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)


APPLIED psychology is evidently to be classed with the technical sciences. It may be considered as psychotechnics, since we must recognize any science as technical if it teaches us to apply theoretical knowledge for the furtherance of human purposes. Like all technical sciences, applied psychology tells us what we ought to do if we want to reach certain ends; but we ought to realize at the threshold where the limits of such a technical science lie, as they are easily overlooked, with resulting confusion. We must understand that every technical science says only: you must make use of this means, if you wish to reach this or that particular end. But no technical science can decide within its limits whether the end itself is really a desirable one. The technical specialist knows how he ought to build a bridge or how he ought to pierce a tunnel, presupposing that the bridge or the tunnel is desired. But whether they are desirable or not is a question which does not concern the technical scientist, but which must be considered from [p. 18] economic or political or other points of view. Everywhere the engineer must know how to reach an end, and must leave it to others to settle whether the end is in itself desirable. Often the end may be a matter of course for every reasonable being. The extreme case is presented by the applied science of medicine, where the physician subordinates all his technique to the end of curing the patient. Yet if we are consistent we must acknowledge that all his medical knowledge can prescribe to him only that he proceed in a certain way if the long life of the patient is acknowledged as a desirable end. The application of anatomy, physiology, and pathology may just as well be used for the opposite end of killing a man. Whether it is wise to work toward long life, or whether it is better to kill people, is again a problem which lies outside the sphere of the applied sciences. Ethics or social philosophy or religion have to solve these preliminary questions. The physician as such has only to deal with the means which lead toward that goal.

We must make the same discrimination in the psychotechnical field. The psychologist may point out the methods by which an involuntary confession can be secured from a defendant, but whether it is justifiable to extort involuntary confessions is a problem which does not concern [p. 19] the psychologist, The lawyers or the legislators must decide as to the right or wrong, the legality or illegality, of forcing a man to show his hidden ideas. If such an end is desirable, the psychotechnical student can determine the right means, and that is the limit of his office. We ought to keep in mind that the same holds true for the application of psychology in economic life. Economic psychotechnics may serve certain ends of commerce and industry, but whether these ends are the best ones is not a care with which the psychologist has to be burdened. For instance, the end may be the selection of the most efficient laborers for particular industries. The psychologist may develop methods in his laboratory by which this purpose can be fulfilled. But if some mills prefer another goal, -- for instance, to have not the most efficient but the cheapest possible laborers, -- entirely different means for the selection are necessary. The psychologist is, therefore, not entangled in the economic discussions of the day; it is not his concern to decide whether the policy of the trusts or the policy of the trade-unions or any other policy for the selection of laborers is the ideal one. He is confined to the statement: if you wish this end, then you must proceed in this way; but it is left to you to express your preference among the ends. Applied psychology can, [p. 20] therefore, speak the language of an exact science in its own field, independent of economic opinions and debatable partisan interests. This is a necessary limitation, but in this limitation lies the strength of the new science. The psychologist may show how a special commodity can be advertised; but whether from a social point of view it is desirable to reinforce the sale of these goods is no problem for psychotechnics. If a sociologist insists that it would be better if not so many useless goods were bought, and that the aim ought rather to be to protect the buyer than to help the seller, the psychologist would not object. His interest would only be to find the right psychological means to lead to this other social end. Re is partisan neither of the salesman nor of the customer, neither of the capitalist nor of the laborer, he is neither Socialist nor anti-Socialist, neither high-tariff man nor free-trader. Here, too, of course, there are certain goals which are acknowledged on all sides, and which therefore hardly need any discussion, just as in the case of the physician, where the prolongation of life is practically acknowledged as a desirable end by every one. But everywhere where the aim is not perfectly a matter of course, the psychotechnical specialist fulfills his task only when he is satisfied with demonstrating that certain psychical means serve a certain [p. 21] end, and that they ought to be applied as soon as that end is accepted.

The whole system of psychotechnical knowledge might be subdivided under either of the two aspects. Either we might start from the various mental processes, and ask for what end each mental factor can be practically useful and important, or we can begin with studying what significant ends are acknowledged in our society and then we can seek the various psychological facts which are needed as means for the realization of these ends. The first way offers many conveniences. There we should begin with the mental states of attention, memory, feeling, and so on, and should study how the psychological knowledge of every one of these mental states can render service in many different practical fields. The attention, for instance, is important in the classroom when the teacher tries to secure the attention of the pupils, but the judge expects the same attention from the jurymen in the courtroom, the artist seeks to stir up the attention of the spectator, the advertiser demands the attention of the newspaper readers. Whoever studies the characteristics of the mental process of attention may then be able to indicate how in every one of these unlike cases the attention can be stimulated and retained. Nevertheless the opposite way which starts from [p. 22] the tasks to be fulfilled seems more helpful and more fundamentally significant. The question, then, is what mental processes become important for the tasks of education, what for the purposes of the courtroom, what for the hospital, what for the church, what for politics, and so on.

As this whole essay is to be devoted exclusively to the economic problems, we are obliged to choose the second way; that is, to arrange applied psychology with reference to its chief ends and not with reference to the various means. But the same question comes up in the further subdivision of the material. In the held of economic psychology, too, we might ask how far the study of attention, or of perception, or of feeling, or of will, or of memory, and so on, can be useful for the purposes of the business man. Or here, too, we might begin with the consideration of the various ends and purposes. The ends of commerce are different from those of industry, those of publishing different from those of transportation, those of agriculture different from those of mining; or, in the held of commerce, the purposes of the retailer are different from those of the wholesale merchant. There can be no limit to such subdivisions; each particular industry has its own aims, and in the same industry a large variety of tasks are united. We should accordingly be led to an ample classification [p. 23] of special economic ends with pigeonholes for every possible kind of business and of labor. The psychologist would have to find for every one of these ends the right mental means. This would be the ideal system of economic psychology.

But we are still endlessly far from such a perfect system. Modern educational psychology and medical psychology have reached a stage at which an effort for such a complete system might be realized, but economic psychology is still at too early a stage of development. It would be entirely artificial to-day to aim at such ideal completeness. If we were to construct such a complete system of questions, we should have no answers. In the present stage nothing can be seriously proposed but the selection of a few central purposes which occur in every department of business life, and a study of the means to reach these special ends by the discussion of some typical cases which may clearly illustrate the methods involved.

From this point of view we select three chief purposes of business life, purposes which are important in commerce and industry and every economic endeavor. We ask how we can find the men whose mental qualities make them best fitted for the work which they have to do; secondly, under what psychological conditions we can secure the greatest and most satisfactory output [p. 24] of work from every man; and finally, how we can produce most completely the influences on human minds which are desired in the interest of business. In other words, we ask how to find the best possible man, how to produce the best possible work, and how to secure the best possible effects.