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)


CHAPTER 4: VOCATION AND FITNESS

INSTEAD of lingering over theoretical discussions, we will move straight on toward our first practical problem. The economic task, with reference to which we want to demonstrate the new psychotechnic method, is the selection of those personalities which by their mental qualities are especially fit for a particular kind of economic work. This problem is especially useful to show what the new method can do and what it cannot do. Whether the method is sufficiently developed to secure full results to-day, or whether they will come to-morrow, is unimportant. It is clear that the success of to-morrow is to be hoped for, only if understanding and interest in the problem is already alive to-day.

When we inquire into the qualities of men, we use the word here in its widest meaning. It covers, on the one side, the mental dispositions which may still be quite undeveloped and which may unfold [p. 28] only under the influence of special conditions in the surroundings; but, on the other side, it covers the habitual traits of the personality, the features of the individual temperament and character, of the intelligence and of the ability, of the collected knowledge and of the acquired experience. All variations of will and feeling, of perception and thought, of attention and emotion, of memory and imagination, are included here. From a purely psychological standpoint, quite incomparable contents and functions and dispositions of the personality are thus thrown together, but in practical life we are accustomed to proceed after this fashion: If a man applies for a position, he is considered with regard to the totality of his qualities, and at first nobody cares whether the particular feature is inherited or acquired, whether it is an individual chance variation or whether it is common to a larger group, perhaps to all members of a certain nationality or race. We simply start from the clear fact that the personalities which enter into the world of affairs present an unlimited manifoldness of talents and abilities and functions of the mind. From this manifoldness, it necessarily follows that some are more, some less, fit for the particular economic task. In view of the far-reaching division of labor in our modern economic life, it is impossible to avoid the question [p. 29] how we can select the ~t personalities and reject the unfit ones.

How has modern society prepared itself to settle this social demand? In case that certain knowledge is indispensable for the work or that technical abilities must have been acquired, the vocation is surrounded by examinations. This is true of the lower as well as of the higher activities. The direct examination is everywhere supplemented by testimonials covering the previous achievements, by certificates referring to the previous education, and in frequent cases by the endeavor to gain a personal impression from the applicant. But if we take all this together, the total result remains a social machinery by which perhaps the elimination of the entirely unfit can be secured. But no one could speak of a really satisfactory adaptation of the manifold personalities to the economic vocational tasks. All those examinations and tests and certificates refer essentially to what can be learned from without, and not to the true qualities of the mind and the deeper traits. The so-called impressions, too, are determined by the most secondary and external factors. Society relies instinctively on the hope that the natural wishes and interests will push every one to the place for which his dispositions, talents, and psychophysical gifts prepare him.

[p. 30] In reality this confidence is entirely unfounded. A threefold difficulty exists. In the first place, young people know very little about themselves and their abilities. When the day comes on which they discover their real strong points and their weaknesses, it is often too late. They have usually been drawn into the current of a particular vocation, and have given too much energy to the preparation for a specific achievement to change the whole life-plan once more. The entire scheme of education gives to the individual little chance to find himself. A mere interest for one or another subject in school is influenced by many accidental circumstances, by the personality of the teacher or the methods of instruction, by suggestions of the surroundings and by home traditions, and accordingly even such a preference gives rather a slight final indication of the individual mental qualities. Moreover, such mere inclinations and interests cannot determine the true psychological fitness for a vocation. To choose a crude illustration, a boy may think with passion of the vocation of a sailor, and yet may be entirely unfit for it, because his mind lacks the ability to discriminate red and green. He himself may never have discovered that he is color-blind, but when he is ready to turn to the sailor's calling, the examination of his color-sensitiveness which is demanded [p. 31] may have shown the disturbing mental deficiency. Similar defects may exist in a boy's attention or memory, judgment or feeling, thought or imagination, suggestibility or emotion, and they may remain just as undiscovered as the defect of color-blindness, which is characteristic of four per cent of the male population. All such deficiencies may be dangerous in particular callings. But while the vocation of the ship officer is fortunately protected nowadays by such a special psychological examination, most other vocations are unguarded against the entrance of the mentally unfit individuals.

As the boys and girls grow up without recognizing their psychical weaknesses, the exceptional strength of one or another mental function too often remains unnoticed by them as well. They may find out when they are favored with a special talent for art or music or scholarship, but they hardly ever know that their attention, or their memory, or their will, or their intellectual apprehension, or their sensory perceptions, are unusually developed in a particular direction; yet such an exceptional mental disposition might be the cause of special success in certain vocations. But we may abstract from the extremes of abnormal deficiency and abnormal overdevelopment in particular functions. Between them we find the [p. 32] broad region of the average minds with their numberless variations, and these variations are usually quite unknown to their possessors. It is often surprising to see how the most manifest differences of psychical organization remain unnoticed by the individuals themselves. Men with a pronounced visual type of memory and men with a marked acoustical type may live together without the slightest idea that their contents of consciousness are fundamentally different from each other. Neither the children nor their parents nor their teachers burden themselves with the careful analysis of such actual mental qualities when the choice of a vocation is before them. They know that a boy who is completely unmusical must not become a musician, and that the child who cannot draw at all must not become a painter, just as on physical grounds a boy with very weak muscles is not fit to become a blacksmith. But as soon as the subtler differentiation: is needed, the judgment of all concerned seems helpless and the psychical characteristics remain disregarded.

