beneath a hostile howler group several times before he makes his final judgment. Both male and female adults have been observed repeatedly to move with care from distant to nearby limbs and discharge their loads of excrement in close proximity to the observer, before returning to their original positions. Carpenter once built a blind under a group’s likely line of march, to observe them unseen. The howlers paused over the blind, each in turn, defecated, then continued on their way.

more monkeys, also apes: primate diversity

Early in 1933 a small band of monkeys was imported from Singapore and liberated in this natural jungle more or less as an experiment. Not only did this little band of immigrants from far off Asia decide the jungle was satisfactory but they set up their own government, ruled by a chief and took over the jungle so completely that it was soon found necessary to construct a cage to protect visitors from the jealous monkey inhabitants.

                                        — Leaflet from Monkey Jungle, 22 miles south of Miami, Florida

“Carpenter has a good thing going with his research on howlers,” our friendly neighborhood Congressman might tell the National Science Foundation, “and the Canal Zone is American soil. But don’t go handing out grants to study foreign species, understand? When you’ve seen one monkey, you’ve seen ’em all. If anybody feels like gallivanting around to look at something different, let him go to the zoo.”

Most behavioral scientists seemed to feel likewise for two decades after Carpenter’s pioneering work with howlers. (Their attitude was helped along by the interference of a world war and the practical difficulty of mounting field expeditions, as compared with doing laboratory research.) No major effort was made to study other primate species in the wild, with the exception of Carpenter’s own observations of gibbons; and the howler data, along with Sir Solly Zuckerman’s baboon studies in the London Zoo, strongly influenced numerous scientific and popular treatises on What Primates Are Really Like. The territorial howler, the tyrant baboon with his harem — why, we can see the same behavior in Florida’s Monkey Jungle! In human society! Primates all, and all brothers beneath their multicolored skins!

The gibbons and Sir Sollv’s baboons will shortly be given their due. First, let’s tell our Congressman a little about zoo studies. The zoo primate is in a strange environment, tremendously simplified in comparison with his own wild homeland, even when zookeepers do their best to supply him with “natural” surroundings. His physical wants are met easily; his area of travel is grossly limited; and he is likely to have been raised not by his own parents but by the zookeeper’s daughter. So he will probably be crazy, to begin with; even if he isn’t, his behavior will be abnormally restricted to little more than playing, copulating, or fighting. A zoo may be quite instructive about the physical form of various species. But if you’re interested in primate behavior, a visit to the zoo is rather like going to a lunatic asylum to laugh at the inmates.

Nor can the howler be accepted as representative of wild, “natural” primate behavior. Primates include about two hundred species, hardly brothers under the skin and mostly distant cousins at best. Not only the physical form but the behavior of each species is distinctive. This significant fact has been made clear by a major resurgence of primate field studies during the past few years. In reviewing the recent findings (made by psychologists, zoologists, anthropologists, and representatives of several other disciplines), we can use howler behavior as a benchmark, in order to note important similarities and differences; but the howler is no more an ideal model of a social monkey than any other species. So many different kinds of monkeys and apes have by now been studied in detail, or are being studied presently, that we’ll look at only a suggestive range of primate behaviors.


Let’s start again with social cohesiveness. Most primates do live in stable groups, and in many species the size of the group is not much different from what you’d typically find in howlers. But an Asian ape, the gibbon, and two New World monkeys, the callicebus and the night monkey, regularly live in nuclear family units only — mother, father, and one or two young. At the other end of the scale, the hamadryas baboons of Ethiopia may gather in sleeping troops of several hundred animals at night, though the troop breaks into smaller units during daylight hours. The proportion of adults to juveniles and infants in a group varies in different species according to birth rates, maturational rates, and survival rates; but there is often a disproportionate ratio of adult females to males, perhaps 2 or 3 to 1. This recurrent oversupply of females in many primate groups has intrigued primatologists ever since Carpenter first gathered reliable data on it in howlers (he called it the “socionomic sex ratio”). K. R. L. Hall and Irven DeVore (1965) explain it rather simply. It’s not the result of male duels to the death, as some writers have speculated; males don’t duel to the death under natural conditions, among howlers or baboons or any other primates studied except man. Nor can it be accounted for as the result of young males being driven out of the group by the old tyrant, or of old males being driven out by the upstarts, though an occasional lone male is seen. Instead, the disproportion is mainly a matter of maturational rates. Females mature from half again to twice as quickly as males among most primates; and since primates have relatively short life spans, adult females may outnumber adult males considerably, even if the total number of males — adult, juvenile, and infant —in a group is about equal to the total number of females. Add to this that males seem more likely to become isolates, that males are more likely to be killed defending the group when predators abound, and that some younger mature males are misidentified as juveniles because their sexual maturity isn’t as obvious as in a pregnant, estrous, or child-carrying female, and there you have the socionomic sex ratio. (Hans Kummer [1968a] reports only about 10 per cent more adult females than males among hamadryas baboons. But in that species, younger animals of both sexes take on a distinctive sex role rather early, so he counts every animal from three and one-half years on. Because he starts his count of sexually typed animals at the same age for both sexes, the numbers come out almost equal.)

Among many primate species, groups are virtually closed units, as with howlers. Additions are made mainly by births; strangers are not welcome; departures are likely to be permanent. Among gorillas and even more so among chimpanzees, groups are rather fluid. George Schaller (1963) observed several instances among gorillas in which adults of both sexes, as well as an occasional juvenile, switched groups with little or no trouble. Vernon and Frances Reynolds (1965) describe chimpanzee groups in the Budongo Forest of Uganda as “constantly changing membership, splitting apart, meeting others and joining them, congregating or dispersing.” Some of these behaviors seem random; others involve group transfers as an animal’s life condition changes. A female in heat becomes an attraction for wandering males, thus forming what Adriaan Kortlandt (1962) calls a “sexual group.” When she gives birth and is no longer attractive, she associates with others in her condition; a “nursery group” results. When no estrous female is present, males find little in mothers or children to attract them, and so they may travel in all-male bands. Larger groups, containing males, females in heat, mothers and young, typically are attracted together by a particularly bounteous food tree. Jane Goodall (1965) reports that mother-and-young families are the only completely stable “groups” she has seen; any other relationship may break off without notice, and an animal in any other category may travel by himself if he has no strong reason to travel with other chimps.


Within primate groups, substantial differences in social structure can be observed. Few species seem to have a much looser structure than the rather free-form howler clan; but many primates show a tighter group organization, founded upon a dominance hierarchy. Dominance hierarchies have been observed in various birds and mammals, starting with barnyard chickens (from which came the alternate term of “pecking order”). The most dominant animal in a group may get first crack at food or sexual mates, or may determine group movements. He may also be able to display hostility toward other group members without being aggressed against in turn. The less dominant animals may make a show of subordinance, or redirect their annoyance toward group members still lower in the hierarchy. When Walt Whitman said he could turn and live with the animals because “Not one kneels to another,” he knew not whereof he spoke.

Dominance in primates was first studied extensively by Sir Solly Zuckerman (1932), under unfortunate circumstances. Sir Solly, a distinguished British zoologist, managed to observe baboons in the wild for a few days in the 1920’s, but he did most of his research on a huge hamadryas baboon colony in the London Zoo. To organize a zoo colony properly, he would have had to know much more about baboon social life in natural surroundings than he was able to learn in a few days. One bit of helpful knowledge would be the slightly greater number of adult females than adult males in the wild hamadryas troop. Another would be the fact that peaceful relationships in a hamadryas troop are structured on adult males’ recognition of each other’s exclusive rights to certain females, these rights being built up gradually from before the time a female is sexually mature. And another would be the baboon troop’s insularity: baboons usually react negatively to strange baboons.

What Zuckerman began with at the London Zoo was about lour times as many adult males as females; males captured from several different troops, and thus unfamiliar with each other; males thrown together with no time for the peaceful establishment of rights to particular females. What Zuckerman got were vicious fights between males, fights over females and even against females and young — baboons mutilating and killing each other until hardly any baboon colony remained. In the process, Zuckerman also saw males repeatedly presenting “sexually” to other males, and this looked to Zuckerman like sexual perversity, though it was most likely a stereotyped communication pattern referring to geographical movement rather than sex. In his famous book, The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes, Zuckerman presented a picture of the dominant male baboon as absolute tyrant, monopolizing all available sex partners, destroying opponents, always craving sex, sex both normal and perverted. Until recently, his work has been the definitive picture of baboon social life, and for many the definitive picture of natural primate social life, from which man escaped by supreme acts of will and morality.

