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)


IF we turn from the simple newspaper advertisement to the means of propaganda in general, we at once stand before a question which is often wrongly answered. The practical handbooks of advertisements and means of display treat it as a self-evident fact that every presentation should be as beautiful as possible. In the first place, we cannot deny that the ugly and even the disgusting possess a strong power for attracting attention. Yet it is true that by a transposition of feelings the displeasure in the advertisement may easily become a displeasure in the advertised object. But, on the other hand, it is surely a mistake to believe that pure beauty best fulfills the function of the advertisement. Even the draftsman who draws a poster ought to give up the ambition to create a perfect picture. It might have the power to attract attention, but it would hardly serve its true purpose of fixing the attention on the article which is advertised by the picture. The very meaning of beauty lies in its self-completeness, The beautiful picture rests in itself and does not point beyond itself. A really [p. 273] beautiful landscape painting is an end in itself, and must not stir up the practical wish to visit the landscape which has stimulated the eye of the painter. If the display is to serve economic interests, every line and every curve, every form and every color, must be subordinated to the task of leading to a practical resolution, and to an action, and yet this is exactly the opposite of the meaning of art. Art must inhibit action, if it is perfect. The artist is not to make us believe that we deal with a real object which suggests a practical attitude. The æsthetic forms are adjusted to the main æsthetic aim, the inhibition of practical desires. The display must be pleasant, tasteful, harmonious, and suggestive, but should not be beautiful, if it is to fulfill its purpose in the fullest sense. It loses its economic value, if by its artistic quality it oversteps the boundaries of that middle region of arts and crafts. This of course stands in no contradiction to the requirement that the advertised article should be made to appear as beautiful as possible. The presentation of something beautiful is not necessarily a beautiful presentation, just as a perfectly beautiful picture need not have something beautiful as its content. A perfect painting may be the picture of a most ugly person.

We have not yet spoken of the suggestive [p. 274] power of the means of propaganda. Every one knows how the influence on taste and smell, on social vanity, on local pride, on the gambling instinct, on the instinctive fear of diseases, and above all on the sexual instinct, can gain suggestive power. Everywhere among the uncritical masses such appeals reach individuals whose psychophysical attitudes make such influences vivid and overpowering. Every one knows, too, those often clever linguistic forms which are to aid the suggestion. They are to inhibit the opposing impulses. The mere use of the imperative, to be sure, has gradually become an ineffective, used-up pattern. It is a question for special economic psychotechnics to investigate how the suggestive strength of a form can be reinforced or weakened by various secondary influences. What influence, for example, belongs to the electric sign advertisements in which the sudden change from light to darkness produces strong psychophysical effects, and what value belongs to moving parts in the picture?

The psychologist takes the same interest in the examples of window displays, sample distributions, and similar vehicles of commerce by which the offered articles themselves and not their mere picture or description are to influence the consciousness of the prospective customer. [p. 275] Here, too, every element may be isolated and may be brought under psychotechnical rules. The most external question would refer to the mere quantity of the presented material. The psychologist would ask how the mere mass of the offering influences the attention, how far the feeling of pleasure in the fullness, how far the aesthetic impression of repetition, how far the associative thought of a manifold selection, how far the mere spatial expansion, affects the impression. In any case, as soon as it is acknowledged as desirable to produce with certain objects the impression of the greatest possible number, the experimental psychologist stands before the concrete problem of how a manifoldness of things is to be distributed so that it will not be underestimated, perhaps even overestimated as to quantity. Again, the laboratory experiment would not proceed with real window displays or real exhibitions, but would work out the principle with the simplified experimental means.

