William McDougall

From New World Encyclopedia

William McDougall (June 22, 1871 – November 28, 1938) was a British-born, American psychologist who pioneered work in human instinctual behavior and the development of social psychology. McDougall believed human behavior to be based on three faculties—intellect, emotion, and will—which were under instinctual control. His belief that human beings consisted of both body and mind, and his investigation of the human soul and paranormal phenomena directly opposed the behaviorist approach that was dominant in American psychology during his time. He rejected behaviorism, publicly debating John B. Watson. causing his own reputation to suffer. McDougall's belief in eugenics was equally unpopular in the West. Yet, His desire was to advance a better human society by maximizing human potential on all levels. While he did not succeed, his efforts provided a strong foundation for others to research in ethology, parapsychology, and social psychology, thus contributing to the advancement of knowledge and ultimately toward the achievement of full human potential.


McDougall was born on June 22, 1871 in Lancashire, England, as the second son of Isaac Shimwell McDougall and Rebekah Smalley, wealthy Scotish industrialists. He was educated in private schools, first in England and then in Weimar, Germany.

Despite his father’s desire for him to become a lawyer, McDougall wanted to pursue studies in the natural sciences. With the support and encouragement of his mother, at the age of 15 McDougall entered the university in Manchester, where he earned degrees in biology and geology. After receiving a scholarship, he went on to study at Cambridge University, graduating in 1894 with a degree in natural sciences.

It was at Cambridge that McDougall became interested in human behavior, and where he realized that he needed a medical degree in order to pursue his interests. With yet another scholarship he earned his medical degree in 1898, specializing in physiology and neurology. About the same time he became familiar with the work of William James, which was in line with his own interests, and he decided to focus on a career in psychology.

In 1898, McDougall became a fellow at Cambridge, studying the mind-body problem. In 1899, he participated in a field trip to New Guinea, publishing his The Pagan Tribes of Borneo in 1912. In 1900, he married Annie Hickmore, with whom he had five children. The couple lived at first in Göttingen, Germany, where McDougall studied experimental psychology under G.E. Muller. They then moved back to London, where McDougall started work as a lecturer at the University College.

In 1901, McDougall began a collaboration with Francis Galton and Charles Spearman on mental testing and eugenics. He co-founded the British Psychological Society and the British Journal of Psychology in 1901. In 1904, he accepted a post in Mental Philosophy at Oxford University, where he stayed until 1920. He was the first experimental psychologist at Oxford. His famous Introduction to Social Psychology, in which he introduced his theory of instincts, was published in 1908. With this work McDougall became internationally famous, recognized as a scholar far beyond the circles of British academia.

McDougall had undergone psychoanalysis with Carl Jung, and in 1911 he shifted his interest toward research in paranormal psychology. The same year he published his Body and Mind, where he argued for the scientific existence of the soul.

When World War I broke out in 1914, McDougall joined the French army as an ambulance driver. He later became a major in the British army, in 1915, and worked with the victims of the PTSD. This experience led McDougall to shift his interest to abnormal psychology, spending the next several years in research in that field. His Outline of Abnormal Psychology was published in 1926. After the war, he served as a president of the Psychiatric Section of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1918, and the president of the British Society for Psychical Research in 1920.

In early 1920s, McDougall was invited by William James to Harvard University, where he served as a professor of psychology from 1920 to 1927. However, he was not well received in the United States, especially due to his criticism of behaviorism and his support of eugenics. McDougall and John B. Watson held a long, public debate, which was published in 1928 in the book The Battle of Behaviorism. At the same time he continued to do research on psychic phenomena, and served as the president of the American Society for Psychical Research.

McDougall moved to Duke University in 1927, where he remained until his death. He established the Parapsychology Laboratory there, and edited the Journal of Parapsychology. His interests continued to widen, and he published books on a variety of topics—from criticism of psychoanalysis and Gestalt psychology to books on social issues and world peace. In 1927, McDougall dedicated his book Character and the Conduct of Life to his wife, writing: "To my wife, to whose intuitive insight I owe whatever understanding of human nature I have acquired."

McDougall died from cancer in Durham, North Carolina, in 1938.


McDougall wrote a number of highly influential textbooks, particularly in the area of theory of instinct, social psychology, and parapsychology. He was an opponent of behaviorism, stressing that psychology needs to be holistic, taking into account different factors that influence human behavior.

Views on eugenics

McDougall's interest in eugenics started with his work with Galton and Spearman. His view on eugenics, however, departed from Darwinian orthodoxy in maintaining the possibility of the inheritance of acquired characteristics, as suggested by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. McDougall believed that inheritance played an important role in human behavior. He wrote:

Biology and anthropology have now shown the enormous power of heredity in determining individual character and the great persistence of innate qualities through numberless generations. ....the negro race wherever found does present certain specific mental peculiarities roughly definable, especially the happy-go-lucky disposition, the unrestrained emotional violence and responsiveness, whether its representatives are found in tropical Africa, in the jungles of Papua, or in the highly civilized conditions of American cities.