Following Zuckerman’s lead, baboons were long thought to be particularly stern practitioners of the rule of dominance. The top male had his harem, which he defended against all comers; subordinate males virtually starved, if they weren’t killed or driven into the lonely wilds. But that myth has been at least partly shattered: neither hamadryas nor savanna baboons are anywhere near as hierarchy-oriented in their natural state as their zoo behavior had suggested. Indeed, even when a distinguishable dominance hierarchy has been found to exist, researchers have often had to use sophisticated statistical techniques to be sure which animals are dominant over whom, and under what circumstances (Bernstein, 1970).

The savanna baboons of South and East Africa display clearer dominance patterns than most primates, but even their behavior is remote from the heights of despotism. Normally, competition for food is nonexistent; males’ infrequent disputes for other reasons are brief and usually noninjurious. Hall and DeVorc (1965) report that the most dominant males in a group do tend to monopolize sexually receptive females during the peak of each female’s estrus period. But Thclma Rowell (personal communication) detected no such monopoly in the groups she observed; even in Hall and DeVore’s groups, dominant males shared estrus females with subordinate adult males and older juveniles when the females were coming into and going out of heat.

Nor does dominance in the savanna baboon always follow the traditionally assumed single-line pattern, from the top male to the second and so on down, in such other prerogatives as grooming or aggressive displays. Rowell (1969) found adult males of forest-dwelling groups to move from one group to another so often that no stable hierarchies could be established. Among groups where hierarchies exist, the dominant position is often held jointly by two or three adult males, acting in concert, though singly each of these males may be subordinate to other animals in the group. Members of such an alliance come to each other’s defense when attacked by another male; they don’t compete even for scarce food tidbits provided bv human observers. They obviously can’t share the same female simultaneously, but their alliances appear to withstand occasional sexual competition. Such dominance alliances probably develop over extended time periods in most groups, but Hall and DeVore observed one situation in which a very subordinate male of one group moved to another group, quickly allied himself with one of the more dominant males there, and thus began a presumably happy life as joint top dogface.

If a savanna baboon does attain dominant status, he acquires certain responsibilities along with his ambiguous privileges. His principal obligation is to protect women and children. When the group is on the move, dominant males typically remain at the center, surrounded by mothers and infants, with subordinate males on the periphery. At a sign of danger, the dominant males move immediately to the front of the group to face the threat — not only with their bark, but with their daggerlike canine teeth. As with howler males, both dominant and subordinate savanna baboons also protect the group from internal aggression: if an older juvenile is roughing up a younger one, or if two females have become angry at each other, an adult male will usually break up the dispute before it escalates, either by growling or by chasing the offending party away (Hall and DeVore, 1965).

Group structure and dominance relationships are arranged rather differently among hamadryas baboons, the species involved in Zuckerman’s zoo studies. In the wild, hamadryas groups exist on three levels (Kummcr, 1968a). The troop contains as many as several hundred animals, who usually sleep in the same area and leave together in the morning. They then split into several bands of thirty to ninety animals, who remain loosely associated during daytime activities. Presumably both the troop and the band serve useful defensive purposes; the troop may also develop partly because a shortage of suitable sleeping space forces large numbers of animals to sleep in the same area (Kummer, 1968b). Each band is further organized into several one-male units, typically composed of one adult male and one to four females with young. The band’s subadult and young males who have no females of their own may follow a one-male unit at a distance, or they may simply remain in the general area foraged by the entire band. Around 20 per cent of a band’s adult males at any one time are mateless.

Zuckerman identified the one-male units as “harems,” and the name still seems somewhat appropriate, though some harems contain only one female. The male leader keeps his eye on his entourage and permits little association, sexual or otherwise, with other males. A venturesome female is likely to be rewarded with a bite on the neck from her leader. But the harem is not built up through brutal combat, as Zuckerman thought; nor is it quite as closed as it appeared to him in the zoo. The one-male group is likely to begin with a young male’s adoption of a one- or two-year-old female, still sexually immature and still several years from childbearing age. He mothers her, he keeps her close to him and brings her back if she tries to run away, until a firm social bond is established. Only later will sexual activity begin. The male may then acquire other mates in the same way, or take over a mature female who has been “let go” by an aging male. Hans Kummer saw little indication that harems are broken up through fighting, but the older males seem to tolerate their females’ moving gradually farther from them, until the females may affiliate with younger males. The old males, as they give up certain sexual prerogatives, gradually take over direction of the entire troop’s travel — expending their energies as executives rather than as breeders.


Territoriality, in the sense of staying in a home range that overlaps little with other groups’ home ranges, and of somehow defending one’s immediate location from infringement by other groups, is not nearly as widespread among primates as Carpenter thought when he found it in the first two species he studied at length, the howler and — halfway round the world — the gibbon. Perhaps a more frequent pattern is the one observed by Phyllis Jay (1965) among langurs, the sacred Hanuman monkeys of India. In the population Jay studied, each group of langurs stayed in a home range that overlapped with the home ranges of other groups, and largely within a core area that didn’t overlap with others. Groups seldom met, partly because adult males produced a “deep, resonant ‘whoop'” when ready to move to another area (somewhat as howlers roar before they move in the morning). But when groups did meet, conflict didn’t occur; the smaller group gave way to the larger. (Under different environmental conditions, Suzanne Ripley [1967] observed troops of langurs apparently seeking each other out for battle, but territorial issues did not seem to be involved.)

In savanna baboons too, a group’s home range overlaps considerably with areas sometimes traversed by other groups, while core areas are fairly exclusive. When two groups do meet, for instance at a water hole during the dry season, they may act nervous toward their newfound neighbors, but they usually don’t roar, bare their teeth, or otherwise display hostile intent in the howler manner. One baboon group may gradually creep away, and some entire groups appear dominant over other entire groups in this way, at least partly on the basis of group size; but the whole interaction is polite, with no chasing allowed (Washburn and DeVore, 1961). Waterhole sharing under such circumstances may well be necessary for species survival. Howler hostility toward other groups is perhaps not a requirement of primate life but a luxury.

A weird modification of territoriality is practiced by the callicebus or titi, studied in Colombia by William Mason (1966, 1968). Callicebus monkeys live in small family groups; the parents display their mutual attraction by sitting together and entwining their long tails at eventide. Each family group usually stays in its home range, with several such families occupying delimited areas of a small woods surrounded by open savanna. Groups coming into contact vocalize strenuously, and may charge each other with a great display of hostility. So far, they appear howlerishly territorial; indeed, titis show even less overlap of group territories. But during a female’s estrus, something extraordinary happens. When two groups meet for an aggressive interlude at the edges of their respective territories, this usually monogamous and homebodv female may ignore her own mate’s sexual advances and wait for the rival male to come satisfy her. or she may even move out toward him. Her own mate naturally displays signs of annoyance, and may attempt to interfere, but often she’s able to enjoy a brief copulation with the other family’s male, after which she returns to her husband with virtually no marital repercussions. Perhaps her mate is by this time already contriving his own liaison with another titi’s woman. The promiscuous but group-centered howlers would surely deliver a moralistic roar at the very thought of such behavior, were they able to think upon morality.

Among apes, the gibbon seems unique in its strong territorial defense. Orangutans have been too little studied, and their societies perhaps too disrupted by all the forces that have pushed them toward extinction, to say much about their apparent lack of territorial behavior. Gorilla concern about territory is rather casual (Schaller, 1963). The home ranges of adjacent gorilla groups usually overlap a great deal, sometimes completely; encounters between groups elicit only slight excitement and perhaps a staring contest between males, with a little chest-beating sometimes thrown in. Schaller has seen two groups bed down and sleep for a night side by side, then go their separate ways in the morning. Intergroup antagonism among chimpanzees, including territorial defense, simply has not been observed. Each loose “community” of frequently interacting chimps apparently remains mostly in one several-square-mile home range, but individual animals exhibit no proprietary feelings toward this familiar area. The Reynoldses several times watched groups, which spent nearly all their time in one area, spontaneously travel “fast and noisily” into the heart of another area usually occupied by a different set of chimps. No hostile reaction ever occurred on either side. When large numbers of chimpanzees gather in a small area around a common food source, the animals appear extraordinarily excited at the sight of so many unfamiliar faces, and sometimes stage what have been called “carnivals.” Many animals vocalize simultaneously, and males drum on tree trunks for hours at a time. The Reynoldses (1965) describe “chimpanzees coming and going in all directions, some to and some from the centers of hubbub. . . . Sometimes whole valleys along a stretch as much as a mile would resound and vibrate with the noise.” The carnivals occasionally last into the night (as all good carnivals should), and sexual activity may reach unusual heights. It’s indicative of chimpanzee distinctiveness that although howlers roar at unfamiliar howlers in attempted repulsion, chimps treat similar occasions with excitement, curiosity, and what really appears to be delight. Further, though chimps do call out briefly and drum on trees while traveling, this doesn’t seem to space out or prevent group contact, as with other primates; instead it may attract them together.


