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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario
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CHAPTER 16: EXPERIMENTS ON THE PROBLEM OF MONOTONY
THE systematic organization of movements with most careful regard to the psychophysical conditions appeared to us the most momentous aid toward the heightening of efficiency. But even if the superfluous, unfit, and interfering movement impulses were eliminated and the conditions of work completely adjusted to the demands of psychology, there would still remain a large number of possibilities through which productiveness might be greatly decreased, or at least kept far below the possible maximum of efficiency. For instance, even the best adapted labor might be repeated to the point of exhaustion, at which the workman and the work would be ruined. Fatigue and restoration accordingly demand especial consideration. In a similar way emotions may be conditions of stimulation or interference, and no one ought to underestimate the importance of higher motives, intellectual, aesthetic, and moral motives, in their bearing on the psychophysical impulses of the laborer. If these higher demands are satisfied, the whole system gains a new tonus, and if they are disappointed, the irritation [p. 191] of the mental machinery may do more harm than any break in the physical machine at which the man is working. In short, we must still look in various directions to become aware of all the relations between the psychological factors and the economic output. We may begin with one question which plays a large, perhaps too large, rôle in the economic and especially in the popular economic literature. I refer to the problem of monotony of labor.
In the discourses of our time on the lights and shades of our modern industrial life, all seem to agree that the monotony of industrial labor ought to be entered on the debit side of the ledger of civilization. Since the days when factories began to spring up, the accusation that through the process of division of labor the industrial workingman no longer has any chance to see a whole product, but that he has to devote himself to the minutest part of a part, has remained one of the matter-of-course arguments. The part of a part which he has to cut or polish or shape in endless repetition without alteration cannot awake any real interest. This complete division of labor has to-day certainly gone far beyond anything which Adam Smith described, and therefore it now appears undeniable that the method must create a mental starvation which presses down the whole [p. 192] life of the laborer, deprives it of all joy in work, and makes the factory scheme a. necessary but from the standpoint of psychology decidedly regrettable evil. I have become more and more convinced that the scientific psychologist is not obliged to endorse this judgment of popular psychology.
To be sure the problem of division of labor, as it appears in the subdivision of manufacture, is intimately connected with many other related questions. It quickly leads to the much larger question of division of labor in our general social structure, which is necessary for our social life with its vocational and professional demands, and which undoubtedly narrows to a certain degree every individual in the completeness of his human desires. No man in modern society can devote himself to everything for which his mind may long. But as a matter of course these large general problems of civilization lie outside of the realm of our present inquiry. In another direction the problem of monotony comes very near to the question of fatigue. But we must see clearly that these two questions are not identical and that we may discuss monotony here without arguing the problem of fatigue. The frequent repetition of the same movement or of the same mental activity certainly may condition an objective [p. 193] fatigue, which may interfere with the economic output, but this is not the real meaning of the problem of monotony. About fatigue we shall speak later. Here we are concerned exclusively with that particular psychological attitude which we know as subjective dislike of uniformity and lack of change in the work. Within these limits the question of monotony is, indeed, frequently misunderstood in its economic significance.
