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)


WE have said that the time has not yet come for discussing from the standpoint of experimental psychology the means to secure the ultimate effects of economic life, namely, the satisfaction of economic demands. If this were the only effect which had economic significance, this whole last part of our little book would have to remain a blank, as we wanted to deal here with the securing of the best effects after having studied the securing of the best man and of the best work. Yet these ultimate ends are certainly not the only mental effects which become important in the course of economic processes. In order to reach that final end of the economic movement, often an unlimited number of part processes distributed over space and time must coöperate. The satisfaction of our thirst in a tea-room may be a trivial illustration of such a final effect, but it is clear that in order to produce this ultimate mental effect of satisfying the thirst, thousands of economic processes must have preceded. To bring the tea and the sugar and the lemon to the table, [p. 256] the porcelain cup and the silver spoon, wage-earners, manufacturers and laborers, exporters, importers, storekeepers, salesmen, and customers had to coöperate. Among such part processes which serve the economic achievement are always many which succeed only if they produce characteristic effects in human minds. The propaganda which the storekeeper makes, for instance, his display and his posters, serve the economic interplay by psychical effects without themselves satisfying any ultimate economic demand. They must attract the passer-by or impress the reader or stimulate his impulse to buy, and through all this they reach an end which is in itself not final, as no human desire to read advertisements exists. When the salesman influences the customer to buy something which may later help to satisfy a real economic demand, the art of his suggestive words secures a mental effect which again is in itself not ultimate. If the manufacturer influences his employees to work with more attention or with greater industry, or if the community stirs up the desire for luxury or the tendency to saving, we have mental effects which are of economic importance without being really ultimate economic effects.

As far as these effects are necessary and justified stages leading to the ultimate satisfaction of [p. 257] economic demands, it certainly is the duty of applied psychology to bring psychological experience and exact methods into their service. We emphasize the necessary and justified character of these steps, as it is evident that psychological methods may be made use of also by those who aim toward mental effects which are unjustified and which are not necessary for the real satisfaction of valuable demands. Psychological laws can also be helpful in fraudulent undertakings or in advertisements for unfair competition. The psychotechnical scientist cannot be blamed if the results of his experiments are misused for immoral purposes, just as the chemist is not responsible if chemical knowledge is applied to the construction of anarchistic bombs. But while psychology, as we have emphasized before, cannot from its own point of view determine the value of the end, the psychologist as a human being is certainly willing to coöperate only where the soundness and correctness of the ends are evident from the point of view of social welfare.

In order to demonstrate the principle of this kind of psychotechnical help with fuller detail, at least by one illustration, I may discuss the case of the advertisements, the more as this problem has already been taken up in a somewhat systematic way by the psychological laboratories. We [p. 258] have a number of careful experimental investigations referring to the memory-value, the attention-value, the suggestion-value, and other mental effects of the printed business advertisements. Of course this group of experimental investigations at once suggests an objection which we cannot ignore. A business advertisement, as it appears in the newspapers, is such an extremely trivial thing and so completely devoted to the egotistical desire for profit that it seems undignified for the scientist to spend his time on such nothings and to shoot sparrows with his laboratory cannon-balls. But on the one side nothing can be unworthy of thorough study from a strictly theoretical point of view. The dirtiest chemical substance may become of greatest importance for chemistry, and the ugliest insect for zoölogy. On the other side, if the practical point of view of the applied sciences is taken, the importance of the inquiry may stand in direct relation to the intensity of the human demand which is to be satisfied by the new knowledge. Present-day society is so organized that the economic advertisement surely serves a need, and its intensity is expressed by the well-known fact that in every year billions are paid for advertising. Measured by the amount of expenditure, advertising has become one of the largest and economically most important human [p. 259] industries. It is, then, not astonishing that scientists consider it worth while to examine the exact foundations of this industry, but it is surprising that this industry could reach such an enormous development without being guided By the spirit of scientific exactitude which appears a matter of course in every other large business. As it is a function of science to study the physics of incandescent lamps or gas motors so as to bring the economically most satisfactory devices into the service of the community, it cannot be less important from the standpoint of national economics to study scientifically the efficiency of the advertisements in order that the national means may in this industry, too, secure the greatest possible effects. It is only a secondary point that experiments of this kind are of high interest to the theoretical scientist as well. For us the advertisement is simply an instrument constructed to satisfy certain human demands by its effects on the mind. It is a question for psychology to determine the conditions under which this instrument may be best adapted to its purpose.

