Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

(Return to index)

Psychology and Industrial Efficiency

Hugo Münsterberg (1913)


WE have placed our psychotechnical interest at the service of economic tasks. We therefore had to start from the various economic purposes and had to look backward, asking what ways might lead to these goals. All our studies so far were in this sense subordinated to the one task which ought to be the primary one in the economic world, and yet which has been most ignored. The purpose before us was to find for every economic occupation the best-fitted personality, both in the interest of economic success and in the interest of personal development. Individual traits under this point of view become for us the decisive psychological factors, and experimental psychology had to show us a method to determine those personal differences and their relation to the demands for industrial efficiency. This first goal may be reached with all the means of science, as we hope it will be in the future, or [p. 142] everything may be left to unscientific, haphazard methods as in the past: in any case a second task stands before the community, namely, the securing of the best possible work from every man in his place. Indeed, the nation cannot delay the solution of this second problem until the first has been solved in a satisfactory way. We might even say that the answer to the second question is the more important, the less satisfactory the answer to the first is. If every place in the economic world were filled only by those who are perfectly adapted by their mental traits, it would be much less difficult to get efficient work from every one. The fact that so many misfits are at work makes it such an urgent necessity to find ways and means by which the efficiency can be heightened.

It must be acknowledged, however, that the problem of the best work is not quite such a clear one as that of the best man. From various stand-points a different answer may be given to the question which kind of work is the best. A capitalistic, profit-seeking egotism may consider the quickest performance, or, if differences of quality are involved, the most skillful performance, the only desirable end. The social reformers, on the other hand, may consider the best work that which combines the greatest and best possible output with the highest possible saving of the organism [p. 143] and the fullest development of the personality. We have emphasized from the start that the practical psychologist as such has not the right to give a decision upon problems of social civilization. He has to accept the economic tasks from the community for which he is working and his impartial service commences only when the goals have been determined. It is not his share to select the ends, but simply to determine the means after the valuable ends have been chosen. As a psychological scientist he has not the right to enter into the arena of different social party fights. Yet we find after all a broad region which seems rather untouched by any conflict of reasonable opinions. A reckless capitalism on the one side and a feeble sentimentality on the other side may try to widen or to narrow the boundaries of this region, but taken all together, a vigorous healthy nation which is eagerly devoted to its work is on the whole in agreement as to the essential economic demands for efficient labor.

Experience, to be sure, shows that great changes in the conditions of work can never enter into the history of civilization without certain disturbances, and that opposition must therefore necessarily arise in certain groups even against such changes as are undoubtedly improvements and advances from the point of view of the whole nation. [p. 144] Such dissatisfaction arose when the factory system was introduced, and it is only natural that some irritation should accompany the introduction of psychological improvements in the methods of work, inasmuch as not a few wage-earners may at first have to lose their places because a small number of men will under the improved conditions be sufficient for the performance of tasks which needed many before. But the history of economics has clearly shown that from the point of view of the whole community such an apparent disturbance has always been only temporary. If the psychologists succeed in fundamentally improving the conditions of labor, the increased efficiency of the individual will promote such an enriched and vivified economic life that ultimately an increase in the number of laborers needed will result. The inquiry into the possible psychological contributions to the question of reinforced achievement must not be deterred by the superficial objection that in one or another industrial concern a dismissal of wage-earners might at first result. Psychotechnics does not stand in the service of a party, but exclusively in the service of civilization.

To begin at the beginning, we may start from the commonplace that every form of economic labor in the workshop and in the factory, in the field and in the mine, in the store and in the office, [p. 145] must first be learned. How far do the experiments of the psychologist offer suggestions for securing the most economic method of learning practical activities? Bodily actions in the service of economic work are taught and learned in hundreds of thousands of places. It is evident that one method of teaching must reach the goal more quickly and more reliably than another. Some methods of teaching must therefore be economically more advantageous, and yet on the whole the methods of teaching muscular work are essentially left to chance. It is indeed not difficult to observe how factory workers or artisans have learned the same complex motion according to entirely different methods. The result is that they carry out the various partial movements in a different order, or with different auxiliary motions, or in different positions, or in a different rhythm, or with different emphasis, simply because they imitate different teachers, and because no norm, no certainty as to the best methods for the teaching, has been determined. But the process of learning is still more fluctuating and still more dependent upon chance than the process of teaching. The apprentice approaches the instruction in any chance way, and the beginner usually learns even the first steps with a psychophysical attitude which is left to accident. An immense waste of [p. 146] energy and a quite anti-economic training in unfit movements is the necessary result.