Let us not forget that the outsider can hardly ever judge when work offers or does not offer inner manifoldness. If we do not know and really understand the subject, we are entirely unable to discriminate the subtler inner differences. The shepherd knows every sheep, though the passer-by has the impression that they all look alike. This inability to recognize the differences which the man at work feels distinctly shows itself even in the most complicated activities. The naturalist is inclined to fancy that the study of a philologist must be endlessly monotonous, and the philologist is convinced that it must be utterly tiresome to devote one's self a life long to some minute questions of natural science. Only when one stands in the midst of the work is he aware of its unlimited manifoldness, and feels bow every single case is somehow different from every other. [p. 194]
In the situation of the industrial workman, the attention may be directed toward some small differences which can only be recognized after long familiarity with the particular field. Certainly this held is small, as every workman must specialize, but whether he manufactures a whole machine, or only a little wheel, makes no essential difference in the attitude. The attraction of newness is quickly lost also in the case of the most complicated machine. On the other hand, the fact that such a machine has an independent function does not give an independent attraction to the work. Or we might rather say, as far as the work on a whole machine is of independent value, the work of perfecting the little wheel is an independent task also and offers equal value by its own possibilities. Whoever has recognized the finest variations among the single little wheels and has become aware of how they are produced sometimes better, sometimes worse, sometimes more quickly, sometimes more slowly, becomes as much interested in the perfecting of the minute part as another man in the manufacture of the complex machine. It is true that the laborer does not feel interest in the little wheel itself, but in the production of the wheel. Every new movement necessary for it has a perfectly new chance and stands in new relations, which have nothing to do [p. 195] with the repetition. As a matter of course this interest in the always new best possible method of production is still strongly increased where piece-wages are introduced. The laborer knows that the amount of his earning depends upon the rapidity with which he finishes faultless products. Under this stimulus he is in a continuous race with himself, and thus has every reason to prefer the externally uniform and therefore perfectly familiar work to another kind which may bring alternation, but which also brings ever new demands.
For a long while I have tried to discover in every large factory which I have visited the particular job which from the standpoint of the outsider presents itself as the most tiresome possible, As soon as I found it, I had a full frank talk with the man or woman who performed it and earnestly tried to get self-observational comment. My chief aim was to bring out how far the mere repetition, especially when it is continued through years, is felt as a source of discomfort. I may again point to a few chance illustrations. In an electrical factory with many thousands of employees I gained the impression that the prize for monotonous work belonged to a woman who packs incandescent lamps in tissue paper. She wraps them from morning until night, from the first [p. 196] day of the year to the last, and has been doing that for the last 12 years. She performs this packing process at an average rate of 13,000 lamps a day. The woman has reached about 50,000,000 times for the next lamp with one hand and with the other to the little pile of tissue sheets and then performed the packing. Each lamp demands about 20 finger movements. As long as I watched her, she was able to pack 25 lamps in 42 seconds, and only a few times did she need as many as 44 seconds. Every 25 lamps filled a box, and the closing of the box required a short time for itself. She evidently took pleasure in expressing herself fully about her occupation. She assured me that she found the work really interesting, and that she constantly felt an inner tension, thinking how many boxes she would be able to fill before the next pause. Above all, she told me that there is continuous variation. Sometimes she grasps the lamp or paper in a different way, sometimes the packing itself does not run smoothly, sometimes she feels fresher, sometimes less in the mood for the work, and there is always something to observe and something to think about.
This was the trend which I usually found. In some large machine works I sought for a long time before I found the type of labor which seemed to me the most monotonous. I finally [p. 197] settled on a man who was feeding an automatic machine which was cutting holes in metal strips and who simply had to push the strips slowly forward; only when the strip did not reach exactly the right place, he could stop the automatic machine by a lever. He made about 34,000 uniform movements daily and had been doing that for the past 14 years. But he gave me the same account, that the work was interesting and stimulating, while he himself made the impression of an intelligent workingman. At the beginning, he reported, the work had sometimes been quite fatiguing, but later he began to like it more and more. I imagined that this meant that at first he had to do the work with full attention and that the complex movement had slowly become automatic, allowing him to perform it like a, reflex movement and to turn his thoughts to other things. But he explained to me in full detail that this was not the case, that he still feels obliged to devote his thoughts entirely to the work at hand, and that he is able only under these conditions to bring in the daily wage which he needs for his family, as he is paid for every thousand holes. But he added especially that it is not only the wage which satisfies him, but that he takes decided pleasure in the activity itself.
