Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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Introduction to

Psychology and Industrial Efficiency
Hugo Münsterberg (1913)

Robert H. Wozniak

© 1999 Robert H. Wozniak. All rights reserved. Previously published in Wozniak, R. H. (1999). Classics in Psychology, 1855-1914: Historical Essays. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Toward the end of the 19th century, industrialists had begun to work toward the rationalization of the factory, centralizing purchasing, standardizing materials and machinery, and attempting to bring scientific principles to bear on the management of the labor force. One of the most effective and best-known advocates for scientific management during this period was Frederick Winslow Taylor.

In 1911, after years spent observing manufacturing conditions and methods with an eye toward increasing industrial efficiency, Taylor published The Principles of Scientific Management.[1] The goal of Taylor's approach, or 'Taylorism,' as it came to be called, was to increase the rate of work on the factory floor by identifying optimal manufacturing methods and then standardizing them. To achieve this goal, Taylor advocated careful, scientific study of the time taken and the movements required to perform every step and operation in the production process. Once optimal procedures were identified, workers could then be trained to employ them in a standardized fashion under wage-incentive programs designed to overcome worker resistance to the monotony inherent in standardization.

Not surprisingly, Taylorism had its critics, many of whom focused on the tendency among those involved in the scientific management movement to ignore human factors such as personality, motivation, and job satisfaction and to regard labor as simply another machine within the factory. It was in this context, in 1913, that Hugo Münsterberg published Psychology and Industrial Efficiency.[2]

Although Münsterberg devoted considerable attention in this work to problems of scientific management, including chapters on the economy of movement, the problem of monotony, and issues of attention and fatigue, his aim was much broader: 'to sketch the outlines of a new science which is to intermediate between the modern laboratory psychology and the problems of economics.'[3] With this book, in other words, Münsterberg hoped to bring psychological science into the service of the marketplace.

To secure this end, Psychology and Industrial Efficiency was divided into three large sections, one devoted to problems of selection, a second to issues of scientific management (although such issues were defined psychologically rather than simply in terms of time and motion), and a third to the use of psychology to increase success in the marketplace. As Münsterberg himself put it: '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 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.'[4]

By the time Münsterberg had become interested in problems of selection, the idea that the workplace ran more smoothly if people were well suited to their jobs was widespread. This was the basic principle underlying the vocational guidance movement that began with the work of Frank Parsons;[5] a number of industries were already using specialized tests such as those for color blindness to weed out employees unfit for particular tasks; and as early as 1899 Taylor himself had urged the development of scientific methods for selecting especially able workers.[6] Münsterberg took the general problem of selection a step further by developing a series of experimental tests specifically designed to assess particular characteristics needed for specialized occupations.

This was the general focus of the first section of Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Here Münsterberg discussed the problem of vocational guidance and selection as a component of scientific management, then described the tests that he himself had developed. On such test was designed to weed out accident prone trolley drivers by simulating conditions requiring rapid recognition of pedestrians, horses, and automobiles on a collision course with the trolley car; another assessed speed of decision making, which Münsterberg considered to be an essential quality in a successful ship captain; and a third employed a battery of tests assessing memory, attention, intelligence, speed, and accuracy of reaction to select those who would make good telephone switchboard operators.

In the second section of the book, Münsterberg focused on general issues of labor management. While admitting that Taylorism represented progress in the rationalization of the workplace and agreeing wholeheartedly with Taylor's belief that management by tradition needed to yield to management by scientific observation and measurement, Münsterberg severely criticized the scientific management movement for failing to take the psychological characteristics of the worker adequately into account. To be successful, in other words, a scientific industrial psychology had, in Münsterberg's view, to take the mental structure of the worker as seriously as it took the mechanics of work. Only in this way would 'mental dissatisfaction in the work, mental depression and replaced in our social community by overflowing joy and perfect inner harmony.'[7]

Finally, the last section of Psychology and Industrial Efficiency was devoted to ways in which the methods of scientific psychology could be used to improve success in the marketplace. Topics included the psychology of advertising, the perception of product displays, the design of trademarks and labels to maximize salience and recognition, and principles of effective salesmanship.

In the period immediately following publication, Münsterberg's book was well received and widely read, even appearing briefly on the non-fiction best seller list.[8] Its considerable importance stems from the fact that it served not only to systematize the newly emerging field of industrial psychology but to popularize the notion that scientific psychology had the potential to make a significant contribution to the betterment of everyday life.


[1] Taylor, F. W. (1911). The Principles of Scientific Management. New York: Harper.

[2] Münsterberg’s dates are 1863–1916. For biographical information on Münsterberg, see Hale, M., Jr. (1980). Human Science and Social Order. Hugo Münsterberg and the Origins of Applied Psychology. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. The work under discussion here is Münsterberg, H. (1913). Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin (Reprinted Bristol:Thoemmes Press, 1999); although not a direct translation, this work was based on Münsterberg, H. (1912). Psychologie und Wirtschaftsleben. Ein Beitrag zur angewandten Experimental-Psychologie. Leipzig: Barth.

[3] Münsterberg (1913), op. cit., p. 1

[4] Ibid., p. 23–4.

[5] Parsons, F. (1909). Choosing a Vocation. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[6] Cited in Hale, op. cit., p. 153.

[7] Münsterberg (1913), op. cit., p. 309.

[8] Cited in Hale, op. cit., p. 148.