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)


ONE point here must not be overlooked. The effort to discover the personal structure of the individual in the interest of his vocational chance does not always necessarily involve a direct analysis of his individuality, as material of some value can be gained indirectly. Such indirect knowledge of a man's mental traits may be secured first of all through referring the man to the groups to which he belongs and inquiring into the characteristic traits of those groups. The psychology of human variations gives not only an account of the differences from person to person, but studies no less the psychical inequalities of the races, of the nations, of the ages, of the professions, and so on. If an economic activity demands a combination of mental traits, we may take it for granted that an individual will be fit for the work as soon as we find out that he belongs to a group in which these required mental traits habitually occur. Such a judgment based on group psychology can of course be no more than a mere approach to a solution of the problem, as the psychical qualities may vary strongly in the midst of the group. The special individual may happen to [p. 130] stand at the extreme limit of the group, and the traits which are usually characteristic of it may be very little developed or entirely lacking in his special case. We may know that the inhabitants of a special country are rather alert, and yet the particular individual with whom we have to deal may be clumsy and phlegmatic. The interests of economy will, therefore, be served by such considerations of group psychology only if the employment, not of a single person, but of a large number, is in question, as it is most probable that the average character will show itself in a sufficient degree as soon as many members of the group are involved.

Even in this case the presupposition ought to be that the average characteristics are found out with scientific exactitude by statistical and experimental methods, and not that they are simply deduced from superficial impressions. I have found that just this race psychological diagnosis is frequently made in factories with great superficiality. Some of the American industrial centres offer extremely favorable conditions for the comparative study of nationality. I have visited many manufacturing establishments in which almost all workers are immigrants from foreign countries and in which up to twenty different nationalities are represented. The employment officers there easily develop some psychological [p. 131] theories on the basis of which they are convinced that they are selecting the men with especial skill, knowing for each in which department he will be most successful. They consider it settled that for a particular kind of activity the Italians are the best, and for another, the Irish, and for a third, the Hungarians, and for a fourth, the Russian Jews. But as soon as these factory secrets have been revealed, you may be surprised to find that in the next factory a decidedly different classification of the wage-earners is in force. In a gigantic manufacturing concern, I received the definite information that the Swedish laborers are preferable wherever a steady eye is needed, and in another large factory on the same street I was assured that just the Swedes are unfit for such work. Sometimes this diversity of opinion is the result of different points of view. In one factory in which a certain industrial operation is rather dangerous, they told me that they took no southern Europeans, especially no Italians and Greeks, because they are too hasty and careless in their movements, while they gladly filled the places with Irishmen. In a quite similar factory, on the other hand, they had a prejudice against the Irishmen alone for this work, because the Irish laborers are too willing to run a risk and to expose themselves to danger. Probably both psychological [p. 132] observations are on the whole correct, but in the first factory only the one and in the second factory only the other was recognized. Much more thorough statistical inquiries than those which as yet exist, especially as to the actual differences of wages and piecework for wage-earners of various nationalities, would have to furnish a basis for such race psychological statements, until the time arrives when the psychological experiment comes to its own.

In a similar way so far we have to rely on general theories of group psychology when the psychological differences of the sexes are to be reckoned within economic interests. So long as laboratory methods for individual tests are not usual, the mental analysis of the general groups of men and women must form the background for industrial decisions. To be sure, it is not difficult to emphasize certain mental traits as characteristic of women in general in contrast to men in general, and to relate them to certain fundamental tendencies of their psychophysical organism. As soon as this is done, it is easy theoretically to deduce that certain industrial functions are excellently adapted to the minds of women and that certain others stand in striking antagonism to them. If the employment of large numbers is in question, and average values alone are involved, such a decision [p. 133] on the basis of group psychology may be adequate. In most factories this vague sex psychology, to be sure, usually with a strong admixture of wage questions, suggests for which machines men and for which women ought to be employed. But here again it is not at all improbable that in the case of a particular woman the traditional group value may be entirely misleading and the personality accordingly unfit for the place. Only the subtle psychological individual analysis can overcome the superficial prejudices of group psychology. The situation lies differently when problems of economic policy are before us. Such general policies as, for instance, colonial politics, or immigration politics, or politics concerned with city and rural communities, Or with coast and mountain population, will always have to be based on group psychology as far as the economic problems are involved, inasmuch as they refer to the average and not to the individual differences.