The howler gives about as little attention to its young as any true primate can get away with; in several other species the attention is substantially greater. In the langur, “auntie” behavior has been highly developed. Females of all ages are immediately attracted to a newborn, and begin to take it from its mother a few hours after birth — in Phyllis Jay’s words (1965), “gently manipulating, nudging, and smelling the infant.” When the infant indicates discomfort, another female (or perhaps the mother) will take it. Jay has seen as many as eight females handle the infant on its first day of life. Older females seem more competent than younger at this baby-handling, but as Jay points out, “Because langur mothers allow other females to hold their infants, no langur female is completely without experience in infant care.” Furthermore, “auntie” behavior often turns into “babysitter” behavior: one mother may deposit her infant with another mother, and at times a single mother may sit with several infants for a good part of the day.

Among a few primate species, paternal behavior is notable. The night monkey father, for instance, apparently spends most of his waking time carrying his infant. By the age of three weeks, the night monkey infant goes to his mother mostly to be suckled, and spends the rest of the night riding on his father’s back. The callicebus father behaves rather similarly. Martin Moynihan (1964) suggests that this may be a useful division of labor for such monogamous family-grouping primates. But it would cause problems for species such as the howler, where no child knows its own father and where infants may outnumber adult males.

In at least some groups of Japanese macaques, adult males take care of the group’s juveniles. They don’t merely protect the juveniles from attack, as with savanna baboons; they don’t adopt female young in mate relationships, as with hamadryas; and they don’t carry young infants around, as with night monkeys. Instead, a male will take over a year-old juvenile of either sex when the mother has had or is about to have a new baby. According to Junichiro Itani (1959), the male hugs the yearling, “takes it on his loins, or walks with it; when sitting, he will groom it.” This paternal care declines after the female delivery season has ended, but it may be repeated again the following year, particularly for juvenile females or those who are “especially undergrown and weak.” Most juvenile males by this time have formed their own play groups.


The adult males’ relationships with juveniles may deliver benefits in both directions. Associates of the Japan Monkey Center have encouraged groups of monkeys to come out of their usual mountainous forest habitat to more humanly accessible clearings by “provisioning”: they supply the monkeys with sweet potatoes and other interesting foods. Even before provisioning began, considerable differences existed between food preferences of various groups. For instance, some groups dug for edible roots; others did not. Provisioning made possible experimentation with the development of such apparently “cultural” differences in behavior — patterns learned and handed on rather than inherited (Kawamura, 1959). Itani passed out candy to one group; the older animals refused to eat it, but the juveniles were more venturesome, and candy eating soon spread throughout the group’s juvenile population. Mothers still in close contact with juveniles began eating candy too; so did the more paternal males. Infants then learned from their mothers. The less contact an animal had with the innovative juveniles, the slower he was to pick up the candy habit. At the end of a year and a half, 51 per cent of group members were confirmed candy eaters.

In another group (Kawamura, 1959), one juvenile female spontaneously started washing sweet potatoes before eating them. Again, other juveniles and then their mothers picked up the practice. But in this troop, adult males had no close “paternal” relationships with juveniles, so the males went on eating dirty sweet potatoes. In still another instance, M. Yamada began giving wheat to the group; this time an adult male was first to accept the new food. Shortly the group’s dominant males picked up the habit, then the head female; and from there it spread downward to the whole clan. Some Japanese monkeys even invented a way to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak (Frisch, 1968). The wheat was usually poured out onto a sandy beach, and the monkeys had a hard time making a meal of wheat without getting a mouthful of sand too. So they began tossing the mixture into the sea. The sand sank, and they scooped the wheat off the water.

The founding of another cultural practice may have occurred in chimpanzees. Goodall (1965) observed chimps making and using tools, by trimming twigs that they then thrust into termite holes, so they could draw out and lick off the clinging termites. Only the chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream Reserve have been seen to use this method of catching termites. Young chimps there appear to learn the practice from their elders, so it may well be that one lucky or brilliant chimp developed the practice, which then spread to other members of the chimpanzee community by imitation. In other areas, chimps have been reported to thrust sticks into beehives and then lick the honey off; whether the two practices are culturally related isn’t known. The Reynoldses, in an area where both beehives and termite nests are present, never saw chimps bother either one.

Chimpanzees in particular show a variety of other social behaviors: complex greeting patterns, social facilitation (hyperactivity of various kinds in the presence of several other chimps), sexual and aggressive displays. Indeed, the chimpanzee may prove to be, despite its extremely loose social organization, the most “advanced” social animal besides man. The Reynoldses (1965) have suggested that the chimps’ apparently loose social structure really reflects their relative advancement in social behavior: because they can communicate so efficiently from a distance, and can remember intermittently occurring social relationships (as indicated by variations in greetings to more and less familiar animals), they needn’t maintain tightly organized groups with constant visual contact. Just so, a loving and confident husband might be observed to remain farther from his wife at a party than an uncertain and jealous husband from his. But perhaps we need more research on both husbands and chimpanzees before we accept either hypothesis.

As with howlers, the social behaviors described in this section consume only a small portion of primates’ time and energy — even among chimpanzees. Social animals they may be, but the nonhuman primates are still far less wrapped in a social world than humans are. However, the behaviors I’ve mentioned aren’t just trivial curiosities, a sort of Believe-It-or-Not of the primate world. They are all functional aspects of living behavior patterns that have enabled many different primate species to maintain themselves for several hundred thousand years or more. Socialness is important for the primate, even though his small brain is not constantly concentrated upon it.

how the primate got his gregarity: origins of social motivation

The main factor that determines social grouping in subhuman primates is sexual attraction. Females attract males and males attract females.

                     — Sir Solly Zuckcrman The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes

My daughter Heather, long before she could talk, showed a fierce fascination with other children her size — shouting to them across rooms crowded with adults, grabbing at them as they passed in supermarket shopping carts. Her reaction was so enthusiastic, so free of attempt to win parental favor, that it appeared almost instinctive. Then again, it might have come from her equally vigorous appreciation of herself in a mirror, projected outward onto similar objects (but why did she like her reflection, other than because it seemed to her another child?); or from the pleasure she got out of child-sized tovs; or even from her mother pointing out other infants with the cry, “Bay-bce! Bay-bce!” Who knows? No one can really know, since human babies are complicated creatures reared in a complex world, and since child development researchers are ethically constrained from reducing either complication or complexity experimentally. So the nature-versus-nurture controversy, at least as applied to humans, is hardly a fit topic any more even for junior high school debating societies. Separating the factors in any meaningful way is simply impossible. But wait — who should be available but the relatively simple nonhuman primates, in their relatively simple environments, and with little protection of their rights against drastic experimentation? They may not be of much direct help in explaining my daughter, but perhaps field and laboratory studies of their behavior can help us deal with broader questions raised by her enthusiasm for other children: Why are so many primates attracted to each other? Why do they group together? What are the bases for primate sociability?


Zuckerman’s early hypothesis (1932) is still influential among nonspecialists: society is founded upon sexual copulation and sexual competition. “Reproductive physiology is the fundamental mechanism of society,” he declared — particularly of primate society, since he assumed that primates lack a breeding season and are thus continually interested in sex. Sir Solly devised this position not from reading Freud but from observing his zoo monkeys, who had nothing much besides sex to be social about.

Carpenter had made more reliable observations, from which he developed a more subtle explanation of sex’s role in primate society (1942). His idea was not that sexual desire dominates primate life, but that the social bonds between males and females in a group are repeatedly reinforced through the year by the reward of frequent sexual activity. This would be particularly effective in holding groups together if they practiced the kinds of “rotating mateships” found in howler and rhesus monkeys, because in such situations a female rhesus, for instance, “may be possessed by all the more dominant males in her group during estrus, and with each one social affinitive relations may be strengthened by the coincident positive conditioning (or learning) occurring during copulations.” In other words, all the adult females in the group keep all the adult males happy (or at least the more important males), and all the males keep all the females happy, so they all live together in one big happy family.

The view of sex as the center of primate society remained attractive enough for a distinguished anthropologist, Marshall Sahlins, to write in 1960:

The powerful social magnet of sex was the major impetus to subhuman primate sociability. . . . Subhuman primates are prepared to mate at all seasons, and although females show heightened receptivity midway through the menstrual cycle, they are often capable of sexual activity at other times. Most significantlv for the assessment of its historic role, year-round sex in higher primates is associated with year-round heterosexual social life.

Sahlins qualified his remarks with the acknowledgment that “certain Old World monkeys … do have seasonal declines in breeding without cessation of horde life,” but he insisted that in general, sexuality pervades nonhuman social life throughout the year.

Carpenter many years earlier had noted in howler females a distinct estrus period, not just a period of “heightened receptivity.” He was therefore much more careful to qualify his hypothesis about sex and sociability (Carpenter, 1942):

It must be concluded that strong attachments between individual monkeys or apes may be formed and persist without overt and primary sexual activity, unless we make identical the social and the sexual behavior. Through reciprocal play, through mutual grooming or through communal feeding, social relations and statuses are acquired and these learning processes are strongly motivated and reinforced by reciprocal interactions of drives and their incentives oilier than sexual.

