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)


THE study of the technical aspect of labor can nowhere be separated by a sharp demarcation line from the study of the labor itself as a function of the individual organism. Many problems, indeed, extend in both directions. The student of industrial efficiency is, for instance, constantly led to the question of fatigue. He may consider this fatigue as a function of brain and muscle activity and discuss it with reference to the psychophysical effort, but he is equally interested in the question of how far the apparatus or the machine or the accessory conditions of the work might be changed in order to avoid fatigue. The accidents of the electric street railways were regarded as partly related to fatigue. The problem was accordingly how to shorten the working time of the motormen in the interest of the public, but it was soon recognized that the difficulty might also be approached from the mere technical side. Some companies introduced seats which the motormen can use whenever they feel fatigue coming and excellent results have followed this innovation. In our last discussions the technical [p. 181] apparatus stood in the foreground. We may not consider as our real topic the psychophysical activity.

Here, too, the leaders of scientific management have secured some signal successes. Their chief effort in this held was directed toward the greatest possible achievement by eliminating all superfluous movements and by training in those movement combinations which were recognized as the most serviceable ones. We may return to the case of the masons in order to clear up the principle. When Gilbreth began to reform the labor of the mason after scientific principles, he gave his chief interest to the men's motions. Every muscle contraction which was needed to move the brick from the pile in the yard to the final position in the wall was measured with reference to space- and time-relations and the necessary effort. From here he turned to the application of well-known psychophysical principles. A movement is less fatiguing and therefore economically most profitable if it occurs in a direction in which the greatest possible use of gravitation can be made. If both hands have to ad at the same time, the labor can be carried out most quickly and with the smallest effort if corresponding muscle groups are at work and this means if symmetrical movements are performed. If unequal movements have to [p. 182] be made simultaneously, the effort will become smaller if they are psychically bound together by a common unified impulse. The distance which has to be overcome by hands, arms, or feet must be brought to a minimum for each partial movement. Most important, however, is this rule. If a definite combination of movements has been determined as economically most suitable, this method must be applied without any exception from the beginning of the learning. The point is to train from the start those impulse combinations which can slowly lead to the quickest and best work. The usual method is the opposite. Generally the beginner learns to produce from the beginning work which is as good and correct as possible. In order to produce such qualitatively good results at an early stage, it is left to him to choose any groups of movements which happen to be convenient to him. Then these become habitual, and as soon as he tries to go on to quicker work, these chance habits hinder him in his progress. The movements which may be best suited for fair production by a beginner may be entirely unsuited for really quick work, such as would be expected from an experienced man. The laborer must replace the first habits which he has learned by a new set, instead of starting in the first place with motions which can be continued [p. 183] until the highest point of efficiency has been reached, even if this involves rather a poor showing at the beginning. A final maximum rapidity must be secured from the start by the choice of those motions which have been standardized by careful experiments.

It is also psychophysically important to demand that the movements shall not be suddenly stopped, if that can be avoided. Any interruption of a movement presupposes a special effort of the will which absorbs energy, and after the interruption a new start must be made of which the same is true. On the other hand, if chains of movements become habitual, the psychophysical effort will be reduced to the minimum, inasmuch as each movement finds its natural end and is not artificially interrupted by will, and at the same time each movement itself becomes a stimulus for the next movement by its accompanying sensations. The traditional method, for instance, demands that a brick be lifted with one hand and a trowel with mortar by the other hand. After that the lifting movement is interrupted, the brick comes to rest in the band of the mason until the mortar has been spread on and the place prepared for the new brick. Then only begins a new action with the brick. This method was fundamentally changed. The laborers learned to swing the brick [p. 184] with one hand from the pack to the wall and at the same time to distribute the mortar over the next brick with the other hand. This whole complex movement is of course more difficult and demands a somewhat longer period of learning, but as soon as it is learned an extreme saving of psychophysical energy and a correspondingly great economic gain is secured. The newly trained masons are not even allowed to gather up with the trowel any mortar which falls to the floor, because it was found that the loss of mortar is economically less important than the waste of psychophysical energy in bending down.

Whoever has once schooled his eye to observe the limitless waste of human motions and psychophysical efforts in social life has really no difficulty in perceiving all this at every step. This ability to recognize possible savings of impulse may be brought to a certain virtuosity. Gilbreth, one of the leaders of the new movement, seems to be such a virtuoso. When he was in London, there was pointed out to him in the Japanese British Exhibition a young girl who worked so quickly that there at least he would find a rhythm of finger movement which could not any further be improved. In an exhibition booth the woman attached advertisement labels to boxes with phenomenal rapidity. Gilbreth watched her for a little [p. 185] while and found that she was able to manage 24 boxes in 40 seconds. Then he told the young girl that she was doing it wrongly, and that she ought to try a new way which he showed her. At the first attempt, she disposed of 24 boxes in 26 seconds and at the second trial in 20 seconds. She did not have to make more effort for it, but simply had fewer movements to make. If such economic gain can be secured with little exertion in the simplest processes, it cannot be surprising that in the ease of more complex and more advanced technical work which involves highly skilled labor, a careful psychophysical study of motions must bring far-reaching economic improvements.