Finally, another indirect scheme to determine the personal qualities needed for economic efficiency may be suggested by the psychology of the typical correlations of human traits. We have seen that group psychology proclaims that a certain individual probably has certain traits because he belongs to this or that nation or to this [p. 134] or that otherwise well-known group. Correlation psychology proclaims that a particular individual possesses or does not possess certain traits because he shows or does not show some other definite qualities. A correlation, for instance, which the commercial world often presupposes, may exist between individual traits and the hand-writing. Graphologists are convinced that a certain loop or flourish, or the steepness or the length of the letters, or the position of the i dot, is a definite indication that the writer possesses certain qualities of personality; and if just these qualities are essential requirements for the position, the impression of the handwriting in a letter may be taken as a sufficient basis for appointment. The scientist has reason to look upon this particular case of graphological correlation with distrust. Yet even he may acknowledge that certain correlations exist between the neatness, carefulness, uniformity, energy, and similar features of the letter, and the general carefulness, steadiness, neatness, and energy of the personality.

However, the laboratory psychologists nowadays have gone far beyond such superficial claims for correlations of symptoms. With experimental and statistical methods they have gathered ample material which demonstrates the exact degree of probability with which we have a right to expect [p. 135] that certain qualities will occur together. Theoretically we may take it for granted that those traits which are always present together or absent together ultimately have a common mental root. Yet practically they appear as two independent traits, and therefore it remains important to know that, if we can find one of them, we may be sure that the other will exist there too. Inasmuch as the one of the two traits may be easily detected, while the other may be hidden and can be found out only by long careful tests, it would be valuable, indeed, for the employment manager to become acquainted with such correlations as the psychologist may discover: as soon as he becomes aware of the superficially noticeable symptom, he can foresee that the other disposition is most probably present. To give an illustration: in the interest of such measurements of correlations we have studied in the Harvard laboratory the various characteristics of attention and their mutual dependence.[18] We found that typical connections exist between apparently independent features of attention. Persons who have a rather expansive span of attention for acoustical impressions have also a wide span for the visual objects. Persons whose attention is vivid and quick have on the whole the expansive type of attention, while those who attend slowly have a [p. 136] narrow field of attention, and so on. Hence the manifestation of one feature of attention allows us to presuppose without further tests that certain other features may be expected in the particular individual.

The problem of attention, indeed, seems to stand quite in the centre of the field of industrial efficiency. This conviction has grown upon me in my observation of industrial life. The peculiar kind of attention decides more than any mental trait for which economic activity the individual is adapted. The essential point is that such differences of attention cannot be characterized as good or bad; it is not a question of the attentive and of the inattentive mind. One type is not better than another, but is simply different. Two workingmen, not only equally industrious and capable, but also equally attentive, may yet occupy two positions in which they are both complete failures because their attention does not fit the places, and both may become highly efficient as soon as they exchange positions. Their particular types of attention have now found the right places. The one may be disposed to a strong concentration by which everything is inhibited which lies on the mental periphery, the other may have the talent for distributing his attention over a large field, while he is unable to hold it for a long [p. 137] while at one point. If the one industrial activity demands the attentive observation of one little lever or one wheel at one point, while the other demands that half a dozen large machines be simultaneously supervised, all that is necessary is to find the man with the right type of attention for each place. It would be utterly arbitrary to claim that the expansive type of attention is economically more or less valuable than the concentrated type. Both in English and in German we have a long popular series of pamphlets with descriptions of the requirements and conditions for the various occupations to which a boy or a girl may turn, but I have nowhere found any reference to the most essential mental functions such as the particular kind of attention or memory or will. These pamphlets are always cut after the same pattern. Where the detail refers at all to the mental side, it points only to particular knowledge which may be learned in school or trade or work, or to abilities which may be developed by training. But the individual differences which are set by the particular conditions and dispositions of the mind are neglected with surprising uniformity in the vocational literature of all countries. The time seems ripe for at last filling this blank in the consciousness of the nation and in the institutions of the land.


[18] H. C. McComas: Some Types of Attention (Psychological Review Monographs, vol. 13, 3 1911.)