An investigation in the Harvard laboratory, for instance, tested the influence which various factors have upon the estimation of a number of objects seen.[52] The question was how far the form or the size or the distribution makes a group of objects appear larger or smaller. The experiment was started by showing 20 small cards [p. 276] on a black background in comparison with another group of cards the number of which varied between 17 and 23. At first the form of these little cards was changed: triangles, squares, and circles were tried. Or the color was changed: light and dark, saturated and unsaturated colors were used. Or the order was varied: sometimes the little cards lay in regular rows, sometimes in close clusters, sometimes widely distributed, sometimes in quite irregular fashion. Or the background was changed, or the surrounding frame, or the time of exposure, and so on. Each time the subjects had to estimate whether the second group was the larger or equal or the smaller. These experiments indicated that such comparative estimation was indeed influenced by every one of the factors mentioned. If the experiments show that an irregular distribution makes the number appear larger or a close clustering reduces the apparent number, and so on, the business man would be quite able to profit from such knowledge. The jeweler who shows his rings and watches in his window wishes to produce with his small stock the impression of an ample supply. He lacks the psychology which might teach him whether he would act more wisely in having the rings and the watches separated, or whether he should mix the two, whether he ought to choose [p. 277] a background which is similar in color or one which contrasts with the pieces exhibited, whether he ought to present the single object in a special background as in a ease, or to show it without one. He is not aware that by simple psychological illusions, it is not difficult to change the apparent size of an isolated object by special treatment, making his show-piece appear larger by a fitting background or intentionally making a dainty object appear smaller by contrasting surroundings. These, to be sure, are very trivial illustrations, but the same fundamental psychological laws which are true for the show-window of the next corner store are true for the world-display of the nation. The point is to present clearly the idea, which can be most simply expressed in such trivial material. But it may be added that even in the case of the most indifferent example a few hasty experiments with one or two subjects cannot yield any results of value.

All parts of physiological psychological optics can contribute similar material. The questions of color harmony and color contrast, light intensity and mutual support of uniformly colored objects, of irradiation, depth and perspective, are significant for an effective display in the show-window, and the laboratory results can easily be translated into psychotechnical prescriptions. [p. 278] But here it is still more necessary to separate carefully the merely optical aspect of the impression from its æsthetic side. All that we claimed as to the poster is still more justified for the presentation of the saleable objects themselves. As soon as the display of the articles forms a real work of art, it must produce inhibitions in the soul of the spectator by which the practical economic desire is turned aside. Beauty here too has strong power of attraction, and moreover the suggestive power, by which it withdraws our senses from the chance surroundings, forces us to lose ourselves in the offered presentation. But just through this process the content of the display becomes isolated and separated from the world of our practical interests. Our desires are brought to silence, we do not seek a personal relation to the things which we face as admiring spectators, and the intended economic effect is therefore eliminated. Whoever is to examine the psychotechnics of displays and exhibitions must therefore study the psychology of aesthetic stimulation, of suggestion, of the effects of light, color, form and movement, of apperception and attention, and ought not to forget the psychology of humor and curiosity, of instincts and emotions. For us the essential point is that here too the experimental psychological method alone is able to lead from [p. 279] mere chance arrangements founded on personal taste to the systematic construction which secures with the greatest possible certainty the greatest possible mental effect in the service of the economic purpose.

The problems of the storekeeper who arranges his windows, however, overlap the problems of the manufacturer who prepares his goods for the world-market, and who must from the start take care that the outer appearance of his goods stimulate the readiness to buy. In factories in which these questions have been carefully considered, the psychological elements have always been found to be the most influential, but often the most puzzling. I received material from a number of industrial plants which sold the same article in a variety of packings. The material which was sent to me included all kinds of soaps and candies, writing-papers and breakfast foods, and other articles which are handled by the retailer, the sale of which depends upon the inclination and caprice of the customer in the store. For every one of these objects a number of external covers and labels were sent and with them a confidential report with details about their relative success. For instance, a certain kind of chocolate was sold under 12 different labels. One of them was highly successful in the whole country, and one [p. 280] other had made the same article entirely unsaleable. The other 10 could be graded between these extremes. In all 12 cases the covers were decorated with pictures of women with a scenic background. As long as only æsthetic values were considered, all were on nearly the same level, and aesthetically skilled observers repeatedly expressed their preference for some of the unsuccessful pictures over some of the successful ones. But as soon as an internal relation was formed between the pictures and the chocolate, in the one case a mental harmony resulted which had strong suggestive power, in the other case a certain unrest and inner disturbance which necessarily had an inhibiting influence. The picture which was unsuccessful with the sweets would perhaps have been eminently successful for tobacco. From such elementary starting-points, the laboratory experiment might proceed systematically into spheres of economic life hitherto untouched by scientific methods. The psychology of the influence of external forms on the conscious reactions of the masses is so far usually considered only when, as often happens, the most fundamental demands are violated; for instance, when objects which are to give the impression of ease are painted in colors which give a heavy, clumsy appearance, or vice versa, when book-bindings are [p. 281] lettered in archaic type which makes the reading of the title impossible for a passer-by, and many similar antipsychological absurdities which any stroll through the streets of a modern city forces on us.


[52] C. T. Burnett: The Estimation of Number. (Harvard Psychological Studies, vol. 2, p. 349.)