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)


OBSERVATIONS of this kind, which refer to the borderland region between psychology and social politics, are valid for all modern nations. Yet it is hardly a chance that the first efforts toward a systematic overcoming of some of these difficulties have been made with us in America. The barriers between the classes lie lower; here the choice of a vocation is less determined by tradition; and it belongs to the creed of political democracy that just as everybody can be called to the highest elective offices, so every body ought to be fit for any vocation in any sphere of life. The wandering from calling to calling is more frequent in America than anywhere else. To be sure, this has the advantage that a failure in one vocation does not bring with it such a serious injury as in Europe, but it contributes much to the greater danger that any one may jump recklessly and without preparation into any vocational stream.

It is fresh in every one's mind how during the last decade the economic conscience of the whole American nation became aroused. Up to the end [p. 38] of the last century the people had lived with the secure feeling of possessing a country with inexhaustible treasures. The last few years brought the reaction, and it became increasingly clear how irresponsible the national attitude had been, how the richness of the forests and the mines and the rivers had been recklessly squandered without any thought of the future. Conservation of the national possessions suddenly became the battle-cry, and this turned the eye also to that limitless waste of human material, a waste going on everywhere in the world, but nowhere more widely than in the United States. The feeling grew that no waste of valuable possessions is so reckless as that which results from the distributing of living force by chance methods instead of examining carefully how work and workmen can fit one another. While this was the emotional background, two significant social movements originated in our midst. The two movements were entirely independent of each other, but from two different starting-points they worked in one respect toward the same goal. They are social and economic movements, neither of which at first had anything directly to do with psychological questions; but both led to a point where the psychological turn of the problem seemed unavoidable. Here begins the obligation of the psychologist, [p. 39] and the possibility of fufilling this obligation will be the topic of our discussion concerning the selection of the best man.

These two American movements which we have in mind are the effort to furnish to pupils leaving the school guidance in their choice of a vocation, and the nowadays still better known movement toward scientific management in commerce and industry. The movement toward vocational guidance is externally still rather modest and confined to very narrow circles, but it is rapidly spreading and is not without significant achievements. It started in Boston. There the late Mr. Parsons once called a meeting of all the boys of his neighborhood who were to leave the elementary schools at the end of the year. He wanted to consider with them whether they had reasonable plans for their future. At the well-attended meeting it became clear that the boys knew little concerning what they had to expect in practical life, and Parsons was able to give them, especially in individual discussions, much helpful information. They knew too little of the characteristic features of the vocations to which they wanted to devote themselves, and they had given hardly any attention to the question whether they had the necessary qualifications for the special work. From this germ grew a little office which was [p. 40] opened in 1908, in which all Boston boys and girls at the time when they left school were to receive individual suggestions with reference to the most reasonable and best adjusted selection of a calling. There is hardly any doubt that the remarkable success of this modest beginning was dependent upon the admirable personality of the late organizer, who recognized the individual features with unusual tact and acumen. But he himself had no doubt that such a merely impressionistic method could not satisfy the demands. He saw that a threefold advance would become necessary. First, it was essential to analyze the objective relations of the many hundred kinds of accessible vocations. Their economic, hygienic, technical, and social elements ought to be examined so that every boy and girl could receive reliable information as to the demands of the vocation and as to the prospects and opportunities in it. Secondly, it would become essential to interest the schools in all these complex questions of vocational choice, so that, by observation of individual tendencies and abilities of the pupils, the teachers might furnish preparatory material for the work of the institute for vocational guidance. Thirdly, -- and this is for us the most important point, -- he saw that the methods had to be elaborated in such a way that the personal traits and dispositions [p. 41] might be discovered with much greater exactitude and with much richer detail than was possible through what a mere call on the vocational counselor could unveil.[3]