On the other hand, I not seldom found wage-earners, [p. 198] both men and women, who seemed to have really interesting and varied activities and who nevertheless complained bitterly over the monotonous, tiresome factory labor. I became more and more convinced that the feeling of monotony depends much less upon the particular kind of work than upon the special disposition of the individual. It cannot be denied that the same contrast exists in the higher classes of work. We find school-teachers who constantly complain that it is intolerably monotonous to go on teaching immature children the rudiments of knowledge, while other teachers with exactly the same task before them are daily inspired anew by the manifoldness of life in the classroom. We find physicians who complain that one case in their practice is like another, and judges who despair because they always have to deal with the same petty cases, while other judges and physicians feel clearly that every case offers something new and that the repetition as such is neither conspicuous nor disagreeable. We find actors who feel it a torture to play the same rôle every evening for several weeks, and there are actors who, as one of the most famous actresses assured me after the four hundredth performance of her star rôle, repeat their parts many hundred times with undiminished interest, because they feel that [p. 199] they are always speaking to new audiences. It seems not impossible that this individual difference might be connected with deeper-lying psychophysical conditions. I approached the question, to be sure, with a preconceived theory. I fancied that certain persons had a finer, subtler sense for differences than others and that they would recognize a manifoldness of variations where the others would see only uniformity. In that I silently presupposed that the perception of the uniformity must be something disturbing and disagreeable and the recognition of variations something which stimulates the mind pleasantly. But when I came to examine the question experimentally, I became convinced that such a hypothesis is erroneous, and if I interpret the results correctly, I should say that practically the opposite relation exists. Those who recognize the uniformities readily are not the ones who are disturbed by them.
I proceeded in the following way. To make use of a large number of subjects accustomed to intelligent self-observation, I made the first series of experiments with the regular students in my psychology lecture course in Harvard University. Last winter I had more than four hundred men students in psychology who all took part in that introductory series. The task which I put before [p. 200] them in a number of variations was this: I used lists of words of which half, or one more or less than half, belonged to one single conceptional [sic] group. There were names of flowers, or cities, or poets, or parts of the body, or wild animals, and so on. The remaining words of the list, on the other hand, were without inner connection and without similarity. The similar and the dissimilar words were mixed. The subjects listened to such a list of words and then had to decide without counting from the mere impression whether the similar words were more or equally or less numerous than the dissimilar words. In other experiments the arrangement was that two different lists were read and that in the two lists a larger or smaller number of words were repeated from the first list. Here, too, the subjects had to decide from the mere impression whether the repeated words were in the majority or not. In every experiment the judgment referred to those words which belonged to the same group and which were in this sense uniform, or to the repeated words, and it had to be stated with reference to them whether their number was larger, equal to, or smaller than the different words. If all replies had been correct, the judgment would have been 40 per cent equal, 30 per cent smaller, and 30 per cent larger, as they were arranged in perfect symmetry. As soon [p. 201] as I had the results from the students, we figured out for every one what number he judged equal, smaller, or greater. Then we divided the equal judgments by 2 and added half of them to the larger and half to the smaller judgments. In this way we were enabled by one figure to characterize the whole tendency of the individual. We found that in the whole student body there was 8 tendency to underestimate the number of the similar or of the repeated words. The majority of my students had a stronger impression from the varying objects than from those which were in a certain sense equal. Yet this tendency appeared in very different degrees and for about a fourth of the participants the opposite tendency prevailed. They received a stronger impression from the uniform ideas.
I had coupled with these experimental tests a series of questions, and had asked every subject to express with fullest possible self-analysis his practical attitude to monotony in life. Every one had to give an account whether in the small habits of life he liked variety or uniform repetition. He was asked especially as to his preferences for or against uniformity in the daily meals, daily walks, and so on. Furthermore he had to report how far he is inclined to stick to one kind of work or to alternate his work, how far he welcomes [p. 202] the idea that vocational work may bring repetition, and so on. And finally I tried to bring the results of these self-observations into relation with the results of those experiments. It was here that the opposite of the hypothesis which I had presupposed suggested itself to me with surprising force. I found that just the ones who perceive the repetition least hate it most, and that those who have a strong perception of the uniform impressions and who overestimate their number are the ones who on the whole welcome repetition in life.