Yet the more important steps will have to be guided by special experimental investigations, and here the psychological laboratory must undertake the elaboration of the details. Only the systematic experiment can determine what impulses can be released at the least expense of energy and with the greatest exactitude of the motor effect. Investigations on the psychophysics of movement and the influences which lead toward making the movement too large or too small have played an important rôle in the psychological laboratories for several decades. It was recognized early that the mistakes which are made in reproducing a movement may spring from two different sources. [p. 186] They result partly from an erroneous perception or memory of the movement carried out, and partly from the inability to realize the movement intention. One series of investigations was accordingly devoted to the studies of those sensations and perceptions by which we become aware of the actual movement. Everything which accentuates these sensations must lead to an over-estimation of the motion, and the outcome is that the movement is made too small. The concentration of attention, therefore, has the effect of reducing the actual motion, and the same influence must result from any resistance which is not recognized as such and hence is not subtracted in the judgment of the perceiver. Another series of researches was concerned with the inner attitude which causes a certain external movement effect and which may lead to an unintended amount of movement as soon as the weight to be lifted is erroneously judged upon. Closely related studies, finally, deal with a mistake which enters when the movement is reproduced from memory after a certain time. The exactitude of a simple arm movement seems to increase in the first ten seconds, then rapidly to decrease. The emotional attitude, too, is of importance for the reproduction of a movement. I trained myself in making definite extensor and flexor movements of the [p. 187] arm until I was able to reproduce them under normal conditions with great exactitude. In experiments extending over many months, which were carried on through the changing emotional attitudes of daily life, the exact measurement showed that both groups of movements became too large in states of excitement and too small in states of fatigue. But in a state of satisfaction and joy the extensor movement became too large, the flexor movement too small, and vice versa, in unpleasant emotional states the flexor movement was too strong and the extensor movement too weak.[34]

We have a very careful investigation into the relations between rapidity of movement and exactitude.[35] The subjects had to perform a band movement simultaneously with the beat of a metronome, the beats of which varied between 20 and 200 in the minute. In general the accuracy of the movement decreases as the rapidity increases, but the descent is not uniform. Motions in the rhythm of 40 to the minute were on the whole just as exact as those in the rhythm of 20, and, on the other hand movements in the rhythm of 200 almost as accurate as those of 140 to the minute. Thus we have a lower limit below which decrease of rapidity does not increase the accuracy any further, and an upper limit beyond which a further increase of rapidity brings no additional [p. 188] deterioration. The mistakes of the unskilled left hand increase still more rapidly than the number of movements. If the eyes are closed, the rapid movements are usually too long and the slow ones too short.

An investigation in the Harvard laboratory varied this problem in a direction which brings it still nearer to technical conditions of industry. Our central question was whether the greatest exactitude of rhythmical movement is secured at the same rapidity for different muscle groups.[36]We studied especially rhythmical movements of hand, foot, arm, and head, and studied them, moreover, under various conditions of resistance. The result from 340,000 measured movements was the demonstration that every muscle group has its own optimum of rapidity for the greatest possible accuracy and that the complexity of the movement and the resistance which it finds has most significant influence on the exactitude of the rhythmical achievement. If we abstract at first from the fluctuations around the average value of a particular group of movements and consider only this average itself in its relation to the starting movement which it is meant to imitate, we find characteristic tendencies toward enlargement or reduction dependent upon the rapidity. The right foot, for instance, remained nearest [p. 189] to the original movement at a rapidity of 80 motions in the minute, while the head did the

same at about 20. For a hand movement of 14 centimeters, the most favorable rapidity was 120 repetitions in the minute, while for a hand movement of 1 centimeter the average remained nearest to the standard at about 40 repetitions,. The mean variation from the average is the smallest for the left foot at 20 to 30 movements, for the right at 160 to 180, for the head at 40, for the larger hand movement at 180, and so on. Investigations of this kind have so far not affected industrial life in the least, but it seems hardly doubtful that a systematic study of the movements necessary for economic work will have to pass through such strictly experimental phases. The essential point, however, will be for the managers of the industrial concerns and the psychological laboratory workers really to come nearer to each other from the start and undertake the work in common, not in the sense that the laboratory is to emigrate to the factory, but in the better sense that definite questions which grow out of the industrial life be submitted to the scientific investigation of the psychologists.


[34] H. Münsterberg: Beiträge zur experementellen Psychologie. (Book IV, 1892.)

[35] R.S. Woodworth: Accuracy of Voluntary Movement. (Psychological Review Monographs, vol 3, 1899).

[36] B. A. Lenfest: The Accuracy of Linear Movement. (Harvard Psychological Studies, vol .2. 1906.)