The mental effect of a well-adapted advertisement is manifold. It appeals to the memory. Whatever we read at the street corner, or in the pages of the newspaper or magazine, is not printed with the idea that we shall immediately turn to [p. 260] the store, but first of all with the expectation that we keep the content of the advertisement in our memory for a later purchase. It will therefore be the more valuable the more vividly it forces itself on the memory. But if practical books about the art of advertising usually presuppose that this influence on the memory will be proportionate to the effect on the attention, the psychologist cannot fully agree. The advertisement may attract the attention of the reader strongly and yet by its whole structure may be unfit to force on the memory its characteristic content, especially the name of the firm and of the article. The pure memory-value is especially important, as according to a well-known psychological law the pleasure in mere recognition readily attaches itself to the recognized object. The customer who has the choice among various makes and brands in the store may not have any idea how far one is superior to another, but the mere fact that one among them bears a name which has repeatedly approached his consciousness before through advertisements is sufficient to arouse a certain warm feeling of acquaintance, and by a transposition of feeling this pleasurable tone accentuates the attractiveness of that make and leads to its selection. This indirect help through the memory-value is economically no less important than the direct service. [p. 261]

In order to produce a strong effect on memory the advertisement must be easily apprehensible. Psychological laboratory experiments with exact time-measurement of the grasping of various advertisements of the' same size for the same article, but in different formulations, demonstrated clearly how much easier or harder the apprehension became through relatively small changes. No mistake in the construction of the advertisement causes so much waste as a grouping which makes the quick apperception difficult. The color, the type, the choice of words, every element, allows an experimental analysis, especially by means of time-measurement. If we determine in thousandths of a second the time needed to recognize the characteristic content of an advertisement, we may discriminate differences which would escape the naïve judgment, and yet which in practical life are of considerable consequence, as the effect of a deficiency is multiplied by the number of readers.

We must insist on the further demand that the advertisement make a vivid impression, so that it may influence the memory through its vividness. Size is naturally the most frequent condition for the increase of vividness, but only the relative size is decisive. The experiment shows that the full-page advertisement in a folio magazine does not [p. 262] influence the memory more than the full page in a quarto magazine, if the reader is for the time adjusted to the particular size. No less important than the size is the originality and the unusual form, the vivid color, the skillful use of empty spaces, the associative elements, the appeal to humor or to curiosity, to sympathy or to antipathy. Every emotion can help to impress the content of the advertisement on the involuntary memory. Unusual announcements concerning the prices or similar factors move in the same direction.

Together with the question of the apprehension and the vividness of the impression, we must acknowledge the frequency of repetition as an equally important factor. We know from daily life how an indifferent advertisement can force itself on our mind, if it appears daily in the same place in the newspaper or is visible on every street corner. But the psychologically decisive factor here is not the fact of the mere repetition of the impression, but rather the stimulation of the attention which results from the repetition. If we remained simply passive and received the impression the second and third and fourth time with the same indifference with which we noticed it the fist time, the mere summation would not be sufficient for a strong effect. But the second [p.263] impression awakes the consciousness of recognition, thus exciting the attention, and through it we now turn actively to the repeated impression which forces itself on our memory with increased vividness on account of this active personal reaction.

