Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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Psychology and Industrial Efficiency

Hugo Münsterberg (1913)


WHILE the psychologists have to perform the actual labor, the representatives of practical life are much better able to indicate the points at which the psychological levers ought to be applied. In the past year I have sought contact with several hundred large concerns in America which belong to many different industrial realms. My time did not allow me personal observation in so many cases, but everywhere I begged for information from the leading men. I asked in individual letters for the particular psychological qualities which from the standpoint of the management seemed essential for the various kinds of labor in their establishments. I always inquired to what extent consideration was given to such psychological points of view at the appointment of applicants, and asked for material concerning the question how far individuals who proved to be unfit for one kind of labor showed fitness at other kinds of work. The replies which I received from all sides varied from a few meaningless lines to long documents, which in some cases were composed of detailed reports from all the department chiefs of a particular concern. [p. 117] The common fundamental turn was decidedly a feeling of strong interest in the formulation of the question, which was practically new to all of them. Whether the answer came from paper mills or machine shops, from meat-packing houses or from breweries, from electrical or chemical mills, from railroad or mining companies, from department stores or from publishing houses, everywhere it was acknowledged that they had given hardly any conscious attention to the real psychological dispositions of their employees. They had of course noticed whether their men were industrious or lazy, honest or dishonest, skillful or clumsy, peaceful or quarrelsome people, but I had emphasized from the start in all my letters that such points of view were not before my mind. The mental qualities for which I asked were the psychological functions of attention, memory, ideas, imagination, feeling, volition, suggestibility, ability to learn, ability to discriminate, judgment, space-sense, time-sense, and so on. It would lead too far here to discuss why these two groups of characteristics indeed belong to two different aspects of mental life, and why only the latter is strictly psychological. The way in which the management is accustomed to look on their men is the practical way of ordinary life, in which we try to understand our neighbor by entering [p. 118] into the meaning of his mental functions and by seeking to grasp what his aim is. But such an interpretation of the other man's mind is not a psychological analysis. It gives us the purposes of his inner life, but does not show us its structure and its component parts. We can abstract from interpreting and appreciating in order to describe the elements of the mind which in themselves have no meaning and no value, but which are the only important factors, if we are to determine psychologically what we may expect from the individual.

While the replies to my letters showed that hardly any attention had so far been given to such problems of objective psychology in the industrial concerns, it became evident that the managers felt distinctly that here a problem was touched which must be of highest importance for economic success. From many different sides willingness was shown to study the problem of employment under the psychological aspect. As my material came mostly from very large establishments in which labor of very many different kinds is carried on side by side, of course I frequently received the assurance that whenever an industrious energetic man is unsuccessful in one kind of work, a trial is made with him in another department, and that by such shifting the right place can often be found for him. Young people, [p. 119] to whom, in spite of long trial and the best will, it seems impossible to supply certain automatic machines, become excellent workers at much more difficult labor in the same establishment. Women who are apparently careless and inattentive when they have to distribute their attention over a number of operations do high-class work when they are engaged in a single activity; and in other cases the opposite is reported.

I may mention a few concrete chance illustrations. In a pencil factory the women in one department have to grasp with one movement a dozen pencils, no more and no less. Some learn this at once without effort, and they earn high wages; others never can learn it in spite of repeated trials. If those who fail in this department are transferred, for instance, to the department where the gold-leaf is most carefully to be applied to the pencils before stamping, very often they show great fitness in spite of the extreme exactitude needed for this work. To show how often activities which appear extremely similar may demand different individuals, if the work is based on different psychical functions, I may refer to a report from one of the largest establishments in the country. In the accounting department a large number of girls are occupied with looking over hundreds of thousands of slips from [p. 120] which the weekly pay-list is compiled. Each slip contains six figures and small groups of twenty slips have to be looked through to see whether those six figures on each correspond. with moistened forefinger they turn up the slips one by one in much the same manner that a bank clerk counts money. A good sorter will turn up the slips so rapidly that a bystander is unable to read a single figure, and yet she will not overlook an error in thousands of slips. After the slips are sorted, the operation of obtaining the totals on each order number is performed with the aid of an adding machine. The machine operator rolls up the slips of the pile with the thumb of her left hand and transfers the amount to the proper keys of the machine. It has been found that the most rapid and accurate girls at sorting are not seldom useless on the machines. They press the wrong keys and make errors in copying the total from the machine indicators to the file-card. On the other hand, some of the best machine operators are very slow and inaccurate at the sorting table. Girls have been found very poor at the work at which they were first set, and very successful and efficient as soon as they had been transferred from the one to the other.