...we can distinguish a race of northerly distribution and origin, characterized physically by fair color of hair and skin and eyes, by tall stature and dolichocephalism (i.e. long shape of head) and mentally by great independence of character, individual initiative, and tenacity of will. ....recently the term Homo Europaeus, first applied by Linnaeus to this type, has come into favor; and perhaps it is the best term to use, since this type seems to be exclusively European. (The Group Mind).

While he believed that the different races possessed different characteristics which were inherited, McDougall's views were not so much those of racism, but rather his attempt to find the way to maximize human abilities. Thus, his concept of selective breeding was not specifically along racial lines.

Human instincts

In his famous An Introduction to Social Psychology McDougall argued that all human behavior could be explained through human instincts. Instincts are innate psychophysical dispositions based upon which humans attend to certain objects (cognitive component of behavior), experience emotional excitement when perceiving that object (emotional component), and act toward that object in certain manner (volitional component). In his view, almost all of human behavior is a result of the combination of instincts and its derivatives: habits, attitudes, sentiments, etc.

McDougall supported his theory of instincts with his criticism of behaviorism. Unlike behaviorism, claimed McDougall, where behavior is seen as a reflexive response to an external trigger, the theory of instincts sees behavior as internally motivated, by human drives. Behavior thus is purposeful and goal-oriented. However, often that goal remains unknown to us, as human instincts may not be consciously understood. McDougall called his approach purposive or hormic psychology.


McDougall was a strong critic not only of Watsonian behaviorism, but also of mechanistic explanations of the universe. He believed that human existence comprises both mind and body, and he spent time in research on the connection between the two. He supported his claims by five theories:

  1. the purposive character of behavior
  2. the hypothesis of vitalism
  3. the soul theory of man
  4. Lamarckian inheritance, and
  5. the concept of psychic energy.

His concept of a "group mind" also reflected his ideas in this area. He researched the principles of telepathy and near-death experiences. His student, J. B. Rhine, continued his research.


McDougall was one of the early pioneers in social psychology. His book Social Psychology (1908) was published almost twenty years before social psychology was widely accepted in academia as a part of psychology.

McDougall carried out many experiments designed to prove his ideas of instinctual behavior. His views strongly influenced Konrad Lorenz, and other ethologists who established the tradition of rigorous research on animal behavior, which turned into modern behavioral ethology. Even though McDougall’s theory of instincts has been superseded by more modern theories of sociobiology, and recently evolutionary psychology, it was one of the first to point to the importance of innate drives in human behavior.

Because of his interest in eugenics and his unorthodox stance on evolution, McDougall has been adopted as an iconic figure by proponents of a strong influence of inherited traits on behavior, some of whom are regarded by most mainstream psychologists as scientific racists. While McDougall was certainly an unorthodox figure and always willing to take a minority view, there is no reason to suppose that in the light of modern psychological knowledge and political developments, he would have supported the position taken by such groups.

McDougall believed that eugenics could be used for the betterment of society, that is, to create a society that would be free of illnesses, physical or mental deformations, or any form of inferiority. McDougall regarded intelligence as the highest standard of human existence. In his letter to the Japanese emperor in 1934, he explained his idea and suggested that Japan could test it in practice. Japan indeed developed certain policies based on eugenic principles, and China and Singapore followed in 1990s.


  • McDougall, William. 2001. (original 1908, revised 1912). An Introduction to Social Psychology. Adamant Media Corporation. ISBN 1421223236
  • McDougall, William. 2004. (original 1912). Pagan Tribes of Borneo. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 1419139916
  • McDougall, William. 1912. Psychology: The Study of Behaviour. Williams and Norgate.
  • McDougall, William. 1974. (original 1920). Body and Mind: A history and a defense of animism. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0837171075
  • McDougall, William. 2005. (original 1920). The Group Mind. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 1417905085
  • McDougall, William. 1948 (original 1926). Outline of Abnormal Psychology. Methuen.
  • McDougall, William. 1926. The American Nation: Its Problems and Psychology. London: G. Allen & Unwin Ltd.
  • McDougall, William. 1927. Character and the Conduct of Life: Practical Psychology for Everyman. Methuen & Co. Ltd.
  • McDougall, William & J. B. Rhine. 2003. (original 1934). Extra Sensory Perception. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 076613962X
  • McDougall, William. 1972. (original 1934). Religion and the Sciences of Life. Books for Libraries Press. ISBN 0836927001

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Lamb, Kevin. 1999. "Individual & group character in the social psychology of William McDougall." Mankind Quarterly 39 (3): 255-308.
  • Watson, J. B. 1929. The Battle of Behaviorism. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

External links

All links retrieved May 11, 2023.


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