We may consider how such factors can be tested by the psychotechnical experiment. Scott, for instance, studied the direct influence of the relative size of the advertisements.[50] He constructed a book of a, hundred pages from advertisements which had been cut from various magazines and which referred to many different articles. Fifty persons who did not know anything about the purpose of the experiment had to glance over the pages of the book as they would look though the advertising parts of a monthly. The time which they used for it was about ten minutes. As soon as they had gone through the hundred pages, they were asked to write down what they remembered. The result from this method was that the 50 persons mentioned on an average every full-page advertisement 6 times, every half-page less than 3 times, every fourth-page a little more than 1 time, and the still smaller advertisements only about 1/7 time. This series of experiments suggested accordingly that the memory value of a fourth-page advertisement is much [p. 264] smaller than one fourth of the memory-value of a full-page advertisement, and that of an eighth-page again much smaller than one half of the psychical value of a fourth-page. The customer who pays for one eighth of a page receives not the eighth part, but hardly the twentieth part of the psychical influence which is produced by a full page.

These experiments, which were carried on in various forms, demanded as a natural supplement a study of the effects of repetition in relation to size. This was the object of a series of tests which I carried on recently in the Harvard laboratory. I constructed the following material: 60 sheets of Bristol board in folio size were covered with advertisements which were cut from magazines the size of the "Saturday Evening Post" and the "Ladies' Home Journal." We used advertisements ranging from full-page to twelfth-page in size. Every one of the 6 full-page advertisements which we used occurred only once, each of the 12 half-page advertisements was given 2 times, each of the fourth-page size, 4 times, each of the eighth-page size, 8 times, and each of the twelfth-page size, 12 times. The repetitions were cut from 12 copies of the magazine number. The same advertisement never occurred on the same page; every page, unless it was covered by a full-page advertisement [p. 265], offered a combination of various announcements. It is evident that by this arrangement every single advertisement occupied the same space, as the 8 times repeated eighth-page advertisement filled a full page too. Thus no one of the 60 announcements which we used was spatially favored above another.

Thirty persons took part in the experiment. Each one had to devote himself to the 60 pages in such a way that every page was looked at for exactly 20 seconds. Between each two pages was a pause of 3 seconds, sufficient to allow one sheet to be laid aside and the next to be grasped. In 23 minutes the whole series had been gone through, and immediately after that every one had to write down what he remembered, both the names of the firms and the article announced. In the cases where only the name or only the article was correctly remembered, the result counted . We found great individual differences, probably not only because the memory of the different persons was different, but also because they varied in the degree of interest with which they looked at such material. The smallest number of reproductions was 18, of which 14 were only half remembered, that is, only the name or only the article, and as we counted these half reproductions , the memory-value for this person was counted 11. The [p. 266] maximum reproduction was 46, of which 6 were half remembered.

If these calculated values are added and the sum divided by the number of participants, that is, 30, and this finally by the number of the advertisements shown, that is, 60, we obtain the average memory-value of a single advertisement. The results showed that this was 0.44. But our real interest referred to the distribution for the advertisements of different size. If we make the same calculation, not for the totality of the advertisements but for those of a particular size, we find that the memory-value for the full-page advertisement was 0.33, for the 2 times repeated half-page advertisement, 0.30, for the 4 times repeated fourth-page advertisement 0.49, for the 8 times repeated eighth-page advertisement, 0.44, and for the la times repeated twelfth-page advertisement, 0.47. Hence we come to the result that the 4 times repeated fourth-page advertisement [h]as 1 times stronger memory-value than one offering of a full-page, or the 2 times repeated half-page, but that this relation does not grow with a further reduction of the size. Two thirds of the subjects were men and one third women. On the whole, the same relation exists for both groups, but the climax of psychical efficiency was reached in the case of the men by the 4 times repeated [p. 267] fourth-page, in the case of the women by the 8 times repeated eighth-page. The 4 times repeated fourth-page in the case of the women was 0.45, in the case of the men, 0.51, the 8 times repeated eighth-page, women, 0.53, men, 0.37.