The learning of the elements of school knowledge in the classroom in earlier times proceeded after exactly such chance methods. Any one who knew how to read, write, and calculate felt himself prepared to pour reading, writing, and arithmetic into the unprotected children. Methods which are based on scientific examination of the psychophysical process of reading and writing were not at the disposal of the schools, and exact results from comparative studies of pedagogical methods had not been secured. The last few decades have created an entirely new foundation for enlightened school work. The experimental investigations of pedagogical psychology have determined exactly how the consciousness of the child reacts on the various methods of teaching and have built up a real systematic economic learning. All which was left to dilettantic caprice has been transformed into more or less definite standard forms. For instance, the old scheme of teaching reading by the alphabet method is practically eliminated from our modern schools. It is clear that this learning of the names of the single letters as a starting-point for the reading of words was not only a wasting of time and energy, but an actual disturbance in the [p. 147] development of the reading process in the older generation. As those names of the letters do not occur at all in the words to be read, but only their sounds, what had been learned in seeing the single letters had to be inhibited in pronouncing the whole word. It seems not too much to say that the learning of industrial activities on the whole still stands on the level of such alphabet methods, and this cannot be otherwise, as the real problem, namely, the systematic investigation of the psychophysical activities involved, has never been brought into the psychological laboratory.

The pedagogical experiment has shown clearly enough that the subjective feeling of easier or quicker learning may be entirely unreliable and misleading. If the task is to learn a page by heart, we may proceed after many different methods. We may learn very small fractions of the text, repeating only a few words, or we may read whole paragraphs every time; we may repeat the whole material again and again, or we may put in long periods of rest after a few repetitions; we may frequently recite it from memory and have some one to prompt us; we may give our attention especially to the meaning of the words, or merely to the sounds, or we may introduce any number of similar variations. Now the careful experiment shows that of two such methods one which [p. 148] appears to us the better and more appropriate in learning, perhaps even as the easier and more comfortable, may prove itself the less efficient one in the practical result. The psychology of learning, which won its success by introducing meaningless syllables as experimental material, has slowly determined the most reliable methods for impressing knowledge on memory. Where such results have once been secured, it would surely be a grave mistake simply to stick to the methods of so-called common sense and to leave it to the caprice of the individual teacher to decide what method of learning he will suggest to his pupils. The best method is always the only one which should be considered. The psychology of economic work must aim toward similar goals. We must secure a definite knowledge as to the methods by which a group of movements can best be learned. We must understand what value is to be attached to the repetitions and to the pauses, to the imitations and to the special combinations of movements, to the exercise in parts of the movements, to the rhythm of the work, and to many similar influences which may shape the learning process.

The simplest aspect, that of the mere repetition of the movement, has frequently been examined by psychophysicists. The real founder of experimental psychology, Fechner, showed the [p. 149] way; he performed fatiguing experiments with lifted dumb-bells. Then came the time in which the laboratories began to make a record of the muscular activities with the help of the ergograph, an instrument with which the movements of the arm. and the lingers can easily be registered on the smoked surface of a revolving drum. The subtlest variations of the activity, the increase and decrease of the psychomotor impulse, the mental fatigue, can be traced exactly in such graphic records. This psychomotor side of the process, and not the mere muscle activity as such, is indeed the essential factor which should interest us. The results of exercise are a training of the central apparatus of the brain and not of the muscular periphery. The further development of those experiments soon led to complex questions, which referred not only to the mere change in the motor efficiency, but to the learning of particular groups of movements and to the influences on the exactitude and reliability of the movements. The purely mental factors of the will-impulse, especially the consciousness of the task, came into the foreground. These experiences of the scientists concerning the influences of training, the mechanization of repetition, and the automatization of movements have been thoroughly discussed by a brilliant political economist[19] as an explanation [p. 150] of certain industrial facts, but they have not yet practically influenced life in the factory.