As masses of data have recently become available showing either the distinct periodicity of a primate species’ sexual behavior, or the year-round low level of sexual activity in many primate groups, the assumption of sex’s primary role in sociability has largely been abandoned; and these other rewarding aspects of social life have been given more and more weight. It’s clearly pleasant for the infant primate to have the attentions — the nutriment, warmth, protection — of his mother; pleasant for the young primate to play with his fellows; physically pleasant for most primates of any age to be groomed (as with human back-scratching). It may also be rewarding to see other members of the group defend oneself, perhaps oneself to join in defense, against intruders or predators. When sexual behavior occasionally happens, that should be rewarding as well; but it is not the ultimate and unique gratification of social life. As Carpenter says elsewhere (1940), “Almost every phase of behavior of which a primate is capable enters to some degree into the determination of its ‘gregariousness’ and the qualities of its complex social behavior.”


Whether social behaviors are pleasurable to the individual or not, they may promote survival of the species. Recent writers on primate sociability have chosen to emphasize this feature: the functional basis of group living. If a social behavior is more functional in preserving species existence than a nonsocial one, evolution is more likely to “select” the social; and there are good reasons to believe that social life is and has been highly functional for most primates. This doesn’t necessarily mean that evolution has implanted a social instinct into every monkey and ape, though we’ll explore that possibility later. It may only mean that the primate’s physical structure predisposes him to social living, makes socialness either an easier or a happier way of life than isolation — for instance, because an animal has a back that feels good when it’s scratched, or is so physically disorganized at birth that he must cling to his mother for months, being strongly rewarded by social contact all the while. Or it may mean developing the capacity to transmit traditional patterns of functional behavior: through social communication, through imitation, or through parental reward or punishment of certain acts.

The usefulness of primate social grouping is many-faceted. Childraising may be more effective, because the infant may not only get attention from several adult group members at various times, but also has the opportunity to learn coordination and sex-roles safely in play with other infants. Further, in case of the mother’s death, adoption by another group female may be possible. Growing adolescents have the opportunity to observe various adult roles that may help them mature behaviorally with fewer mistakes. Adults have more opportunity to find sex partners when a partner is desired, and indeed more opportunity for any kind of social stimulation when and if they need it. The group may not only protect the individual from immediate danger, but may help him to cope with potential dangers by teaching him, at least through example, about his environment: what foods to eat, what organisms and natural phenomena (eagles, nettles, bogs) to avoid. Trial-and-error learning may be useful for the laboratory rat, but it could be deadly for the isolated primate.

Because different primate species live in different environments, the same forms of behavior are not universally functional. Development of varying functional responses to varied environments may account in large part for behavior differences between species, as well as for variations of group behaviors within species. The Reynoldses (1965) have suggested that chimpanzees’ relatively large size and their dependence on fruit are at least partially responsible for their loose social organization. Bands of twenty to thirty chimps may form in areas where ripe fruit is heavily concentrated, but at other times and places such a large band could hardly avoid starvation. Mainly ground-dwelling monkeys show, on the whole, distinctive general behavior patterns not found in mainly tree-living monkeys — for instance, the clearer dominance hierarchies of the savanna baboon, which some writers have suggested would be the most useful social organization for defense against ground-dwelling predators. The same baboon species may encounter fewer predators in the forest, and so shows the much looser social structure observed by Rowell (1969). A related species, the hamadryas, may encounter such severe survival problems in the harsh Ethiopian environment that its social structure in some ways is even stricter than that of savanna-dwelling baboons, though more fragmented as well. (On the other hand, as Washburn and Hamburg [1965] note, different adaptations are possible even within similar environments. For instance, patas monkeys, “unlike baboons, have adapted to ground life by speed rather than by size and social organization.”)

The origin of primates’ ancestors in trees rather than on the ground was itself probably a significant factor in the development of strong social motivation, simply because the infant had to cling so closely to its mother for so long a time before it could safely venture out into the tricky arboreal environment. At the same time, Hall and DeVore (1965) have suggested, development of the abilities necessary to respond to a complex social life may in turn be the source of much primate adaptability to the physical environment: if a primate can change his behavior to suit his neighbors, he should be able to change even more easily to suit a new but relatively stable climate or geographic area.


With all this talk of functionality and evolution, the word “instinct” may keep bobbing around in the back of your head. Has evolution been so impressed by the functionality of group living that it has implanted a seed of gregariousness in us all, monkeys, apes, and men? How do we answer that question? Well, we can’t go depriving human children of social contacts, or stripping their environment to the bare essentials, to see if gregarity remains. But we can do — and have done — such things to monkey children.

Much laboratory work in this area was initiated by Harry Harlow and his colleagues and students at the University of Wisconsin. Harlow is well known for raising infant rhesuses on imitation mothers, shaped from heavy wire screen that sometimes remained bare and sometimes was upholstered with terry cloth. The infants (now we can say, “Of course!”) vastly preferred the cloth-covered mother even if she was milkless while the bare-wire mother had a milk-dispensing “unibreast” in mid-thorax. Perhaps less well known is a later Harlow study in which the infants were given a choice of two cloth-covered mothers, one with unibreast and one without. Some infants had a brown nursing mother and some a green nursing mother; the non-nursing mother got whichever color was left. All good humanitarians and Martians should be glad to know that color of mother made no difference to the infants. More significantly for our purposes, preference for the nursing mother lasted less than four months. After that, though the young monkeys were still nursing, they spent roughly equal amounts of time with the nursing and non-nursing mothers. Harlow (1962) concludes, “Certainly nursing and activities associated with the breast are not variables underlying the persistent, relatively inextinguishable affectional bonds of the infant for the mother.” All good behavioral psychologists, who’ve attributed human social attraction mainly to maternal reduction of such “basic” drives as hunger and thirst, should be properly dismayed.

Harlow’s research has settled no arguments about the existence of monkey social instincts. The clinging reflex that predisposes the infant rhesus to “love” the cloth mother is not complex or long-lasting enough to account for social behavior by itself. But Harlow has made clear that a social instinct, if it exists, is not enough for social life. His infant rhesuses, raised for six months or more with an artificial mother, developed serious disturbances, particularly in their social behaviors: they withdrew into themselves when faced with more sociable monkeys, or fiercely attacked other monkeys who had undergone even greater social deprivation. Sexual behavior, the most obviously biological and “natural” of social behaviors, was just as severely blocked as other social responses. Harlow delights in telling how carefully his socially deprived females had to be coaxed and coached by experienced males before they ever conceived. Once they became parents, these females were often miserable mothers with their firstborn, completely ignoring the infants or grinding their faces into the wire mesh of the cage. Infants raised without mothers but with other infants seemed to develop somewhat more normally; and the miserable mothers, having contradicted all assumptions about maternal instincts with their firstborn, generally became capable mothers with their second. In each case, social “instincts” had to be supplemented by social contact with a real live responding primate before something approaching normal social behavior could emerge. As Harlow says about the sexual development of his socially deprived males, both “yearning and learning” are essential — both social motivation and social experience.

William Mason, a former colleague of Harlow’s, has approached the development of primate sociability from another direction. Mason (1965) hypothesizes the existence of an optimal stimulation level in any primate. When the degree of stimulation rises above the optimum, the primate will try to reduce it; when stimulation falls below the optimum, the primate will try to increase it. This basic idea, shared with several other psychologists, is distinctly different from the more popular drive-reduction theories, in which the organism is assumed to strive perpetually for a minimal level of stimulation.

Mason demonstrated how this hypothetical process of maintaining optimal stimulation operates, through a series of simple experiments. He dressed two experimenters in different costumes, each with a sort of abstract primate mask over his face. One costume was always associated with the experimenter’s quiet holding of a baby chimpanzee to his chest; the other costume was always associated with the experimenter’s playing with (tickling, bouncing, gently pushing) the baby chimp. Given a choice, the chimps generally preferred the play-person over the holding-person by a considerable margin. But in an unfamiliar room, which presumably raised the chimps’ overall arousal level, they usually didn’t want to be aroused further by play; they preferred the person in the holding-costume. (This preference decreased, however, as they became more familiar with the unfamiliar room.) The same was true in other disturbing situations, such as when a young chimp was removed abruptly from its cage-mates.

Mason uses the data from such experiments to explain at least partly the primate’s preference for social companionship. A world of inanimate objects could become very boring very quickly; other living organisms provide the most complex stimuli. Other organisms with which one is familiar — the members of one’s own group — could provide the most pleasing alternative to too much stimulation or too little. This is particularly true of the young primate, who can turn to his familiar mother in time of excessive stimulation, and to his playmates when more stimulation is needed. Even if adult life in the group becomes rather tame, the primate has received so many rewards — so many hours of optimal-level existence — from the group as a child, that he is unlikely to leave it without hesitation as an adult. Besides, there’s nowhere else to go. A solitary life would be even more boring, and an existence of flitting from one strange group to another too upsetting.