Examples of this kind might be heaped up without end. But while the very large establishments [p. 121] demonstrate by such reports only that they can find somewhere a fit place for every able workingman if they take enough trouble to seek for it, after all the essential element of the reports remains, that successful achievement depends upon personal mental traits which cannot be acquired by mere good will and training. In view of this fact it is much more important that by far the majority of establishments have not such a great manifoldness of activities under one roof. The workingman who is a failure in the work which he undertook would usually have no opportunity to show his strong sides in the same factory, or at least to be protected against the consequences of his weak points. If his achievement is deficient in quality or quantity, he generally loses his place and makes a new trial in another factory under the same accidental conditions, without any deeper insight into his particular psychical traits and their relation to special industrial activities. But even in the large concerns, in which many kinds of labor are needed side by side, it is not the rule but a rare exception when the individual is systematically shifted to the psychologically correct place. A whole combination of conditions is necessary for that. If his mental unfitness makes him unsuccessful in one place, the position for which he is fit must [p. 122] happen to be vacant. Moreover, he himself must like that other kind of work, and above all the foreman must recognize his particular fitness. In a few model factories in which the apprentice system is developed in the spirit of advanced sociological ideas, for instance, in the Lynn factory of the General Electric Company, such systematic efforts are being carried on and show fair results. But the regulation plan seems to be a haphazard lack of plan, and even the best endeavors probably fall short of what may be attained by the introduction of scientific psychological methods. So far in most factories the laborer who is not doing well simply loses his position, and by such an unfortunate experience he is not mentally enriched but impoverished, as he has lost much of his self-confidence and of his joy in labor.

If this limitless waste of human material, this pitiable crushing of joy in the day's work, and this crippling of the economic output is at last to be reduced, indeed nothing is more needed than a careful scrutiny of the various psychophysical functions involved in the work. A mere classification of the industrial occupations according to the classes of manufactured objects would be of no value for this need, as often a small industrial concern may embrace occupations which [p. 123] are based on many different psychophysical functions. A harvester consists of two hundred and fifty different parts, and almost every one of these parts demands a long series of manufacturing processes. Thousands of different kinds of labor are thus combined in one factory and each process demands for the best work particular psychophysical traits, even though many of them can be carried out by quite unskilled laborers. In a large manufacturing establishment the manager assured me only recently that more than half a million different acts have to be performed in order to complete the goods of that factory. On the other hand, it evidently is proper to form larger groups in which processes are brought together which are similar with reference to the mental activity needed, while they may be dissimilar from the standpoint of industrial technique.

This analysis of the special processes can be furthered best by the coöperation of the experienced men of industry. Many of the replies which I received contained quite elaborated contributions to such a study of various industrial processes from a psychological point of view. They sometimes covered the ground from the simplest activity to the subtlest and most difficult economic tasks, and this, not only with reference to the functions of the laborer, but also even with [p. 124] reference to the function of the industrial manager. The outsider can see these psychological requirements of the particular occupation only in crude outlines. The subtler nuances of differences between tasks can be gained only by an intimate knowledge of the industry. Again I may give an illustration. In the case of a well-known type-setting machine, thousands of which are in daily use, I had the impression that the rapidity of the performance was dependent upon the quickness of the finger reaction. The managers, on the other hand, have found that the most essential condition for speed in the whole work is the ability to retain a large number of word in memory before they are set. The man who presses the keys rather slowly advances more rapidly than another who moves his fingers quickly, but must make many pauses in order to find his place in the manuscript and to provide himself with new words.