The nearest approach from the experimental side to the study of the effect of training in actual industrial tasks may be found in certain laboratory investigations which refer to the learning of telegraphing, typewriting, and so on. For instance, we have a careful study[20] Of the progress made in learning telegraphy, both as to the transmitting of the telegrams by the key movement and the receiving of the telegrams by the ear. It was found that the rapidity of transmitting increases more rapidly and more uniformly than the rapidity of receiving. But while the curve of the latter rises more slowly and more irregularly, it finally reaches the greater height. The ability in transmitting, represented by a graphic record, shows an ascent which corresponds to the typical, steady curve of training. In the receiving curve, on the other hand, we find not far from the beginning a characteristic period during which no progress whatever can be noticed, and this is also repeated at a later stage. The psychological analysis shows that the increase of ability in the receiving of telegrams depends upon the development of a complex system of psychophysical habits. The periods in which the curve does not ascend represent stages of [p. 151] training in which the elementary habits are almost completely formed, but have not become sufficiently automatic. The attention is therefore not yet ready to start habits of a higher order. The lowest correlation refers to the single letters, after that to the syllables and words. As soon as the apprentice has reached this point, he stops, because he must learn to master more and more new words until his telegraphic vocabulary is large enough to make it possible for him to turn his consciousness to whole groups of words at once. Only when this new habit has been made automatic by a training of several months can he advance to a level at which whole groups of words are perceived as telegraphic units. A time follows in which this mastery of whole phrases advances rapidly, until a new period of rest comes, from which, only after years and often quite suddenly, a last new ascent can be noticed. Instead of concentrating the attention with conscious strain on single phrases, the operator progresses to a perfect liberty in which whole sentences are understood automatically.

We also have a model experimental research into the psychological conditions of learning in the case of writing on a typewriter.[21] By electrical connections between the typewriting machine and a system of levers which registered their [p. 152] movements on the rotating drum of a kymograph, each striking of a key, each completion of a word, or of a line, could be recorded in exact time-relations. Each glance at the copy was also registered. It was found that the process of learning consisted first of a continuous simplification of the cumbersome methods with which the beginner commences. A steady elimination of unfit movements, a selection, a reorganization, and finally, a combination of psychophysical acts to impulses of higher order, could be traced exactly. Here, too, the curve of learning at first rises quickly and then more and more slowly. Of course the usual fluctuations in the growth of the ability can also be found, and above all the irregular periods of rest in which the learning itself does not progress, for some of these so-called plateaus which lie between the end of one ascent and the beginning of the next may cover a month and more. At the beginning we have the elementary association between the single letter and the position of the corresponding key, but soon an immediate connection between the visual impression of the whole syllable or the whole word and the total group of movements necessary to strike the keys for it is developed. The more the ability grows, the more these psychical impulses of higher order become organized without conscious intention. [p. 153] The study shows that this development of higher habits has already begun before the lower habits are fully settled.

How far the special training involves at the same time a general training which could be of advantage for other kinds of labor has not yet been studied at all with reference to industrial technique. There we are still completely dependent upon certain experiences in the held of experimental pedagogy, and upon certain statistics, for instance, in the textile industry. Many patient investigations, with every independent group of apparatus and machines, may be necessary before psychotechnics will be able to supply industry with reliable advice for teaching and learning. Nor have we the least right hastily to carry over the results from one group of movements to another. Even where superficially a certain similarity between the technical factors exists, the psychophysical conditions may be essentially different. In the two cases mentioned, for instance, telegraphing and typewriting, the chief factor seems the same, as in both cases the aim is to make the quickest possible finger movements for purposes of signals; and yet it is not surprising that the development of the ability from the beginnings to the highest mastery is rather unlike, as all the movements in telegraphing are performed [p. 154] with the same finger, while in typewriting the chief trait is the organization of groups from the impulses to all ten fingers. At least it is certain that learning always means far more than a mere facilitation of the movement by mechanical repetition, and this is true of the simplest handling of the tools in the workshop, of the movements at the machine in the factory, and of the most complex performances at the subtlest instruments. The chief factor in the development is always the organization of the impulses by which the reactions which are at first complicated become simplified, later mechanized, and finally synthesized into a higher group which becomes subordinated to one simple psychical impulse. The most reliable and psychophysically most economic means for this organization will have to be studied in the economic psychological laboratories of the future for every particular technique. Then only can the enormous waste of psychical energy resulting from haphazard methods be brought to an end.