But what of primate species where adult group life is not so tame — where an aggressively dominant animal may at least occasionally threaten or chase or bite his subordinates? Wouldn’t his offensive behavior severely strain the group’s social ties? Michael Chance and Clifford Jolly (1970), using Mason’s hypothesis, argue that the reverse may be true. Initially, a subordinate animal may scurry away from his attacking leader, who has raised his stimulation level too high. But as time passes and the attack is not pursued, the subordinate animal’s stimulation level will drop to the preferred optimum, and he should therefore be attracted more strongly than before to the source of this recurrent pleasure, his exciting leader. In the words of many a harried spouse or parent, “Well, at least life is never dull with him [or her] around.”


Other research indicates that a primate needn’t play with others, or be groomed by them, or have sex with them, to find them rewarding; all he may need is a vision of another primate like himself. Robert A. Butler (1965) has conducted numerous studies in which a monkey housed in an opaque box is taught to perform tasks for the reward of getting a quick look at laboratory goings-on, or at a picture, or perhaps at a cagemate in an adjacent pen. Although the monkeys will work for a sight of just about anything (perhaps to raise their stimulation level to optimum), they appear to prefer looking at other monkeys, particularly at familiar monkeys, and more particularly at sexual mates — though males may prefer to look at a strange female rather than at their own mates, “especially if the stranger is in full sexual coloration”!

The reward value of social sneak-looks has been explained by some writers in terms of secondary reinforcement: the monkey has been satisfied in the past by sexual mates, or has been played with by his cage-mates, so he gains an associated pleasure merely from seeing them. Butler rejects this idea, because monkeys will persist at tasks for long periods with no primary rewards to strengthen the “secondary” visual one, and because very young monkeys — one to two weeks old — seem to find such visions rewarding too. One of the most convincing demonstrations of Butler’s point, and indeed one of the most convincing indicators of innate social responsiveness in primates, is a set of studies done by Gene Sackett.

Sackett (1966) raised infant rhesus monkeys from birth in individual opaque cages. Each monkey never saw another monkey and saw humans only during its first five to nine days of life, when it had to be hand-fed. One wall of each cage was a projection screen, and beginning at two weeks of age, the monkey was exposed to various projected color slides on this screen. Sometimes the experimenter himself turned the slides on and off; sometimes the monkey, after a brief initial exposure to the slide, could himself turn it on repeatedly for as many as five minutes, by touching a lever in the cage. The monkeys’ preference for particular kinds of pictures could be gauged either by how often they pressed the lever when they were able to control the length of the slide’s exposure, or by what behaviors they showed when the experimenter controlled the exposure of a particular slide. Month-old monkeys showed no differences in preference. But older infants showed a clear preference for pictures of other monkeys, particularly infant monkeys, rather than for control pictures such as sunsets, trees, or “a pretty adult female human.” Between ages two and four months, negative responses (“fear, withdrawal, rocking, and huddling”) were given especially often to pictures of a threatening monkey; but “this apparently innate fear response to threat stimuli” started declining midway during that period, presumably because the threats were never carried out. Pictures of monkey infants elicited more playing than any other stimuli, though the threat pictures were accompanied by almost as much play. The threat and infant pictures each generated more overall activity than any other types of monkey pictures (mother-infant, sex, play, etc.); these “other-monkey” pictures in turn generated more activity than the non-monkey control pictures.

Maybe seeing humans during the first week of life, or seeing the fur on its own body, could predispose the infant monkey to prefer other anthropoid forms on the screen (though why not the pretty female human?). But such experience would not account for its preferring to see an infant monkey, since it had never seen its own face — a distinctive cue for identifying infancy, in the pictures — nor for its showing fear responses at pictures of threatening monkeys. Furthermore, when Sackett allowed other infant rhesus monkeys to look at one of several live adult monkeys of various species (in a more complicated apparatus known as the Sackett Self-Selection Circus), the infants generally preferred monkeys of their own species, and particularly females. Since the infants had been removed from their own mothers shortly after birth, had seen no other monkeys since, and did not resemble adults of their own species either in color or in facial appearance, their preferences are hard to explain as the result of learning (Sackett, 1970). Sackett seems to have found, as he suggests, clear evidence for certain rather general types of innate social response tendencies, both positive and negative, in at least one primate species. Whether similar innate tendencies are present in other primates will be answered by further research. Whether such innate response tendencies exist in humans may never be definitely known.

Is primate social behavior determined primarily bv heredity or by environment? However dull or uncontroversial the answer sounds, it must be: by the interaction of both. As with various other organisms studied by ethologists, primate behaviors seem to have evolved in such a way as to interlock with the environment. Given certain environmental and social cues, certain heredity-based behaviors will emerge and will undergo subsequent modifications by the environment. Given a drastically different environment, such as a zoo or laboratory, these behaviors will emerge only in stunted, disorganized form, will emerge as perversions of “natural” behavior, or will be inhibited from development in any recognizable form. Primates differ from other organisms in that these emergent behavior patterns show more modifiability, more possibility of “cultural” variation as a function of variations in the social and non-social environment. This relatively greater modifiability itself suggests a major lesson about the basis of primate sociability: such sociability is not tied to one single factor or type of factor, but expresses a complex interaction of factors. Harlow’s research has destroyed the idea that positive reinforcement from breast or bottle is the basis for human sociability; DeVore, Washburn, and other field researchers have finally overturned the idea that sex is the single key to primate sociability. These single-factor hypotheses may be good for generating aphorisms, or for starting a field of research on its way from infancy, or for giving the lazy writer convenient cubbyholes in which to fit his accumulation of disorganized facts. But we must now accept the necessity for far greater intricacy in our explanations of social life, among monkeys and apes as well as among ourselves.

the human primate: generalizations to homo sapiens

How like to us is that filthy beast the ape.

— Cicero,  De Nature Deorum

What does all this information about nonhuman primates add up to? Some scientists would argue that it’s simply interesting in its own right, a description of yet another chunk of the universe; that science admits no scale of values which renders one topic more important than another; that we needn’t worry about any further implications of our findings, as long as we understand monkeys or apes better than before; and that therefore you might as well study monkeys as, say, humans. I wouldn’t dismiss such a position altogether, because I do find monkeys and apes interesting and entertaining in themselves — at least as interesting and entertaining as some people I’ve tried to study. But I’d still have to say that this is not enough: that at least as a social psychologist, and at most as a human being, I must search the nonhuman primate data for whatever information will help in understanding the world’s most social primate.

I do not, however, fall into that small but intense crowd who feels that primateness is all — that mankind is ruled by his primitive primate passions, and that with knowledge of his evolutionary kinfolks’ behavior we can plumb him to his depths. Nor am I, on the other hand, among those who, like the anthropologist Leslie White (1949), feel man to be so qualitatively superior to other primates that we can ignore them altogether. Though this may sound like mass-media mugwumpishness, I must conclude that neither extreme embodies the most tenable position. which of course I am now ready to offer, in four parts.


Undoubtedly, the nonhuman primates resemble us more in physical form and physiological function than do any other organisms. So if we’re to gain any useful knowledge about humans from animal studies, we might best turn to these primates. Experimental psychologists have long argued the validity of using rats as analogs for humans, because both organisms learn — both show persisting behavioral modifications as a result of experience. But beyond this similarity, without which any fairly complex organism in a very complex world couldn’t exist, there’s probably little important resemblance. Between the rat’s slow modification of behavior after repeated trials and rewards, and a human’s one-trial learning of a multitude of memories, there may be an unbridgeable gap. Kohler’s classic studies of “insightful” ape problem-solving (1927) suggest at least somewhat greater similarity in learning potential between us and other primates than between us and rodents. Greater similarities also seem to exist in such things as curiosity level (for most primate species) and amount of unstructured play — a worthwhile sort of behavior for incidental learning.

That we do need to turn to other species for certain information has already been emphasized. We don’t permit ourselves to do certain things to humans, even in the interests of science, that we can do to captive monkeys. We can’t find natural human social groups anywhere near so simple in structure as nonhuman primate social groups, and we can’t create really primitive human groups artificially. But information about the effects of biological endowment on such simple social groups may be useful to us in tracing our own psychological history. Other primates have had to face some of the same problems as we, and have had some of the same opportunities, based on similar physical structure and developmental patterns. Both human and nonhuman primate infants, for instance, are born unable to care for themselves, and must have parental attention over a period of years to survive. This means there’s a longer time in which learned behaviors can be passed from one generation to another, and in which opportunities for large amounts of social reinforcement abound. Also, the lack of efficient biological defense measures in both human and nonhuman primate adults means a greater necessity for mutual defense. Also — there are several dozen alsos, based on such biological similarities as these. Some of the other primates’ simple responses to such similar problems and opportunities may be the very ones with which we began our initially slow but gradually accelerating march to civilization.


