A Brief History of Industrial Psychology

By Tasnim B. Kazi
2012, Vol. 4 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

Industrial Psychology is almost as old as Psychology itself. Psychology came about in 1879 in the laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt in Germany and William James at Harvard. Both of them were philosophers and physicians fascinated with the mind-body debate. The older discipline of could not alone deal with this debate, more room and new tools were needed, giving way to Psychology. Texts applying psychology to business first appeared in 1903; the first Industrial-Organizational (I/O) psychology text appeared in 1910 (Landy, 1997). It is believed that four men developed the ‘tone’ and ‘structure’ of I/O psychology: Hugo Munsterberg, James Cattell, Walter Dill Scott, and Walter Bingham (Landy, 1997).

Moore and Hartmann (1931) stated that while psychology moved into the educational and clinical fields, “no psychologist who respected his position dared venture into the office or workshop,” and Hugo Munsterberg was the “first man to break the ice” (p4). It is speculated that Munsterberg was ‘forced’ to the field of I/O psychology because of with his Harvard colleagues (Landy, 1997). His book, Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, is regarded as the first I/O psychology textbook, published first in 1910. Krumm (2001) states that formal training in Industrial Psychology began when the book was published, while Landy (1997) asserts: “This book was the bible for the application of differential psychology in industry… later publications… did not replace the structure Munsterberg has put in place; they built on it” (p470). Munsterberg was primarily interested in personnel selection and use of psychological tests in industry.

James McKeen Cattell was, like Munsterberg, a controversial figure. He held a long position at Columbia University until he was fired for continuously challenging and ridiculing his colleagues and the president of Columbia (Landy, 1997). He owned and edited many psychological journals, in this way contributing to the growth of the field. His main contribution to the field of I/O Psychology was, besides his openness about speaking of its’ potential, his creation of the Psychological Corporation in 1921, still in existence today. His reputation and company of functionalists, applied psychologists and statisticians helped him “to establish the legitimacy of psychology applied to industry with other nonapplied psychologists… This was no small feat” (Landy, 1997, p473).

Landy (1997) declares: “If I/O psychologists were searching for a role model, [Walter Dill] Scott would best fit the bill” (p474). He worked on applying psychological principles to and published books on the topic as well as essays on using these principles to solve problems in industry. When he opened The Scott Company he began the longstanding practice of consulting I/O psychologists in the business world (Krumm, 2001), and because of his wide recognition, had a major impact on creating public awareness and credibility of the field. Furthermore, Landy (1997) asserts that were it not for Scott, the testing movement that began in WWI, and the subsequent growth of I/O psychology that was a result of it, would not have occurred, as Scott had “the vision, administrative skill, and scientific stature to pull it off” (p474).

Walter Bingham’s contributions to the field are many and diverse. He started the Division of Applied Psychology – the first academic program in industrial psychology (Krumm, 2001). He headed the Personal Research Federation and directed The Psychological Corporation. He was instrumental in Scott’s and Yerkes’ development of the mental testing program. And, most importantly, he assumed a caretaker and spokesperson role and worked, till his death, to “achieve recognition and respectability for I/O psychology… because there were no ‘elder statesman’ left to fill that role” (Landy, 1997, p476). He publicly represented the field, in commissions and on radio, and made numerous contributions to magazines, newspapers and other areas on its’ topics.

My primary aim in this essay is to focus on Frederick W. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management and Elton Mayo’s Human Relations as two historical approaches that fundamentally altered the field of industrial psychology and has had lasting impact. I will briefly describe them but will largely concentrate on an analysis of these approaches, taking a more critical and apathetic stance. Although I take this stance, this does not mean that there are no defenses to the criticisms or that either approach has no worth.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was primarily interested in removing all inefficiency from the workplace, and he targeted his efforts toward the manual worker, aiming to increase their productivity and reduce their judgment. As a result he invented scientific management, which was based on four principles (Beder, 2000, p98):

  1. The most efficient way of doing a task should be worked out scientifically;
  2. Workers should be carefully selected and trained to do the work in this way;
  3. Workers should do their work under the close supervision and control of management and be paid a bonus for doing exactly what they say;
  4. Management should take over the planning and thinking part of the work.

Taylor considered the manual worker to be stupid, slow and unintelligent, with little or no thinking abilities. The ‘thinking’ part of any job, he claimed, was for intelligent, educated people, and the workers’ job was to “follow instructions about what to do, how to do it and how much time to spend doing it” (Beder, 2000, p98). His approach removed thought, skill, pride and enjoyment from the work process, breaking up tasks and leaving the worker with only the bare necessities. Beder (2000) states that Taylor “removed the more desirable and challenging parts of the work and made it monotonous, tedious and unremittingly boring” (p99). His justification was that the worker’s stupidity would ensure that they would not be troubled by the tediousness of their work. Critics were not convinced of Taylor’s argument or rationale: “We do not hesitate to say that Taylorism is inhuman. As far as possible it dehumanizes the man, for it endeavors to remove the only distinction that makes him better than a machine – his intelligence” (Beder, 2000, p99).

The effects of Taylorism on the worker were manifold. I focus on five: unemployment, exploitation, monotony, weakening of trade unions, and ‘over speeding’ (Beder, 2000; Backer, 1998; Krumm, 2001). Taylor argued that his approach required a smaller and cheaper workforce; skilled labor became disposable and cheap labor easily replaceable. This meant fewer jobs, and unemployment increased. As big tasks were broken into smaller tasks, individuality was removed from a worker’s job and tasks lacked variety as workers performed the same routine over and over. Taylor himself described this as “grinding monotony” (Beder, 2000, p99). Furthermore, management decided the time that was to be spent on each task; this reduced the worker’s discretion and sped up their work so they eventually performed as machines and it became impossible to soldier, or even to think. This, the emphasis on productivity and efficiency, and the piece-rate pay system made workers feel undervalued, dehumanized and exploited. Also, because everything was fixed by management - standard output, time, tasks, working conditions - no room was left for trade unions to bargain. This essentially weakened the collective of workers.

Taylor believed that scientific management would result in happier, more productive workers. On the contrary, his approach was found to be inconsistent with human needs. Because of his methods, workers became machines, devalued and paid less for their efforts, becoming increasingly alienated from their jobs. Marx’s conception of the alienation of the worker is thought to perfectly describe Taylor’s scientific management. He states that alienation is caused by the work being “external to the worker… he does not fulfill himself in his work but denies himself… does not develop freely his mental and physical energies but is… mentally debased” (Beder, 2000, p96). Rose (1990) adds: “Workers work because they have to, they work at the behest of others in a process they do not control… Work is made up… of obedience, self-denial, and deferred gratification” (p55-56).

The Human Relations approach, now synonymous with the name Elton Mayo, was seen as an alternative to scientific management, and was essentially about being nice to workers on the assumptions that “a certain style… of supervision and of reaching decisions with subordinates… will greatly increase the morale and satisfaction of workers”, and that the “more satisfied a worker is (e.g., in his social relations with his work group) the harder he will work” (Beder, 2000, p102). According to Isaacs, Bobat and Bradbury (2004), this approach emphasized: industrial , employee participation that would increase motivation and decrease resistance, “fostering a greater sense of involvement and belonging for workers, and providing workers with opportunities to grow and develop” (p15). The approach was given recognition after the Hawthorn Studies in the 1920s. Although the studies observed a range of factors, I focus on Mayo’s idea of work groups.

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