A problem which is still too little considered in industrial life is the mutual interference of acquired technical activities. If one connected series of movements is well trained by practice, does it become less firmly fixed, if another series is studied in which the same beginning is connected with [p. 155] another path of discharge? I approached this psychophysical question of learning by experiments which I carried on for a long while with variations of ordinary habits of daily life, asking whether a habit associated with a certain sensory stimulus can function automatically while dispositions for a different habit, previously acquired, remain in the psychophysical system. For instance, I was accustomed to carry my watch in my left-hand vest pocket. For a week I carried it in the right-hand pocket of my trousers and recorded every case in which I first automatically made the movement to the vest. After some time the movement to the right-hand pocket became entirely automatic. When it was sufficiently fixed, I again put the watch in the left-hand vest pocket and recorded how often I unconsciously grasped at the right side when I wanted to see what time it was. As soon as the vest pocket movement had again become fixed, I went back to the right-hand trousers pocket. And so I alternated for a long while, always changing only after reaching complete automatism. But the results in this case and in other similar experiments which I carried on showed that the new automatic connection did not extinguish the after effects of the previous habit. With every new change the number of wrong movements became smaller and smaller, [p. 156] and finally a point was reached at which the dispositions for both movements were equally developed so that no wrong movements occurred when the watch was put into the new position.[22]

This problem has been followed up very recently in a valuable investigation at Columbia University,[23] in which various habits of type-writing and of card-sorting were acquired and studied in their mutual interference. These very careful experiments also show that when two opposing associations are alternately practiced, they have an interference effect on each other, but that the interference grows less and less as the practice effect becomes greater. The interference effect is gradually overcome and both opposing associations become automatic, so that either of them can be called up independently without the appearance of the other. Many details of the research suggest that this whole group of interference problems deserves the most careful attention by those who would practically profit from increased industrial efficiency. Finally, in the experimental study of the problem of technical learning, we cannot ignore the many side influences which may hasten or delay, improve or disturb, the acquisition of industrial skill. In the Harvard laboratory, for instance, we [p. 157] are at present engaged in an investigation which deals with the influence of feelings on the rapidity with which new movement coördinations are mastered.[24] In order to have unlimited comparable material a very simple technical performance is required, namely, the distribution of the 52 playing-cards into 52 boxes. Labels on the boxes indicate changing combinations for the distribution to be learned. We examine, on the one side, the influence of feelings of comfort or of discomfort on the learning of the new habit, these feeling states being produced by external conditions, such as pleasant or unpleasant sounds, odors, and so on. On the other side we trace the effects of those feelings which arise during the learning process itself, such as feelings of satisfaction with progress, or disappointment, or discomfort, or disgust or joy in the activity.


[19] Max Weber: Zur Psychophysik der industriellen Arbeit. (Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, 1980 and 1909, vols 27 and 28.)

[20] Bryan and Harter: Studies in the Telegraphic Language. (Psychological Review, vol. 4.)

[21] W. F. Book: The Psychology of Skill. (University of Montana, Publications in Psychology, 1910.)

[22] H. Münsterberg: Beiträge sur experimentellen Psychologie. (Book IV, 1892.)

[23] A. J. Culler: Interference and Adaptability. (Archives of Psychology, 1912.)

[24] The experiments are being conducted and will be published by Mr. L. W. Kline.