As soon as I had reached this first experimental result, I began to see how it might harmonize with known psychological facts. Some years ago a Hungarian psychologist showed by interesting experiments that if a series of figures is exposed to the eye for a short fraction of a second, equal digits are seen only once, and he came to the conclusion that equal "impressions in such a series inhibit each other. In the Harvard laboratory we varied these experiments by eliminating the spatial separation of those numbers. In our experiments the digits did not stand side by side, but followed one another very quickly in the same place. Similar experiments we made with colors and so on. Here, too, we found that quickly succeeding equal or very similar impressions [p. 203] have a tendency to inhibit each other or to fuse with each other. Where such an inhibition occurs, we probably ought to suppose that the perception of the first impression exhausts the psychical disposition for this particular mental experience. The psychophysical apparatus becomes for a moment unable to arouse the same impression once more.
The above described new experiments suggest to me that this inhibition of equal or similar impressions is found unequally developed in different individuals. They possess a different tendency to temporary exhaustion of psychophysical dispositions. There are evidently persons who after they have received an impression are unable immediately to seize the same impression again. Their attention and their whole inner attitude fails. But there are evidently other persons for whom, on the contrary, the experience of an impression is a kind of inner preparation for arousing the same or a similar impression. In their case the psychophysical dispositions become stimulated and excited, and therefore favor the repetition. If, as in our experiments, the task is simply to judge the existence of equal or similar impressions without any strain of attention, the one group of persons must underestimate the number of the equal impressions because many words are [p. 204] simply inhibited in their minds and remain neglected, the other groups of persons must from their mental dispositions overestimate the number of similar words. From here we have to take one step more. If these two groups of persons have to perform a task in which it is necessary that not a single member of a series of repetitions be overlooked, it is clear that the two groups must react in a very different way. Now a perfect perception of every single member is forced on them. Those who grasp equal impressions easily, and who are prepared beforehand for every new repetition by their inner dispositions, will follow the series without strain and will experience the repetition itself with true satisfaction. On the other hand, those in whom every impression inhibits the readiness to receive a repetition, and whose inner energy for the same experience is exhausted, must feel it as a painful and fatiguing effort if they are obliged to turn their attention to one member after another in a uniform series. This mental torture is evidently the displeasure which such individuals call the dislike of monotony in their work. Whether this theoretical view is correct, we have to determine by future studies. In our Harvard laboratory we have now proceeded from such preparatory mass experiments to subtle investigations on a small number of [p. 205] persons well trained in psychological self-observation with whom the conditions of the experiment can be varied in many directions.
It would seem probable that such experiments might also win psychotechnical significance. A short series of tests which would have to be adapted to the special situations, and which for the simple wage-earner would have to be much easier than those sketched above, would allow it to be determined beforehand whether an individual will suffer from repetition in work. Even if we abstract from arguments of social reform and consider exclusively the economic significance, it must seem important that labor which involves much repetition be performed by men and women whose mental dispositions favor an easy grasp of successive uniform impressions. Experimentation could secure the selection of the fit workmen and the complaint of monotony would disappear. The same selection could be useful in the opposite direction, as many economic occupations, especially in our time of automatic machines, demand a quick and often rhythmical transition from one activity to another. It is evident that those whose natural dispositions make every mental excitement a preparation not for the identical but for the contrasting stimulation will be naturally equipped for this kind of economic tasks.
 Ranschburg: Ueber die Bedeutung der Ähnlichkeit beim Erlernen, Behalten, und bei der Reproduktion. (Journal [sic] für Psychologie und Neurologie, vol. 5.) Ranschburg: Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane. (vol. 30, 1902.)
 H. Kleinknecht: The Interference of Optical Stimuli. (Harvard Psychological Studies, vol. 2, 1906)
 The experiments are being conducted and will be published by Miss O. E. Martin.