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)


BEFORE we discuss some cases of such experimental investigations, we may glance at that other American movement, the well-known systematic effort toward scientific management which has often been interpreted in an expansive literature.[6] Enthusiastic followers have declared it to be the greatest advance in industry since the introduction of the mill system and of machinery. Opponents have hastily denounced it as a mistake, and have insisted that it proved a failure in the factories in which it has been introduced. A sober examination of the facts soon demonstrates that the truth lies in the middle. Those followers of Frederick W. Taylor who have made almost a religion out of his ideas have certainly often exaggerated the practical applicability of the new theories, and their actual reforms in the mills have not seldom shown that the system is still too top heavy; that is, there are too many higher employees necessary in order to keep the works running on principles of scientific management. On the other hand, the opposition which comes from certain quarters, -- for instance, [p. 50] from some trade-unions, -- may be disregarded, as it is not directed against the claim that the efficiency can be heightened, but only against some social features of the scheme, such as the resulting temporary reduction of the number of workmen. But nobody can deny that this revolutionary movement has introduced most valuable suggestions which the industrial world cannot afford to ignore, and that as soon as exaggerations are avoided and experience has created a broader foundation, the principles of the new theory will prove of lasting value. We shall have to discuss, at a later point, various special features of the system, especially the highly interesting motion study. Here we have to deal only with those tendencies of the movement and with those interests which point toward our present problem, the mental analysis of the individual employees in order to avoid misfits.

The approach to this problem, indeed, seems unavoidable for the students of scientific management, as its goal is an organization of economic work by which the waste of energy will be avoided and the greatest increase in the efficiency of the industrial enterprise will be reached. The recognition that this can never be effected by a mere excessive driving of the workingmen belongs to its very presuppositions. The illusory means of [p. 51] prolongation of the working-time and similar devices by which the situation of the individual deteriorates would be out of the question; on the contrary, the heightening of the individual's joy in the work and of the personal satisfaction in one's total life development belongs among the most important indirect agencies of the new scheme. This end is reached by many characteristic changes in the division of labor; also by a new division between supervisors and workers, by transformations of the work itself and of the tools and vehicles. But as a by-product of these efforts the demand necessarily arose for means by which the fit individuals could be found for special kinds of labor. The more scientific management introduced changes by which the individual achievement often had to become rather complicated and difficult, the more it became necessary to study the skill and the endurance and the intelligence of the individual laborers in order to entrust these new difficult tasks only to the most appropriate men in the factories and mills. The problem of individual selection accordingly forced itself on the new efficiency engineers, and they naturally recognized that the really essential traits and dispositions were the mental ones. In the most progressive books of the new movement, this need of emphasizing the selection of workers with reference [p. 52] to their mental equipment comes to clear expression.

Yet this is very far from a real application of scientific psychology to the problem at hand. Wherever the question of the selection of the fit men after psychological principles is mentioned in the literature of this movement, the language becomes vague, and the same men, who use the newest scientific knowledge whenever physics or mathematics or physiology or chemistry are involved, make hardly any attempts to introduce the results of science when psychology is in question. The dearest insight into the general situation may be found in the most recent books by Emerson. He says frankly: "It is psychology, not soil or climate, that enables a man to raise five times as many potatoes per acre as the average in his own state";[7] or: "In selecting human assistants such superficialities as education, as physical strength, even antecedent morality, are not as important as the inner attitudes, proclivities, character, which after all determine the man or woman."[8] He also fully recognizes the necessity of securing as early as possible the psychological essentials. He says: "The type for the great newspaper is set up by linotype operators. Apprenticeship is rigorously limited. Some operators can never get beyond the 2500-em class, [p. 53] others with no more personal effort can set 5000 ems. Do the employers test out applicants for apprenticeship so as to be sure to secure boys who will develop into the 5000-em class? They do not: they select applicants for any near reason except the fundamental important one of innate fitness."[9] But all this points only to the existence of the problem, and in reality gives not even a hint for its solution. The theorists of scientific management seem to think that the most subtle methods are indispensable for physical measurements, but for psychological inquiry nothing but a kind of intuition is necessary. Emerson tells how, for instance, "The competent specialist who has supplemented natural gifts and good judgment by analysis and synthesis can perceive attitudes and proclivities even in the very young, much more readily in those semi-matured, and can with almost infallible certainty point out, not only what work can be undertaken with fair hope of success, but also what slight modification or addition and diminution will more than double the personal power."'[10] The true psychological specialists surely ought to decline this flattering confidence. Far from the "almost infallible certainty," they can hardly expect even a moderate amount of success in such directions so long as specific methods have not been elaborated, and so long as no way has [p. 54] been shown to make experimental measurements by which such mere guesswork can be replaced by scientific investigation.

The only modest effort to try a step in this direction toward the psychological laboratory is recorded by Taylor,[11] who tells of Mr. S. E. Thompson's work in a bicycle ball factory, where a hundred and twenty girls were inspecting the balls. They had to place a row of small polished steel balls on the back of the left hand and while they were rolled over and over in the crease between two of the fingers placed together, they were minutely examined in a strong light and the defective balls were picked out with the aid of a magnet held in the right hand. The work required the closest attention and concentration. The girls were working ten and a half hours a day. Thompson soon recognized that the quality most needed, beside endurance and industry, was a quick power of perception accompanied by quick responsive action. He knew that the psychological laboratory has developed methods for a very exact measurement of the time needed to react on an impression with the quickest possible movement; it is called the reaction-time, and is usually measured in thousandths of a second. He therefore considered it advisable to measure the reaction-time of the girls, and to eliminate from [p. 55] service all those who showed a relatively long time between the stimulus and reaction. This involved laying off many of the most intelligent, hardest-working, and most trustworthy girls. Yet the effect was the possibility of shortening the hours and of reducing more and more the number of workers, with the final outcome that thirty-five girls did the work formerly done by a hundred and twenty, and that the accuracy of the work at the higher speed was two thirds greater than at the former slow speed. This allowed almost a doubling of the wages of the girls in spite of their shorter working-day, and at the same time a considerable reduction in the cost of the work for the factory. This excursion of an efficiency engineer into the psychological laboratory remained, however, an entirely exceptional case. Moreover, such a reaction-time measurement did not demand any special development of new methods or any particular mental analysis, and this exception thus confirms the rule that the followers of scientific management principles have recognized the need of psychological inquiries, but have not done anything worth mentioning to apply the results of really scientific psychology. Hence the situation is the same as in the held of vocational guidance. In both cases a vague longing for psychological analysis and psychological measurement, [p. 56] but in both cases so far everything has remained on the level of helpless psychological dilettantism. It stands in striking contrast with the scientific seriousness with which the economic questions are taken up in the held of vocational guidance and the physical questions in the held of scientific management. It is, therefore, evidently the duty of the experimental psychologists themselves to examine the ground from the point of view of the psychological laboratory.


[6] F. W. Taylor: The Principles of Scientific Management. (New York, 1911.) H. L. Gantt: Work, Wages, and Profits (New York, 1912.) And the books of Emerson, Gilbreth, Goldmark, etc. to be mentioned later.

[7] H. Emerson: Efficiency as a Basis for Operation and Wages. (New York, 1912, p. 107.)

[8] H. Emerson: The Twelve Principles of Efficiency (New York, 1912, p. 176)

[9] H. Emerson: The Twelve Principles, p. 156.

[10] H. Emerson: The Twelve Principles, p. 177.

[11] F. W. Taylor: The Principles of Scientific Management, pp. 86-97.