Certain nonhuman primates live in environments that appear similar to those in which man’s immediate ancestors and earlv man lived, and in which man’s basic social patterns may have developed. Man’s direct ancestors may not have closely resembled today’s primates, but some were arboreal, as most primate species are today. Early Homo sapiens very likely existed rather like present-day savanna baboons in many areas, traveling on the ground and hunting for food during the daytime, sleeping in trees at night. (Adolph Schultz [1961] has pointed out that many areas where early man lived had too few caves to maintain an adequate population of “cavemen.”) Early man was not an individualist living in his own cozy hole or camping with his family under the stars. Most ground-dwelling primates live in groups; this is one of their major defenses against possible predators. If early man had a cave, he probably shared it; if he lived in the open, plenty of other men were around — at least if we can judge from what works for the baboon or rhesus. Man then gradually made various discoveries that enabled him to take advantage of other types of surroundings. But as with his biological structure, his early environment must have played a major role in forming the social patterns that gradually became elaborated into those we use now.


Paradoxically, certain differences we observe between our social relationships and those of other primates may reveal more than the similarities about our own social psychology. Given somewhat similar biology and similar early surroundings, why are the nonhuman primates as different from us in behavior as they are? In trying to discover why these differences are so great, we may be able to develop questions about human social behavior that we’d never have imagined if we’d limited ourselves to studying only humans. Maybe later we can develop answers to these questions.

Perhaps the major questions, from which many answers may flow, are: Why can we talk when other primates can’t? What is it about us in particular that has both allowed and compelled all human groups, even the most “primitive,” to develop complex languages, while other primates have failed to go beyond a few dozen strongly stimulus-tied sounds and gestures? What differences did this crucial distinction make in the early as well as the later social life of man? The first of these questions has already received the beginnings of some convincing answers (Bastian, 1965; Lancaster, 1968). Other primates not only lack vocal apparatuses capable of complex speech, but also lack certain elaborations of brain structure characteristic of humans. Evolution apparently has not endowed them with such brains because in their environments and with their patterns of living, speech-enabling brains would be of little advantage. As with the howler, most primates can get enough to eat and drink, and a decent place to sleep, with hardly a “word” to or from their fellows. Even species that have the capacity to acquire a simple symbolic language, such as the chimpanzee (Gardner and Gardner, 1969; Premack, 1971), apparently have not utilized this capacity in the wild; and until they find such capabilities useful, evolutionary processes will not select animals whose linguistic capacity is unusually high. These answers still need a great amount of detailed research support; but already, by getting into the vital human topic of language, we can see how stimulating the differences between us and the other primates may be.


Perhaps even more paradoxically, the behavioral differences we find not between humans and other primates, but among the various species of nonhuman primates themselves, may help us understand our own behavior better by making us more reluctant to apply any findings about animal behavior directly to human behavior. I’ve already mentioned the frequent assumption that a human behaves like a slightly more complex rat. The assumption has also been made occasionally that any significant behavior found in wild primates will appear in some form in tame humans. These assumptions don’t seem to include the recognition that because the many species of nonhuman primates show such wide ranges of behavior among themselves, no one behavior can be attributed to man until that behavior has itself been studied in man and established as part of his repertoire. Those who apply primate findings directly to man still fail to appreciate what primatologists have known for many years: that behaviors are species-specific, that species variability is not only physical but also behavioral and psychological. Some primates appear to defend a “territory”; some howl at others on sight; some don’t care. Some monopolize mates, or monogamize them; others live in pleasant promiscuity. Some show distinct dominance structures; others display apparent democracy (though not necessarily with female suffrage). Some pass their babies around; others protect or overprotect. Out of all this, where is man? Who can say? Who dare try? Some do try, but none should. Primate studies generate many questions about humans, and perform very usefully in that function. The answers should be obtained from humans themselves.

Even if the nonhuman primates were sufficiently cooperative to resemble each other more, we should not forget how much our generalizations from their behavior must be limited by their overwhelming differences from man. Not only their speech centers but their entire forebrains are vastly more limited than those of humans, not only in size (which may not be significant in itself) but in structure and function. The biological relationship is not as close as the fundamentalists fear; even the anthropoid apes cannot locate a common ancestor with us closer than one or two million years back. Nonhuman primate females do not naturally show continuous sexual receptivity; human females do, at least in a manner of speaking. Nonhuman primate babies never display that interesting evolutionary invention, the social smile, which certain stimuli will elicit automatically in human babies at ten to twelve weeks of age. When other primates do defend their “territory,” they stop at its edge; they do not engage in crusades into enemy territory, defensively killing and raping the opposition. The search for novelty in other primates is not absent, but it is muted in comparison with man. Man’s dissatisfaction apparently did not come from losing the easy availability of food and drink; that came after he was dissatisfied, and because he was dissatisfied, as the Good Book says.

We so often insist that every bit of knowledge discovered by science must mean something for humans, that it may be hard to accept the lack of such immediate meaning in research on primates or other animals. But again, the lack of direct applicability — the fact that I cannot list for you all the positive contributions that primate research makes to humanity — should not conceal its great heuristic value, its capacity for revealing to us important questions we must ask about the foundations of human social psychology. To know whether a particular motivation observed in gorillas also occurs in humans, how strong it is in humans, whether it may be strengthened or weakened or deflected and in what manner, we must turn to the empirical study of man himself, however much more complicated that may prove to be. But monkeys and apes, by their very unlikeness to us, will compel us to make this complicated effort.

[From Social Psychology and Social Relevance, by Alan C. Elms, pp. 12-45. Originally published and copyrighted by Little, Brown and Company, Boston, MA, 1972. Copyright reassigned to Alan C. Elms.]

Personality Characteristics Associated with Obedience and Defiance toward Authoritative Command

Alan C. Elms

Southern Methodist University


Stanley Milgram

Harvard University

Through variations in situational factors, Milgram (1965) has elicited sharply different amounts of obedience to authoritative command. Subjects thought they were administering electric shocks to a fellow volunteer in a “learning experiment.” As many as 65% and as few as 30% of Ss in different conditions were willing to obey completely an “experimenter’s” commands to deliver increasingly high levels of “shock” to a helpless victim (actually an experimental confederate), depending upon the victim’s proximity.

Milgram has stressed the situational determinants of varying levels of obedience in different experimental conditions. But within any one condition, the situation faced by each subject is quite similar. Some Ss choose to continue obeying the E’s orders, even though they display signs of conflict (Milgram, 1963, 1965). Others, in the same situation and showing similar conflict, refuse at some point to obey further. Additionally, some Ss disobey E’s commands under conditions where the victim cannot be seen or even heard (except for a few raps on the wall); other Ss continue to obey when the victim is sitting near them, or even when they must personally force the resisting victim’s hand down onto a shock plate.

These differences in response suggest strongly that personality variables, as well as situational determinants, influence the degree of willingness to obey authoritative command. The present study was undertaken to gain information on a variety of personality variables relevant to behavior in the obedience experiments, and to indicate areas for more extensive exploration.

[This research was conducted while the authors were at Yale University. It was supported in part by U. S. Public Health Service Pre-Doctoral Research Fellowship Grant #MPM-14,761 to A. C. Elms and by National Science Foundation grants NSF G-17916 and G-251 to S. Milgram.]


Forty Ss were selected from 160 Ss who had participated in Milgram’s four-part “Proximity Series” (1965). In the Remote and Voice Feedback conditions, only aural cues from the “shock victim” were available to S; in the Proximity and Touch Proximity conditions, visual cues were present as well. So that the personality data would be minimally influenced by “borderline” Ss (Ss who might have shifted from obedience to defiance or vice versa with only slight modifications in the experimental procedure), the 20 fully obedient Ss were chosen from the 28 obedient Ss in the latter two conditions, where the pressures for defiance were greatest; while the 20 defiant Ss were chosen from the 29 defiant Ss in the first two conditions, where the pressures for obedience were greatest. The Ss were selected on no other basis, since Milgram had matched experimental groups on age and occupational category; all Ss were males. The Ss were essentially self-selected within each experimental group, by their own obedient or defiant behavior.

