Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

(Return to index)

Psychology and Industrial Efficiency

Hugo Münsterberg (1913)


HERE we may stop. From those elementary questions concerning the mental effects, the path would quickly lead to questions of gravest importance. What is the mental effect which the economic labor produces in the laborer himself? How do economic movements influence the mind of the community? How far do non-economic factors produce effects on the psychical mechanism of the economic agents? But it would be idle to claim to-day for exact psychology, with its methods of causal thought, regions in which so far popular psychology, with its methods of purposive thought, is still sovereign. Our aim certainly was not to review the totality of possible problems related to economic efficiency, but merely to demonstrate the principles and the methods of experimental economic psychology by a few characteristic illustrations. As all the examples which we selected were chosen only in order to make clear the characteristic point of view of psychotechnics, it is unimportant whether the particular results will stand the test of further [p, 304] experimental investigations, or will have to be modified by new researches. What is needed to-day is not to distribute the results so far reached as if they were parts of a definite knowledge, but only to emphasize that the little which has been accomplished should encourage continuous effort. To stimulate such further work is the only purpose of this sketch.

This further work will have to be a work of co-operation. The nature of this problem demands a relatively large number of persons for the experimental treatment. With most experimental researches in our psychological laboratories, the number of the subjects experimented on is not so important as the number of experiments made with a few well-trained participants. But with the questions of applied psychology the number of persons plays a much more significant rôle, as the individual differences become of greatest importance. The same problems ought therefore to be studied in various places, so that the results may be exchanged and compared. Moreover, these psychological economic investigations naturally lead beyond the possibilities of the university laboratories. To a certain degree this was true of other parts of applied psychology as well. Educational and medical experimental psychology could not reach their fullest productivity until [p. 305] the experiment was systematically carried into the schoolroom and the psychiatric clinic. But the classroom and the hospital are relatively accessible places for the scientific worker, as both are anyhow conducted under a scientific point of view. The teacher and the physician can easily learn to perform valuable experiments with school children or with patients. This favorable condition is lacking in the workshop and the factory, in the banks and the markets. The academic psychologist will be able to undertake work there only with a very disturbing expenditure of time and only under exceptional conditions. If such experiments, for instance, with laborers in a factory or employees of a railway are to advance beyond the faint first efforts of to-day and are really to become serviceable to the cultural progress of our time with effective completeness, they ought not to remain an accidental appendix to the theoretical laboratories. Either the universities must create special laboratories for applied psychology or independent research institutes must be founded which attack the new concrete problems under the point of view of national political economy. Experimental work-shops could be created which are really adjusted to the special practical needs and to which a sufficiently large number of persons could be [p. 306] drawn for the systematic researches. The ideal solution for the United States would be a governmental bureau for applied psychology, with special reference to the psychology of commerce and industry, similar to the model agricultural stations all over the land under the Department of Agriculture.

Only when such a broad foundation has been secured will the time be ripe to carry the method systematically into the daily work. The aim will never be for real experimental researches to be performed by the foreman in the workshop or by the superintendent in the factory. But slowly a certain acknowledged system of rules and prescriptions may be worked out which may be used as patterns, and which will not presuppose any scientific knowledge, any more than an understanding of the principles of electricity is necessary for one who uses the telephone. But besides the rigid rules which any one may apply, particular prescriptions will be needed fitting the special situation. This leads to the demand for the large establishments to appoint professionally trained psychologists who will devote their services to the psychological problems of the special industrial plant. There are many factories that have scores of scientifically trained chemists or physicists at work, but who would [p. 307] consider it an unproductive luxury to appoint a scientifically schooled experimental psychologist to their staff. And yet his observations and researches might become economically the most important factor. Similar expectations might be justified for the large department stores and especially for the big transportation companies. In smaller dimensions the same real needs exist in the ordinary workshop and store. It is obvious that the professional consulting psychologist would satisfy these needs most directly, and if such a new group of engineers were to enter into industrial life, very soon a further specialization might be expected. Some of these psychological engineers would devote themselves to the problems of vocational selection and appointment; others would specialize on questions of advertisement and display and propaganda; a third group on problems of fatigue, efficiency, and recreation; a fourth on the psychological demands for the arrangement of the machines; and every day would give rise to new divisions. Such a well-schooled specialist, if he spent a few hours in a workshop or a few days in a factory, could submit propositions which might refer exclusively to the psychological factors and yet which might be more important-for the earning and the profit of the establishment than the mere buying of new [p. 308] machines or the mere increase in the number of laborers.

No one can deny that such a transition must be burdened with difficult complications and even with dangers; and still less will any one doubt that it may be caricatured. One who demands that a chauffeur or a motorman of an electric railway be examined as to his psychical abilities by systematic psychological methods, so that accidents may be avoided, does not necessarily demand that a congressman or a cabinet minister or a candidate for marriage be tested too by psychological laboratory experiments, as the witty ones have proposed. And one who believes that the work in the factory ought to be studied with reference to the smallest possible expenditure of psychical impulses is not convinced that the same experimental methods will be necessary for the functions of eating and drinking and love-making, as has been suggested.

And if it is true that difficulties and discomforts are to be feared during the transition period, they should be more than outweighed by the splendid betterments to be hoped for. We must not forget that the increase of industrial efficiency by future psychological adaptation and by improvement of the psychophysical conditions is not only in the interest of the employers, but still more of the [p. 309] employees; their working time can be reduced, their wages increased, their level of life raised. And above all, still more important than the naked commercial profit on both sides, is the cultural gain which will come to the total economic life of the nation, as soon as every one can be brought to the place where his best energies may be unfolded and his greatest personal satisfaction secured. The economic experimental psychology offers no more inspiring idea than this adjustment of work and psyche by which mental dissatisfaction in the work, mental depression and discouragement, may be replaced in our social community by overflowing joy and perfect inner harmony.