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)


THE effects which we have studied so far were produced by inanimate objects, posters or displays, advertisements or labels and packings. The economic psychotechnics of the future will surely study with similar methods the effects of the living commercial agencies. Experiments will trace the exact effects which the salesman or customer may produce. But here not even a modest beginning can be discovered, and it would be difficult to mention a single example of experimental research. The desired psychological influences of the salesman are not quite dissimilar to those of the printed means of propaganda. Here, too, it is essential to turn the attention of the customer to different points, to awaken a vivid favorable impression, to emphasize the advantages of the goods, to throw full light on them, and finally to influence the will-decision either by convincing arguments or by persuasion and suggestion. In either case the point is to enhance the impulse to buy and to suppress the opposing ideas. Yet every one of these factors, when it starts from a man and not from a thing or paper, changes its [p. 295] form. The influence becomes narrower, it is directed toward a smaller number of persons; but, on the other hand, it gains just by the new possibility of individualization. The salesman in the store or the commercial traveler adjusts himself to the wishes, reactions, and replies of the buyer. Above all, when it becomes necessary to direct the attention to the decisive points, the personal agent has the possibility of developing the whole process through a series of stages so that the attention slowly becomes focused on one definite point. The salesman observes at first only the general limits of the interest of the customer as far as it is indicated by his reactions, but slowly he can find out in this whole held the region of strongest desires. As soon as he has discovered this narrower region in which the prospects of success seem to be greatest, he can systematically eliminate everything which distracts and scatters the attention. He can discover whether the psyche of the individual with whom he is dealing can be influenced more strongly by logical arguments or by suggestion, and how far he may calculate on the pleasure instincts, on the excitement of emotions, on the impulse to imitate, on the natural vanity, on the desire for saving, and on the longing for luxury. In every one of these directions the whole play of human suggestion may be helpful. [p. 296] The voice may win or destroy confidence, the statement may by its firmness overcome counter-motives or by its uncertainty reinforce them. Even hand or arm movements by their motor suggestion may focus the desires of the customers, while unskillful, erratic movements may scatter the attention and lead to an inner oscillation of the will to buy.

At every one of these points the psychological experiment may find a foothold, and only through such methodological study can the haphazard proceedings of the commercial world be transformed into really economic schemes. Indeed, it seems nothing but chance that just this held is controlled by chance alone. The enormous social interplay of energies which are discharged in the selling and buying of the millions becomes utterly planless as soon as salesman and customer come into contact, and this tremendous waste of energy cannot appear desirable for any possible interest of civilization. The time alone which is wasted by useless psychophysical operations in front of and behind the counter represents a gigantic part of the national budget. Even the complaints about the long working day of the salesgirls might be eliminated from the debit account of the national ledger, if the commercial companies could study the psychical processes in [p. 297] selling and buying with the same carefulness with which they analyze all details in preparing the stock and fixing the prices. In the army or in the fire department, in the railroad service, and even in the factory, all necessary activities are so arranged that as far as possible the greatest achievement is secured by the smallest amount of energy. But when the hundreds of millions of customers in the civilized world want to satisfy their economic demands in the stores, the whole dissolves into a flood of talk, because no one has taken the trouble to examine scientifically the psychotechnics of selling and to put it on a firm psychological foundation.

The idea of scientific management must be extended from the industrial concerns to the commercial establishments. The questioning and answering, the showing and replacing of the goods, the demonstrating and suggesting by the salesmen, must be brought into an economic system which saves time and energy, as has been tried with the laborer in the factory. Wherever economic processes; are carried out with superfluous, haphazard movements, the national resources have to suffer a loss. The single individual can never find the ideal form of motion and the ideal process by mere instinct. A systematic investigation is needed to determine the way to the greatest [p. 298] saving of energy, and the result ought to be made a binding rule for every apprentice. How the smallest influences grow by summation may be illustrated by the experience of a large department store, in which the expense for delivery of the articles sold was felt as too large an item in the budget. The hundreds of saleswomen therefore received the order after every sale of moderate-sized articles not to ask, as before, "May we send it to you?" but instead, "Will you take it with you?" Probably none of the many thousand daily customers observed the difference, the more as it was indifferent to most of them whether they took the little package home themselves or not. In cases in which it was inconvenient, they would anyhow oppose the suggestion and insist that the purchase be sent to them. Yet it is claimed that this hardly noticeable suggestion led to a considerable saving in the following year, distinctly felt in the budget of the whole establishment.