It is well known how this Boston bureau has stimulated a number of American cities to come forward with similar beginnings. The pedagogical circles have been especially aroused by the movement, municipal and philanthropic boards have at least approached this group of problems, two important conferences for vocational guidance have met in New York, and at various places the question has been discussed whether or not a vocational counselor might be attached to the schools in a position similar to that of the school physician. The chief progress has been made in the direction of collecting reliable data with reference to the economic and hygienic conditions of the various vocations, the demand and supply and the scale of wages. In short, everything connected with the externalities of the vocations has been carefully analyzed, and sufficient reliable material has been gained, at least regarding certain local conditions. In the place of individual advice, we have thus to a certain degree obtained general economic investigations from which each can gather what he needs. It seems that sometimes the danger of letting such offices degenerate [p. 42] into mere agencies for employment has not been avoided, but that is one of the perils of the first development. The mother institute in Boston, too, under its new direction emphasizes more the economic and hygienic side, and has set its centre of gravity in a systematic effort to propagate understanding of the problems of vocational guidance and to train professional vocational counselors in systematic courses, who are then to carry the interest over the land.[4]

The real psychological analysis with which the movement began has, therefore, been somewhat pushed aside for a while, and the officers of those institutes declare frankly that they want to return to the mental problem only after professional psychologists have sufficiently worked out the specific methods for its mastery. Most counselors seem to feel instinctively that the core of the whole matter lies in the psychological examination, but they all agree that for this they must wait until the psychological laboratories can furnish them with really reliable means and schemes. Certainly it is very important, for instance, that boys with weak lungs be kept away from such industrial vocations as have been shown by the statistics to be dangerous for the lungs, or that the onrush to vocations be stopped where the statistics allow it to be foreseen that there will soon be an over-supply [p. 43] of workers. But, after all, it remains much more decisive for the welfare of the community, and for the future life happiness of those who leave the school, that every one turn to those forms of work to which his psychological traits are adjusted, or at least that he be kept away from those in which his mental qualities and dispositions would make a truly successful advance improbable.

The problem accordingly has been handed over from the vocational counselors to the experimental psychologists, and it is certainly in the spirit of the modern tendency toward applied psychology that the psychological laboratories undertake the investigation and withdraw it from the dilettantic discussion of amateur psychologists or the mere impressionism of the school-teachers. Even those early beginnings indicate clearly that the goal can be reached only through exact, scientific, experimental research, and that the mere naïve methods -- for instance, the filling-out of questionnaires which may be quite useful in the first approach -- cannot be sufficient for a real, persistent furtherance of economic life and of the masses who seek their vocations. In order to gain an analysis of the individual, Parsons made every applicant answer in writing a long series of questions which referred to his habits and his [p. 44] emotions, his inclinations and his expectations, his traits and his experiences. The psychologist, however, can hardly be in doubt that just the mental qualities which ought to be most important for the vocational counselor can scarcely be found out by such methods. We have emphasized before that the ordinary individual knows very little of his own mental functions: on the whole, he knows them as little as he knows the muscles which he uses when he talks or walks. Among his questions Parsons included such ones as: "Are your manners quiet, noisy, boisterous, deferential, or self-assertive? Are you thoughtful of the comfort of others? Do you smile naturally and easily, or is your face ordinarily expressionless? Are you frank, kindly, cordial, respectful, courteous in word and actions? Do you look people frankly in the eye? Are your in inflections natural, courteous, modest, musical, or aggressive, conceited, pessimistic, repellent? What are your powers of attention, observation, memory, reason, imagination, inventiveness, thoughtfulness, receptiveness, quickness, analytical power, constructiveness, breadth, grasp? Can you manage people well? Do you know a fine picture when you see it? Is your will weak, yielding, vacillating, or firm, strong, stubborn? Do you like to be with people and do they like to be with you?" -- and [p. 45] so on. It is clear that the replies to questions of this kind can be of psychological value only when the questioner knows beforehand the mind of the youth, and can accordingly judge with what degree of understanding, sincerity, and ability the circular blanks have been filled out. But as the questions are put for the very purpose of revealing the personality, the entire effort tends to move in a circle.