A further reason for the lack of adaptation, and surely a most important one, lies in the fact that the individual usually knows only the most external conditions of the vocations from which he chooses. The most essential requisite for a truly perfect adaptation, namely, a real analysis of the [p. 33] vocational demands with reference to the desirable personal qualities, is so far not in existence. The young people generally see some superficial traits of the careers which seem to stand open, and, besides, perhaps they notice the great rewards of the most successful. The inner labor, the inner values, and the inner difficulties and frictions are too often unknown to those who decide for a vocation, and they are unable to correlate those essential factors of the life-calling with all that nature by inheritance, and society by surroundings and training, have planted and developed in their minds.

In addition to this ignorance as to one's own mental disposition and to the lack of understanding of the true mental requirements of the various social tasks comes finally the abundance of trivial chance influences which become decisive in the choice of a vocation. Vocation and marriage are the two most consequential decisions in life. In the selection of a husband or wife, too, the decision is very frequently made dependent upon the most superficial and trivial motives. Yet the social philosopher may content himself with the belief that even in the fugitive love desire a deeper instinct of nature is expressed, which may at least serve the biological tasks of married life. In the choice of a vocation, even such a belief in a biological [p. 34] instinct is impossible. The choice of a vocation, determined by fugitive whims and chance fancies, by mere imitation, by a hope for quick earnings, by irresponsible recommendation, or by mere laziness, has no internal reason or excuse. Illusory ideas as to the prospects of a career, moreover, often falsify the whole vista; and if we consider all this, we can hardly be surprised that our total result is in many respects hardly better than if everything were left entirely to accident. Even on the height of a mental training to the end of adolescence, we see how the college graduates are too often led by accidental motives to the decision whether they shall become lawyers or physicians or business men, but this superficiality of choice of course appears much more strongly where the lifework is to be built upon the basis of a mere elementary or high school education.

The final result corresponds exactly to these conditions. Everywhere, in all countries and in all vocations, but especially in the economic careers, we hear the complaint that there is lack of really good men. Everywhere places are waiting for the right man, while at the same time we find everywhere an oversupply of mediocre aspirants. This, however, does not in the least imply that there really are not enough personalities who might be perfectly fit even for the highest demands of [p. 35] the vocations; it means only that as a matter of course the result in the filling of positions cannot be satisfactory, if the placing of the individuals is carried on without serious regard for the personal mental qualities. The complaint that there is lack of fit human material would probably never entirely disappear, as with a better adjustment of the material, the demands would steadily increase; but it could at least be predicted with high probability that this lack of really fit material would not be felt so keenly everywhere if the really decisive factor for the adjustment of personality and vocation, namely, the dispositions of the mind, were not so carelessly ignored.

Society, to be sure, has a convenient means of correction. The individual tries, and when he is doing his work too badly, he loses his job, he is pushed out from the career which he has chosen, with the great probability that he will be crushed by the wheels of social life. It is a rare occurrence for the man who is a failure in his chosen vocation, and who has been thrown out of it, to happen to come into the career in which he can make a success. Social statistics show with an appalling clearness what a burden and what a danger to the social body is growing from the masses of those who do not succeed and who by their lack of success become discouraged and embittered. The [p. 36] social psychologist cannot resist the conviction that every single one could have found a place in which he could have achieved something of value for the commonwealth. The laborer, who in spite of his best efforts shows himself useless and clumsy before one machine, might perhaps have done satisfactory work in the next mill where the machines demand another type of mental reaction. His psychical rhythm and his inner functions would be able to adjust themselves to the requirements of the one kind of labor and not to those of the other. Truly the whole social body has had to pay a heavy penalty for not making even the faintest effort to settle systematically the fundamental problem of vocational choice, the problem of the psychical adaptation of the individuality. An improvement would lie equally in the interest of those who seek positions and those who have positions to offer. The employers can hope that in all departments better work will be done as soon as better adapted individuals can be obtained; and, on the other hand, those who are anxious to maize their working energies effective may expect that the careful selection of individual mental characters for the various tasks of the world will insure not only greater success and gain, but above all greater joy in the work, deeper satisfaction, and more harmonious unfolding of the personality.