We must not forget, however, that the process of buying deserves the same psychological interest as that of selling. If psychotechnics is to be put into the service of a valuable economic task, the goal cannot possibly be to devise schemes by which the customer may easily be trapped. The purpose of science cannot be to help any one to [p. 299] sell articles to a man who does not need them and who would regret the purchase after quiet thought. The applied psychologist should help the prospective buyer no less, and must protect him so that his true intention may become realized in the economic process. Otherwise through his suggestibility, the determining idea of his god might fade in his consciousness and the appeal to his vanity or to his instincts might awaken an anti-economic desire which he would be too weak to inhibit. The salesman must know how to use arguments and suggestions and how to make them effective,[55] but the customer too must know how to see through a misleading argument and how to resist mere suggestion.

The postulate that the psychical factors in commercial life are to be carefully regarded is repeated in more complex form in the wholesale business and in the stock exchange. It is a perfectly justified and consistent thought which recently led a large credit bureau to an effort to base its information on psychological analysis. It is well known that there are bureaus in which the ledger experiences of a large circle of companies in the same commercial line are collected, tabulated, and recorded, thus affording an automatic review of the occurrences, focusing early attention on doubtful accounts and pointing out weaknesses [p. 300] in the customers' conditions, as they develop, as well as evidences of prosperity. The ledger experience which a single company has with all its customers is tabulated without revealing its identity to the associates, who get reports containing it, and the many combined ledgers become a valuable guide. Yet all such methods can show only actual movements in the market, and cannot allow the prospects of future development to be determined, simply because they cannot take into account the personal equations. Only an acquaintance with the character and the temperament, the intelligence and the habits, the energy and the weakness, of the head of a firm can tell us whether the company, even with satisfactory resources, may go down, or whether, even though embarrassed, it may hold out. The psychological pioneer, therefore, aims not only toward an exchange of ledger accounts, but toward a real psychological diagnosis and prognosis. If a member of a firm is personally known to some scores of business men who have had commercial dealings with him, and each one of them, without disclosing his identity to any one but the central bureau, sends to it a statement of personal impressions, a composite picture of the mental physiognomy can be worked out. Of course all this has been often done in the terms of popular psychology [p. 301] and in a haphazard, amateurish way. The new plan is to arrange the questions systematically under the point of view of scientific descriptive psychology. Regular psychograms, in which the probability of a particular kind of behavior is to be determined in an exact percentage calculation, are to replace the traditional vagueness, as soon as a sufficient number of reliable answers have been tabulated.

Commercial life as a whole finds its contact with psychology, of course, not only in the problem of how to secure the best mental effect. Those other questions which we have discussed essentially with reference to factory life and industrial concerns, namely, how the best man and the best work are to be secured, recur in the circle of commercial endeavors. It seems, indeed, most desirable to devise psychological tests by which the ability to be a successful salesman or saleswoman may be determined at an early stage. The lamentable shifting of the employees in all commercial spheres, with its injurious social consequences, would then be unnecessary, and both employers and employees would profit. Moreover, like the selection of the men, the means of securing the most satisfactory work from them, has also so far been left entirely to common sense. Commercial work stands under an abundance [p. 302] of varying conditions, and each may have influences the isolated effects of which are not known, because they have not been studied in that systematic form which only the experiment can establish. The popular literature on this whole group of subjects is extensive, and in its expansion corresponds to the widespread demand for real information and advice to the salesman. But hardly any part of the literature in the borderland regions of economics is so disappointing in its vagueness, emptiness, and helplessness. Experimental psychology has nothing with which to replace it to-day, but it can at least show the direction from which decisive help may be expected in future.


[55] W. D. Scott: Influencing Men in Business. (New York, 1911.)