To break this circle, it indeed becomes necessary to emancipate one's self from the method of ordinary self-observation and to replace it by objective experiment in the psychological laboratory. Experimentation in such a laboratory stands in no contrast to the method of introspection. A contrast does exist between self-observation and observation on children or patients or primitive peoples or animals. In their case the psychologist observes his material from without. But in the case of the typical laboratory experiment, everything is ultimately based on self-observation; only we have to do with the self-observation under exact conditions which the experimenter is able to control and to vary at will. Even Parsons sometimes turned to little experimental inquiries in which he simplified some well-known methods of the laboratory in order to secure with the most elementary means a certain [p. 46] objective foundation for his mental analysis. For instance, he sometimes examined the memory by reading to the boys graded sentences containing from ten to fifty words and having them repeat what they remembered, or he measured with a watch the rapidity of reading and writing, or he determined the sensitiveness for the discrimination of differences by asking them to make a point with a pencil in the centres of circles of various sizes. But if such experimental schemes, even of the simplest form, are in question, it seems a matter of course that the plan ought to be prescribed by real scientists who specialize in the psychological held. The psychologist, for instance, surely cannot agree to a method which measures the memory by such a method of having spoken sentences repeated and the quality of the memory faculty naively graded according to the results. He knows too well that there are many different kinds of memory,. and would always determine first which type of memory functions is to be examined if memory achievements are needed for a particular calling.

But even with a more exact method of experimenting, such a procedure would not be sufficient to solve the true problem. A second step would still be necessary: namely, the adaptation of the experimental result to the special psychological [p. 47] requirements of the economic activity; and this again presupposes an independent psychological analysis. Most of the previous efforts have suffered from the carelessness with which this second step was ignored, and the special mental requirements were treated as a matter of course upon which any layman could judge. In reality they need the most careful psychological analysis, and only if this is carried out with the means of scientific psychology, can a study of the abilities of the individual become serviceable to the demands of the market. Such a psychological disentangling of the requirements of the callings, in the interest of guidance, is attempted in the material which the various vocational institutes have prepared, but it seldom goes beyond commonplaces. We read there, for instance,[5] for the confectioner: "Boys in this industry must be clean, quick, and strong. The most important qualities desired are neatness and adaptability to routine"; or for the future baker, the boy "ought to know how to conduct himself and to meet the public"; or for the future architectural designer, "he must have creative ability, artistic feeling, and power to sketch"; or for the dressmaker, she "should have good eyesight and good sense of color, and an ability to use her hands readily; she should be able to apply herself steadily and be [p. 48] fairly quick in her movements; neatness of person is also essential"; or for the stenographer, she must be "possessed of intelligence, good judgment, and common sense; must have good eyesight, good hearing, and a good memory; must have quick perception, and be able to concentrate her attention completely on any matter in hand." It is evident that all this is extremely far from any psychological analysis in the terms of science. All taken together, we may, therefore, say that in the movement for vocational guidance practically nothing has been done to make modern experimental psychology serviceable to the new task. But on the one side, it has shown that this work of the experimental psychologist is the next step necessary. On the other side, it has become evident that in the vocation bureaus appropriate social agencies are existing which are ready to take up the results of such work, and to apply them for the good of the American youth and of commerce and industry, as soon as the experimental psychologist has developed the significant methods.

[3] Frank Parsons: Choosing a Vocation. (Boston, 1909.)

[4] M. Bloomfield: The Vocational Guidance of Youth. (Boston, 1911.)

[5] Vocations for Boys. (Issued by the Vocation Bureau of Boston. 1912.) Vocation for Boston Girls. (Issued by the Girls' Trade Education League. 1911.) Bulletins of Vocation Series. [(]Issued by the Women's Educational and Industrial Union. 1911.)