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)


EVERY economic function comes in contact with the mental life of man, first from the fact that the work is produced by the psyche of personalities. This gave us the material for the first two parts of our discussion. We asked what mind is best fitted for the particular kind of work, and how the mind can be led to the best output of work. But it is evident that the real meaning of the economic process expresses itself in an entirely different contact between work and mind. The economic activity is separated from all other processes in the world, not by the fact that it involves labor and achievement by personalities, but by the fact that this labor satisfies a certain group of human desires which we acknowledge as economic. The mere performance of labor, with all the psychical traits of attention and fatigue and will-impulses and personal qualities, does not in itself constitute anything of economic value. [p. 244] For instance, the sportsman who climbs a glacier also performs such a fatiguing activity which demands the greatest effort of attention and will; and yet the psychotechnics of sport do not belong in economic psychology, because this mountain climbing does not satisfy economic desires. The ultimate characteristic which designates an activity as economic is accordingly a certain effect on human souls. The whole whirl of the economic world is ultimately controlled by the purpose of satisfying certain psychical desires. Hence this psychical effect is still more fundamental for the economic process than its psychical origin in the mental conditions of the worker. The task of psychotechnics is accordingly to determine by exact psychological experiments how this mental effect, the satisfaction of economic desires, can be secured in the quickest, in the easiest, in the safest, in the most enduring, and in the most satisfactory way.

But we must not deceive ourselves as to the humiliating truth that so far not the slightest effort has been made toward the answering of this central scientific question. If the inquiry into the psychical effects were really to be confined to this problem of the ultimate satisfaction of economic desires, scientific psychology could not contribute any results and could not offer anything but hopes [p. 245] and wishes for the future. At the first glance it might appear as if just here a large amount of literature exists; moreover, a literature rich in excellent investigations and ample empirical material. On the one side the political economists, with their theories of economic value and their investigations concerning the conditions of prices and the development of luxury, the calculation of economic values from pleasure and displeasure and many similar studies, have connected the economic processes with mental life; on the other side the philosophers, with their theories of value, have not confined themselves to the ethical and æsthetic motives, but have gone deeply into the economic life too. While such studies of the economists and of the philosophers are chiefly meant to serve theoretical understanding, it might seem easy to deduce from them technical practical prescriptions as well. If we know that under particular conditions certain demands will be satisfied, we draw the conclusion that we must realize those conditions whenever such demands are to be satisfied. The theoretical views of the economists and of the philosophers of value might thus be directly translated into psychotechnical advice.

As soon as we look deeper into the situation, we must recognize that this surface impression [p. 246] is entirely misleading. Certainly whenever the philosophers or political economists discuss the problems of value and of the satisfaction of human demands, they are using psychological terms, but the whole meaning which they attach to these terms, feeling, emotion, will, desire, pleasure, displeasure, joy, and pain, is essentially different from that which controls the causal explanations of scientific psychology. We cannot enter into the real fundamental questions here, which are too often carelessly ignored even in scientific quarters. Too often psychology is treated, even by psychologists, as if it covered every possible systematic treatment of inner experience, and correspondingly outsiders like the economists fancy that they are on psychological ground and are handling psychological conceptions as soon as they make any statements concerning the inner life. But if we examine the real purposes and presuppositions of the various sciences, we must recognize that the human experience can be looked on from two entirely different points of view. Only from one of the two does it present itself as psychological material and as a fit object for psychological study. From the other point of view, which is no less valuable and no less important for the understanding of our inner life, human experience offers itself as a reality with which psychology [p. 247] as such has nothing to do, even though it may be difficult to eliminate the usual psychological words.

The psychologist considers human experience as a series of objects for consciousness. All the perceptions and memory ideas and imaginative ideas and feelings and emotions, are taken by him as mental objects of which consciousness becomes aware, and his task is to describe and to explain them and to find the laws for their succession. He studies them as a naturalist studies the chemical elements or the stars. It makes no difference whether his explanation leads him to connect these mental contents with brain processes as one theory proposes, or with subconscious processes as another theory suggests. The entirely different aspect of inner life is the one which is most natural in our ordinary intercourse. Whenever we give an account of our inner life or are interested in the experience of our friends, we do not consider how their mental experiences as such objective contents of consciousness are to be described and explained, but we take them as inner actions and attitudes toward the world, and our aim is not to describe and to explain them but to interpret and to understand them. We do not seek their elements but their meaning, we do not seek their causes and effects but their inner relations [p. 248] and their inner purposes. In short, we do not take them at all as objects but as functions of the subject, and our dealing with them has no similarity to the method of the naturalist.

This method of practical life in which we seek to express and to understand a meaning, and relate every will-act to its aim, is not confined to the mere popular aspect; it can lead to very systematic scholarly treatment. It is exactly the treatment which is fundamental in the case of all history, for example, or of law, or of logic. That is, the historian makes us understand the meaning of a personality of the past and is really interested in past events only as far as human needs are to be interpreted. It would be pseudo-psychology, if we called such an account in the truly historical spirit a psychological description and explanation. The student of law interprets the meaning of the will of the legislator; he does not deal with the idea of the law as a psychological content. And the logician has nothing to do with the idea as a conscious object in the mind; he asks as to the inner relations of it and as to the conclusions from the premises. In short, wherever historical interpretations or logical deductions are needed, we move on in the sphere of human life as it presents itself from the standpoint of immediate true experience without artificially moulding it into the [p. 249] conceptions of psychology. On the other hand, as soon as the psychological method is applied, this immediate life meaning of human experience is abandoned, and instead of it is gained the possibility of considering the whole experience as a system of causes and effects. Mental life is then no longer what it is to us in our daily intercourse, because it is reconstructed for the purposes of this special treatment, just as the water which we drink is no longer our beverage if we consider it under the point of view of chemistry as a combination of hydrogen and oxygen. Hence we have not two statements one of which is true and the other ultimately untrue; on the contrary, both are true. We have a perfect right to give the value of truth to our experience with water as a refreshing drink, and also to the formula of the chemist. With a still better right we may claim that both kinds of mental experience are equally true. Hence not a word of objection is raised against the discussions of the historians and the philosophers, if we insist that their so-called psychology stands outside of the really descriptive and explanatory account of mental life, and is therefore not psychology in the technical sense of the word.