The Ss were contacted for the present study in the approximate temporal order of their participation in the original experiments until 20 defiant Ss and 20 obedient Ss were obtained. The subject pools from conditions 1 and 4 wore purposely exhausted first, since they represented the extremes in amount of cues for obedience or defiance. Recruitment was by letter and subsequent telephone call, offering $6.00 for a 2-hour interview dealing with Ss’ “opinions, experiences, and so forth” in connection with the original experiment. Out of 46 persons contacted, five declined to be interviewed, all of them “obedient” Ss. Four of these gave adequate reasons for not participating further (e.g., having moved out of town since the previous study); the fifth gave no reason for declining. The Ss were interviewed individually, and were paid at the beginning of the interview.2


The Ss were first administered the MMPI card form, which had been shortened approximately 25% because of time limitations. Only items not involved in the standard personality or validity scales, or in two more recently developed scales (Do, Re), were omitted. The California F Scale (forms 40-45; Adorno el al., 1950)3 was included with the MMPI, typed on cards shaped and numbered like those of the MMPI cards. The standard MMPI card-form instructions were used for the combined questionnaires, so that the California F items were categorized as “yes,” “no,” or “cannot say,” rather than on the usual Likert scale.

2    These interviews are not to be confused with those conducted by a psychiatrist and discussed in,Milgram (1964), or with the initial interview carried out for each S. The present interviews constituted a supplementary inquiry and were conducted by the first author several months after the S’s participation in the experiment.

3    Twenty-nine of the original items were used, plus a thirtieth topically revised item which replaced the “pre-war authorities” item.

The card form was followed by an oral questionnaire. Although the interviewer was frequently aware of the group from which S had been selected, the questionnaire was highly structured and was read verbatim for each S. The first question was an open-ended request to “tell me the most important things about yourself,” without further probing questions. The S’s responses, as for the questions asked subsequently, were noted in abbreviated word form and were typed out. in full immediately after the interview. Additional questions involved attitudes as a child toward parents, nature of punishment in childhood, descriptions of personality of father, mother, and self, S’s treatment of own children, experiences in combat duty, descriptions of Experimenter’s and Learner’s (“victim’s”) personalities, and attitudes toward the obedience experiment.

After this questionnaire, S was given a series of concepts to be rated by means of semantic differential scales, with instructions slightly simplified from those suggested by Osgood, Suci, and Tannenbaum (1957). The concepts, each one printed at the top of a separate page, were: Father, Yale University, Conscience, Boss, Myself, Federal Government, Adolf Eichmann, Leader, Justice, Obedience, God, Follower, Defiance, “Learner” in Memory Project, Son, Command, Hate, Experimenter in Memory Project, Law, Mother. The rating scales, chosea from those which seemed to correlate highly and relatively specifically with certain factors in the several factor rotations reported by Osgood el al., were: for the evaluative factor, good-bad, kind-cruel, pleasant-unpleasant; for the power factor, hard-soft, strong-weak, severe-lenient; for the activity factor, active-passive, fast-slow, excitable-calm; and a separate scale which seemed appropriate to the present study, aggressive-defensive. The ten scales were presented in the same order on each page, balanced in direction and ungrouped as to principal factor.

Finally, S was read ten hypothetical situations, each one dealing with problems of obedience or disobedience to authority, punishment or mercy toward others, indulgence in or refraining from cruel behavior.4 The interviewer then assured Sthat his assistance had been valuable, told him a summary of the research project would be mailed to participants, and otherwise attempted to diminish any anxiety or other unfavorable affect which might have been aroused by the interview.

4All differences between obedient and defiant Ss on this measure could easily have occurred through chance variation, and they are not discussed further.


No significant differences were found on the standard MMPI personality and validity scales (Hathaway and McKinley, 1951) when raw scores, with K added where appropriate, were compared for the two groups by means of the Mann-Whitney rank test. Nonsignificant elevations were divided evenly, with obedients ranking higher on F-validity, Sc, D, Hs, Si, and Ma scales, and defiants ranking higher on L, Pt, Pa, Mf, Pd, and Hy scales. Of the two other scales used, the scale for dominance (Do; Gough, McClosky, and Meehl, 1951) yielded no significant difference; defiant Ss were slightly more dominant. The scale for social responsibility (Re; Gough, McClosky, and Meehl, 1952) showed a significant difference (p < .05), with defiant Ss giving answers associated with greater social responsibility.

Obedient Ss ranked significantly higher on the California F Scale (mean number of items agreed to by obedients, 12.39; by defiants, 8.11; p < .003, one-tailed Mann-Whitney rank test).5 Since amount of education has been noted to be negatively correlated with California F scores (Christie, 1954), an analysis of variance of F scores was computed, in which educational level and presence or absence of obedience were used as the two factors. The results appear in Table 1. Since four obedient Ss had had only a grade-school education or less, whereas all defiant Ss had completed high school, those four Ss were not included in the analysis. The remaining Ss were divided into two educational categories, high school vs. college-educated. With education factored out, the main effect of obedience on California F scores remained significant at .06 > p > .05.

5With “cannot say” answers added to “yes” answers, the difference is still significant at p < .003. The first two Ss in each group were not given the California F scale.

The possibility of a greater tendency toward agreement response set among obedient Ss was checked by the simple procedure of taking deviant or minority responses in a sample of MMPI items (those tabulated in the first column of the MMPI card form score-sheet, about 10%

Table 1

Analysis of Variance of California F Scores of Obedient and Defiant Subjects

Source    df square    F

Obedience    1    65.72    4.01*

Education    1    50.00    3.05

Interaction    1    9.17    0.56

Within-condition    28    16.38

* .06 > p > .05.

of the total) and comparing the proportion of deviant yes answers to total deviant answers, for the two groups. A Mann-Whitney rank test showed no significant difference between the two groups (p > .20); obedient Ss gave 27% deviant yes answers, to defiant Ss’ 24% deviant yes answers.

The interview questionnaire yielded relatively uniform responses from both groups on such categories as source and frequency of punishment reportedly given to S as a child, and punishment given to S’s own children. Blind ratings of responses on the initial open-ended question were compared for a number of quantifiable categories, but no distinct differences were found. The following questions yielded noticeable differences:

“How close were you to your father when you were a child?” Obedient Ss reported being less close than defiants, on a five-point scale from “extremely close” to “extremely distant” (defiant X = 1.95, obedient X = 2.76; p < .05).

“How were you usually punished?” Several obedient Ss reported extremely mild or no punishment at all, and the bulk of the others reported the standard spanking. Defiant Ss more frequently reported physical or emotional deprivation, with several reporting intense physical punishment. The results are not readily quantifiable.

Table 2

Mean Number of Positive and Negative Words in Personality Descriptions by Obedient and Defiant Subjects



Father’s personality, pos… 3.00


Father’s personality, neg… 1.63


Mother’s personality, pos… 3.75


Mother’s personality, neg… 0.75


“Learner’s” personality, pos… 0.35


 “Learner’s” personality, neg… 3.35


Experimenter’s personality, pos… 3.25


Experimenter’s personality, neg… 0.75



If father is living now, “When you see him, how do you get along with him now?” Both groups report being “closer” to father presently than in the past. Obedients report a greater positive change, so that although defiant Ss still report being closer on the average, there is no longer a significant difference between the two groups (defiant X = 1.30, obedient X = 1.55; p>.20).

“If you had to use five different words to describe your father’s personality, what would the five words be?” The interviewer later did a blind rating of each word, classifying it as a positive, negative, or neutral personality trait description. A chi-square computation for positive and negative word totals for obedient and defiant Ss indicates a significant difference (p < .005), with obedients giving fewer positive words and more negative words than did defiants. A similar question on mother’s personality did not yield a significant difference. (For means, see Table 2.)

Table 3

Mean Semantic Differential Ratings Yielding Significant Differences Between Obedient and Defiant Subjects





Evaluative ratings
Yale University



p < .025




p < .05




.10 > p > .05




p < .005




.10 > p > .05

Power ratings



p < .05




p < .025




.10 > p > .05




p < .05

Activity ratings



p = .025

Yale University



.10 > p > .05




p < .025




.10 > p > .05

Aggressiveness ratings
Yale University



p < .0005




p < .05




p = .10




.10 > p > .05

aComputed by one-tailed Student’s

t test. Ratings were

made on a 7-point



If S had ever been on active military duty, “Did you ever shoot at a man in combat?” Of ten obedient Ss who had been on active duty, eight said they had shot at men (one of these said he had shot at a Forest Ranger stateside). Of eight defiant Ss who had been on active duty, one said he had shot 50-mm guns at distant targets, and one said he had shot a gun in battle, “but not at a person.” Of eight obedient Ss who had shot at a man, two said they had killed a man; three said they did not know whether they had killed anyone or not; two gave tentative denials (e.g., “Not that I know of”). Both defiant Ss who said they had shot a gun in battle gave tentative denials.

“If you had to use five words to describe this man’s (the ‘Learner’s’) personality, what would the words be?” Obedient Ss gave fewer positive and more negative words than did defiants (p < .001, chi-square).

“If you had to use five words to describe the Experimenter’s personality, what would the five words be?” Obedient Ss gave more positive and fewer negative words than did defiants (p < .005, chi-square).