I am inclined to believe that the ascent of the curve of the memory-value from the full-page to the fourth-page or eighth-page would have been still more continuous, if the whole-page advertisements had not naturally been such as are best known to the American reader. The whole-page announcement, therefore, had a certain natural advantage. But when we come to another calculation, even the effect of this advantage is lost. We examined the relations for the first 10 names and articles, which every one of the 30 persons wrote down. These first 10 were mostly dashed down quickly without special thought. They also included only a few half reproductions. When we study these 300 answers which the 30 persons wrote as their first 10 reproductions, and calculate from them the chances which every one of the 60 advertisements had for being remembered, we obtain the following values: The probability of being remembered among the first 10 was for the full-page advertisement, 0.5, for the half-page a times repeated, l.2, for the fourth-page 4 times repeated, 2.9, for the eighth-page 8 times repeated, [p. 268] 2.3, and for the twelfth-page 12 times repeated, 2.4. The superiority of repetition over mere size appears most impressively in this form, but we see again in this series that the effect decreases even with increased number of repetitions as soon as the single advertisement sinks below a certain relative size, so that the 12 times repeated twelfth-page advertisement does not possess the memory-value of the 4 times repeated fourth-page advertisement. If Scott's experiments concerning the size and these experiments of mine concerning the repetition are right, the memory-value of the advertisements for economic purposes is dependent upon complicated conditions. A business man who brings out a full-page advertisement once in a paper which has 100,000 readers would leave the desired memory-impression on a larger number of individuals than if he were to print a fourth-page advertisement in four different cities in four local papers, each of which has 100,000 readers. But if he uses the same paper in one town, he would produce a much greater effect by printing a fourth of a page four times than by using a full-page advertisement once only.

As a matter of course this would hold true only as far as size and repetition are concerned. Many other factors have to be considered besides. Some of these could even be studied with our material. [p. 269] We could study from our results what memory-value is attached to the various forms of type or suggestive words, what influence to illustrations, how far they reinforce the impressiveness and how far they draw away the attention from the name and the object, how these various factors influence men and women differently, and so on. Other questions, however, demand entirely different forms of experiment. We may examine the effects of special contrast phenomena, of unusual background, of irregular borders and original headings. The particular position of the advertisement also deserves our psychological interest. The magazines receive higher prices for the cover pages and the newspapers for advertisements which are surrounded by reading matter. In both cases obvious practical motives are decisive. The cover page comes into the held of vision more frequently. What is surrounded by reading matter is less easily overlooked.

But the newspaper world hardly realizes how much other variations of position influence the psychological effect. Starch[51] made experiments in which he did not use real advertisements, but meaningless syllables so as to exclude the influence of familiarity with any announcement. He arranged little booklets, each of 12 pages, on which a syllable such as lod, zan, mep, dut, yib, [p. 270] and so on was printed in the middle of each page. Each of his 50 subjects glanced over the book and then wrote down what syllables remained in memory. He found that the syllables which stood on the first and last page were remembered by 34 persons, those on the second and eleventh by about 26, and those on the eight other pages by an average of 17 persons. In the next experiment he printed one syllable in the middle of the upper and one in the middle of the lower half of each page. The results now showed that of those syllables which were remembered 54 per cent stood on the upper half and 46 per cent on the lower half of the page. Finally, he divided every page into four parts and printed one syllable on the middle of each fourth of a page. The results showed that of the remembered syllables 28 per cent stood on the left-hand upper fourth, 33 per cent on the right-hand upper fourth, 16 per cent left-hand lower, and 23 per cent right-hand lower. A fourth-page advertisement which is printed on the outer side of the upper half of the page thus probably has more than twice the psychological value of one which is printed on the inner side of the lower half. The economic world spends millions every year for advertisements on the upper right-hand side and millions for advertisements on the lower left-hand side, and is not aware that one represents twice [p. 271] the value of the other. These little illustrations of advertisement experiments may suffice to indicate how much haphazard methods are still prevalent in the whole field of economic psychotechnics, methods which would not be tolerated in the sphere of physical and chemical technology.


[50] W. D. Scott: The Psychology of Advertising. (Boston, 1906, p. 166.)

[51] D. Starch: Psychology of Preferred Positions. (Judicious Advertising, New York, November, 1909.)