It is this historical attitude which controls all the studies of the political economists. They [p. 250] speak of the will-acts of the individuals and of their demands and desires and satisfactions, but they do not describe and explain them; they want to interpret and understand them. They may analyze the motives of the laborer or of the manufacturer, but those motives and impulses interest them not as contents of consciousness, but only as acts which are directed toward a goal. The aim toward which these point by their meaning, and not the elements from which they are made up or their causes and effects, is the substance of such economic studies. For such a subjective account of the meaning of actions the only problem is, indeed, the correct understanding and interpretation, and the consistent psychologist who knows that it is not his task to interpret but to explain has no right to raise any questions here. It is, therefore, only a confusing disturbance, if a really psychological, causal explanation is mixed into the interpretation of such a system of will-acts and purposes. It is true we find this confusion in many modern works on economics. Economists know that a scientific explanatory study of the human mind exists, and they have a vague feeling that they have no right to ignore this real psychology, instead of recognizing that the psychology really has nothing to do with their particular problem. The result is that they constantly [p. 251] try to discuss the impulses and instincts, the hunger and thirst and sexual desire, and the higher demands for fighting and playing and acquiring, for seeking power and social influence, as a psychologist would discuss them, referring them to biological and physiological conditions and explaining them causally. Yet as soon as they come to their real problems and eater into the interpretation and meaning of these economic energies, they naturally slide back into the historical, economic point of view and discuss the economic relations of men without any reference to their psychologizing preambles. The application of the psychological, scientific method to the true economic experience is therefore not secured at all in this way. The demands and volitions which they disentangle are not the ones which the psychophysiologist studies, because they are left in their immediate form of life reality. They are accordingly inaccessible to the point of view of experimental psychology, and nothing can be expected from such interpretative discussions of the economists for the psychotechnics at which the psychologist is aiming. Even where the political economists deal with the problems of value in exact language, nothing is gained for the kind of insight for which the psychologist hopes, and the psychologists must therefore go on with their [p. 252] own methods, if they are ever to reach a causal understanding of the means by which a satisfaction of the economic demands may be effected.

So far the psychologists have not even started to examine these economic feelings, demands, and satisfactions with the means of laboratory psychology. Hence no one can say beforehand how it ought to be done and how to gain access to the important problems, inasmuch as the right formulation of the problem and the selection of the right method would here as everywhere be more than hall of the solution. It must be left to the development of science for the right starting-point and the right methods to be discovered. Sometimes, to be sure, the experiment has at least approached this group of economic questions. For instance, the investigations of the so-called psychophysical law have often been brought into contact with the experiences of ownership and acquirement. The law, well known to every student of psychology, is that the differences of intensity in two pairs of sensations are felt as equal, when the two pairs of stimuli are standing in the same relation. The difference between the intensities of the light sensations from 10 candles and 11 candles is equal to that from 50 candles and 55 candles, from 100 candles and 110, from 500 candles and 550: that is, the difference of one additional candle [p. 253] between 10 and 11 appears just as great as the difference of 50 candles between 500 and 550. The psychologists have claimed that in a corresponding way the same feeling of difference arises when the amounts of possessions stand in the same relation. That is, the man who owns $100 feels the gain or loss of $1 as much as one who owns $100,000 feels the gain or loss of $1000. Not the absolute amount of the difference, but the relative value of the increase or decrease is the decisive influence on the psychological effect. Some experimental investigations concerning feelings have also come near to the economic boundaries. The study of the contrast feelings and of the relativity of feelings, for instance, has points of contact with the economic problem of how far economic progress, with its stirring up and satisfying of continually new demands, really adds to the quantity of human enjoyment. In other words, how far are those sociologists right who are convinced that by the technical complexity of modern life, with all its comforts and mechanizations, the level of individual life is raised, but that the oscillations about this average level remain the same and produce the same amount of pleasure and pain? The technical advance would therefore bring no increase of human pleasure.

We might also put into this class the meagre [p. 254] experimental investigations concerning the mutual influence of feelings. When sound, light, and touch impressions, each of which, isolated, produces a feeling of a certain degree, are combined with one another, the experiment can show very characteristic changes in the intensity of pleasure and displeasure. From such routine experiments of the laboratory it might not be difficult to come to more complex experiments on the mutual relations of feeling values and especially of the combinations of pleasure with displeasure. This would lead to an insight into the processes which are involved in the fixing of prices, as they are always dependent upon the pleasure in the acquisition and the displeasure in the outlay. The exact psychology of the future may thus very well determine the conditions under which the best effects for the satisfaction of economic demands may be secured, but our present-day science is still far from such an achievement: and it seems hardly justifiable to propose methods to-day, as it would be like drawing a map with detailed paths for a primeval forest which is still inaccessible.