The factors which are to be brought into correction are, accordingly, first, the actual experiences of the managers, secondly, the observations of skilled psychologists in the industrial concerns, thirdly, psychological and experimental investigations with successful and unsuccessful laborers, and, fourthly, experimental studies of the normal variability. If such a programme is to be realized [p. 125] in detail, it will be necessary to discriminate carefully between those mental traits of the personality which must be accredited to a lasting inherited disposition and such as have been developed under the influences of the surroundings, by education and training, by bad or good stimuli from the community. While those acquired traits may have become relatively lasting dispositions, their transformation is, after all, possible, and the limits in which changes may be expected will have to be found out by exact studies. Individual psychological rhythm, attention and emotion, memory and will energy, disposition to fatigue and to restoration, imagination, suggestibility and initiative, and many other features will have to be examined in their relation to the special economic aims.

Too much emphasis cannot be laid on another function as well, the experimental testing of which has only recently been started. I refer to the difference in the individual ability of men to profit from training. If we test an individual at a certain point in his life with regard to a variable ability, our result must be dependent upon three factors, the original disposition for the performance, the original disposition for the advance by training, and the training itself actually passed through up to that moment. A small amount of antecedent training for the particular task together with a [p. 126] high ability to profit from repetition may be a better reason for the appointment of a man than a long training with small ability to profit from schooling, in spite of the fact that his actual achievement at this time may be in the first case smaller than in the second. He will do less at first, but he promises to outrank the other man after a period of further training. Special experiments must be carried on and have been actually started to determine this plasticity of the psychophysical apparatus as an independent inborn trait of the individual.[16]

This invasion of psychology into the held of economic activities is still so little advanced that the thought of a real distribution of the wage-earners among the various commercial and industrial positions on the basis of psychological tests would lead far beyond the present possibilities. Moreover, many factors would interfere with its being carried out consistently, even if a much higher stage of experimental research were reached. The thousands of social and local reasons which influence the choice of a vocation to-day would to a certain degree remain in force also in a period of better psychological analysis. Moreover, the personal inclinations and interests naturally would and ought to remain the mainspring of economic action. This inclination, which gives [p. 127] so much of the joy in labor, is by no means necessarily coincident with those psychophysical dispositions which insure the most successful work. Political economists have found this out repeatedly from their statistical inquiries. Very careful studies of the textile industry in Germany carried out in recent years[17] yielded the result that the intelligent, highly trained textile laborer often dislikes his work the more, the more he shows ability for it, this ability being measured by the wages the individuals earn at piecework. The wage and the emotional attitude were not seldom inversely related. Those who were able to produce by far more than others and accordingly earned the most were sometimes the very ones who hated the work, while the less skillful workers earned less but enjoyed the work more. The consulting economic psychologist will, therefore, at first reasonably confine himself to warning the misfits at an early time. Even within these limits his service can be useful to both parties, the employers and the employees. He will only slowly reach the stage at which this negative warning may be supplemented by positive suggestions, as to the commercial industrial activities for which the psychophysical dispositions promise particular success.

A real assumption of responsibility for success [p. 128] of course cannot be risked by the psychologist, inasmuch as the man who may be fitted for a task by his mental working dispositions may nevertheless destroy his chances for success by secondary personal traits. He may be dishonest, or dissipated, or a drinker, or a fighter, or physically ill. Finally, we ought not to forget that all such efforts to adjust to one another the psychological traits and the requirements of the work can never have reference to the extreme variations of human traits. The exceptionally talented man knows anyhow where he belongs, and the exceptionally untalented one will be excluded anyhow. The psychological aid in the selection of the fit refers only to the remaining four fifths of mankind for whom the chances of success can indeed be increased as soon as the psychological personal equation is systematically and with scientific exactitude brought into the calculation of the life development. How far a part of this effort will have to be undertaken by the school is a social problem which must be considered from various points of view. Its discussion would lead us beyond the limits of our present inquiry, but it seems probable that the real psychological laboratory experiment in the service of vocational guidance does not belong in the schoolroom itself, but ought to be left to special municipal institutions.

[16] F. L. Wells: The Relation of Practice to Individual Differences. (American Journal of Psychology, 1912, vol. 23, pp. 75-88.)

[17] M. Bernays: Auslec und Anpassung der Arbeiterschaft der geschlossenen Grossindustrie, dargestellt an den Verhältnissen der Gladbacher Spinnerei und Weberei. (Leipzig, 1910, p. 337.)