The semantic differential data were analyzed in terms of differences in mean judgments assigned to a concept on a specific scale or factor by the two groups. For the evaluative, activity, and power factors, the practice of averaging three contributory scales for each was followed. The single aggressive-defensive scale was analyzed separately. Table 3 presents those differences which approach significance. (For each judgmental factor, the lower average score represents assignment of a more positive rating on that factor to the concept being rated.)


Previous researchers have identified various personality characteristics associated with apparent tendencies toward submission to authority (e.g., Adorno et al., 1950; Rokeach, 1960). But submission to authority and similar characteristics in these studies were usually measured in the same way as the personality characteristics with which they were correlated. As a result, certain forms of response set common to the measures both of authoritarian tendencies and of personality characteristics may have elevated whatever relationships existed, and may have “created” relationships which did not exist. In the present research, the basic measure of submission to authoritative command is an observation of actual behavior in a realistic situation. Thus, although it now seems clear that response sets contribute to scores on the California F Scale, for instance, it is unlikely that the same kind of response set determined Ss’ responses in a situation calling for their actual obedience to commands to administer shocks to an innocent person, ultimately against that other person’s will.

With this in mind, the significant difference between obedient and defiant Ss on the California F Scale remains meaningful even when educational level is not factored out. (As noted, the difference between obedient and defiant Ss’ scores still approaches significance even with educational level controlled statistically.) Less-educated Ss may score higher on the F Scale because they are more willing to agree to blanket statements than are well-educated Ss, or because cliches and commonplaces appeal to them; but behavior in the experimental obedience situation requires more than acceptance of cliches or broad generalizations. Low education may be associated with authoritarian verbalizations or authoritarian behavior not only because of flaws in the measuring instrument, but because degree of education is itself in some way related to incidence of authoritarian personality characteristics. Whether the educative process itself diminishes authoritarianism in some way, or whether some other independent variable influences the two dependent variables of educational achievement and authoritarianism, is not evident from the present data.

Other similarities to findings reported in The Authoritarian Personality are found in obedient Ss’ feelings of the father’s lack of closeness when S was a child, and the relative glorification of the E and downgrading of the Learner. The authoritarian tendency toward stereotyped glorification of the father is not observed in obedients— quite the contrary—, but this may be partly the result of the interviewer’s negative ratings of “stern” and other authoritarian adjectives describing the father, in the blind categorization of descriptions. Additionally, the generally older Ss in the present study may find it easier to express critical attitudes toward their fathers than the young adults who composed a large proportion of Adorno et al.’s samples.

The reporting of less severe childhood punishment by obedients is also atypical of the “authoritarian personality.” Lack of differences between obedients and defiants in attitudes toward mother, toward Adolph Eichmann, and in several other categories where differences might be expected if a strictly authoritarian-unauthoritarian dichotomy were present, may have resulted in part from extreme elevations or depressions of judgments by all Ss, which did not allow for real differentiation on a 5-or 7-point scale.

Obedient Ss’ praising of the power figure (E) and denigration of the weak figure (Learner) may derive more directly from features of the experiment itself than do other characteristics of obedients. Self-justification for one’s experimental behavior may come ex post facto from recalling the E as more benevolent and the Learner as less worthy: the Good Scientist deserved to be followed, while the stupid, excitable. weak Learner deserved to be given a lesson. It is impossible to derive from the present data an indication of the direction of causality—whether the subject behaved as he did because he entered the experiment with potential stereotyped responses to power and weakness, or whether he later gave these stereotyped responses to power or weakness because of what he had done in the experiment, or both. Whichever pattern of causation is more accurate, obedients and defiants did respond differentially at the time of the original experiment, and such differences indicate probable initial differences in the two groups.

The response to the question “Did you ever shoot at a man in combat?” indicates a difference in attitude toward infliction of pain or harm. Obedient Ss may or may not have shot at men more frequently than defiant Ss have; if so, they may have felt less conflict over merely shocking a man. The reliability of their self-reports is unknown, but we can at least assume that obedient Ss more easily accept the idea of injuring others under certain circumstances. Eighty percent of obedient Ss with combat experience admit without qualification to having shot at people, while even the 25% of defiant combat-experienced Ss who had shot a gun in battle deny having shot at an individual person within seeing distance. The ability or lack of ability to accept such behavior could have (and may well have had) important consequences in an experimental situation in which an authority figure demands aggressive action against another person. The similarity to the authoritarian personality is again apparent; for instance, Adorno et al. (p. 386) report that “we often find in our high-scoring subjects both overconformity and underlying destructiveness toward established authority, customs, and institutions. A person possessed by such ambivalence may easily be kept in check and may even behave in an exemplary fashion in following those external authorities who take over the function of the superego—and partly even those of the ego. On the other hand, if permitted to do so by outside authority, the same person may be induced very easily to uncontrolled release of his instinctual tendencies, especially those of destructiveness.”

The semantic differential ratings lend additional detail to this picture of the obedient S as authoritarian personality. For instance, obedient Ss attribute more “goodness” to the two authority figures in the experimental situation, Yale University and the E himself; less goodness to the weak Learner; and apparently view the command-obedience situation more positively even in the abstract. At the same time, they see the E and Yale University as more aggressive, like themselves; and, consonant with their own actions, they impute more aggressiveness to obedience itself.

The absence of differences between groups on the MMPI scales is not altogether surprising. The scales may be able to detect certain pathological or “normal” personality patterns, but none of these patterns fits, in a clear majority of particulars, the qualities which might be expected of an obedient or defiant S. Even the description of the reference groups for the social responsibility scale (Gough et al., 1952), which showed the only significant difference, contains conflicting characteristics from the viewpoint of the present study. The socially responsible person “shows a ready willingness to accept the consequences of his own behavior,” a “sense of obligation to the [peer] group,” and “greater concern for social and moral issues,” as one might expect of the higher-scoring defiant Ss; but he also shows “dependability” and “trustworthiness” and is “more compliant and acquiescent,” “less rebellious and recalcitrant,” as one might expect of obedient Ss.

Various other differences appear between the two groups on the several parts of the interview, but among the multiplicity of questions it might be misleading to try to gather together the differences which do not approach statistically significant levels. Even significant differences may sometimes be deceptive. For instance, although in a number of instances obedient Ss displayed characteristics similar to those of high scorers in The Authoritarian Personality, several obedient Ss appeared to have warm relationships with family and with associates. One of these, otherwise apparently kind and sensitive to an extreme, seemed to have taken as a model for public behavior a grandfather who he said “believed one should take and carry out an order whether one believed it was right or wrong, as long as the person giving it was in authority to give it.” Likewise, defiant Ss did not consistently show themselves in the interviews to be warmly humanitarian; one, a liberal and humanist by principle, displayed considerable bitterness toward his fellow man, including “a generally low opinion of the intellectual level of mankind.”

The experimental obedience situation allows the S to express himself in binary fashion. He may continue to obey the E or he may break off the experiment. Behind this simple behavioral possibility may lie highly complex and possibly idiosyncratic motive structures. There may be only a functional equivalence of motive structures, in that different combinations of motives may lead to the same behavioral outcome. For example, a highly compliant S who is low in aggressive needs may obey the E to the very end. The same effect could be produced in a person whose submissive needs are low, but who possesses a strong need to release aggressive tensions. Because of the complexity of motives which subjects bring to the experimental situation, it is not possible to reduce twenty individuals to a statistically average “obedient subject” or “defiant subject.” The results of this study suggest certain broad personality differences which relate to obedience or defiance in the experimental obedience situation; but they do not reveal a single personality pattern which is inevitably expressed in one behavior or the other.


Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D., and Sanford, R. N. The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper, 1950.

Christie, R. Authoritarianism re-examined. In R. Christie and M. Jahoda (eds.), Studies in the scope and method of “The authoritarian personality.” Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1954. Pp. 123-196.

Gough, H. G., McClosky, H., and Meehl, P. E. A personality scale for dominance. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1951, 46, 360-66.

Gough, H. G., McClosky, H., and Meehl, P. E. A personality scale for social responsibility. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1952, 47, 73-80.

Hathaway, S. R., and McKinley, J. C. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory manual. Revised. New York: The Psychological Corporation, 1951.

Milgram, S. Behavioral study of obedience. Journal oj Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1963,    67, 371-78.

Milgram, S. Issues in the study of obedience: A reply to Baumrind. American Psychologist, 1964,    19, 848-52.

Milgram, S. Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 1965, 18, 57-76.

Osgood, C. E., Suci, G. J., and Tannenbaum, P. H. The measurement of meaning. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1957. 
Rokeach, M. The open and closed mind. New York: Basic Books, 1960.

[Originally published in Journal of Experimental Research in Personality, Vol. 1, No. 4, Dec.1966, pp. 282-289.]

The Website of Alan C. Elms