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MAKING THE MODERN WORLD
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story:Studying work

scene:Industrial Psychology in Britain

What Taylor had done for the body of the worker, psychology wanted to do for the worker's mind. 'Our aim is to sketch the outlines of a new science,' wrote Taylor admirer Hugo Münsterberg in 1913, 'which is to intermediate between the modern laboratory psychology and the problem of economics.' Industrial psychology was to be 'independent of economic opinions and debatable . . . interests'.

Münsterberg claimed the applied psychologist was 'partisan neither of the salesman nor of the customer, neither of the capitalist nor of the laborer, he is neither Socialist nor anti-Socialist, neither high tariff man nor free trader.' Like any true science, applied psychology was to be an impartial activity.


Psychological selection testing promised to place the right people – in this case telephone operators - into the right jobs. picture zoom © Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Psychology was superior to scientific management because it involved the psychological laboratory, a place of precision, objectivity and control. It was argued, for example, that only through laboratory-based tests could it have been discovered that telephone operating involved exercising psychophysical processes such as memory, attention, intelligence and rapidity.

In the conclusion to his Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, Münsterberg called for the founding of 'independent research institutes'. These would undertake two related tasks: the selection of workers on the basis of natural fitness and the construction of 'good methods of work, for the purpose of obtaining from any expenditure of human energy or effort a maximum production.'


Charles Myers established the National Institute of Industrial Psychology in 1921 to increase efficiency in business and industry. picture zoom © British Library of Political & Economic Science, Myers NIIP 17/1/4

In Britain, Münsterberg's work attracted the attention of Charles Myers, the Director of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory. Myers was undoubtedly the most important British psychologist of the first half of the twentieth century. 'He, more than anyone else,' one colleague wrote, 'has assisted in turning British psychology from a branch of mental philosophy into a branch of experimental science.’

Establishing the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP)


Henry Welch provided the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP) with important connections in the world of business, industry and finance. picture zoom © British Library of Political & Economic Science Welch NIIP 17/1/3

In 1921 Myers co-founded the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP) with Henry Welch, director of a company of East India merchants. Its ambition was 'to promote by systematic scientific methods a more effective application of human energy in occupational life and a correspondingly higher standard of comfort and welfare for the workers.'

The crucial difference between the American and British experience was that in Britain the trade unions were extremely powerful. Industrial unrest in the aftermath of the First World War meant that the labour force had to be handled with tact. It was for this reason that British industrial psychology continually distanced itself from scientific management and Taylorism. Above all, industrial psychology in Britain was to be neutral on the question of the relationship between capital and labour.

By 1930 the Institute had 50 staff and more than 1600 members, over twice that of the British Psychological Society, the main professional body for psychologists in Britain. Virtually all the psychologists in the country were associated with the NIIP at some point during the interwar period.

The mission of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP)


The road to industrial happiness had two lanes: efficiency and welfare. picture zoom © British Library of Political & Economic Science, Road to Happiness NIIP 16/3

In 1923 Henry Welch explained in a radio talk that 'little attention has been given to that worst of all waste … the waste of human energy and abilities, and therefore the waste of the most precious product of the Universe, human life itself.' Industrial psychology wanted to avoid this 'and all the unhappiness caused by what is popularly called putting the round peg in the square hole.'


A series of photographs showing two different ways of operating a hand press, 1920-1930. The first sequence of six images shows the 'Old Method', while the second sequence of five images shows the more efficient 'New Method', which apparently increased productivity by 40 percent. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science &and Society Picture Library

Fatigue was initially thought to be the greatest hindrance to the pursuit of this ambition. Myers argued that scientific study should determine which obstacles prevented the worker from giving his best. ‘And when such obstacles, such causes of friction, are removed, increased output has invariably been found to follow. The new method prepares a smoother path.’ Smoothness, flow, speed, advancement - the new vocabulary of merit was written into factory organisation and design.

Inefficient bodies, minds, practices and workshops were all potential sources of friction. But the psychological laboratory had an armoury of weapons for combatting resistance; dynamometers, chronoscopes, ergographs. The most impressive was Gilbreth's chronocyclegraph, which produced brilliant traces of the rhythms of work. 'Each of us is best suited for some things rather than for others', explained NIIP chairman Sir Robert Witt. 'The cinematograph is useful in recording what the actual movements are, and, when the picture is taken of the man actually doing his job and this picture is slowed down on the screen, it is possible to study and to correct what is unnecessary and therefore wasteful of time and energy.’


Industrial psychology – as the NIIP float in the 1931 Lord Mayor's Parade explained – was helping to 'oil the wheels of industry'. picture zoom © British Library of Political & Economic Science, Float NIIP 17/3/19

Industrial psychology was to be a lubricant, abolishing friction between capital and labour. As the NIIP float that participated in the 1931 Lord Mayor's Parade explained, industrial psychology was to 'oil the wheels of industry' by 'helping youth to the wise choice of a career.' The float featured a 'ladder of success' and a scattering of adolescents dressed up in the uniforms of various occupations. A nurse, a policeman, and – absurdly – a judge were three of a dozen or so occupations represented. Below a giant key was the legend: 'Vocational guidance is the key to success and happiness in work.'

Resource Descriptions

Psychological selection testing promised to place the right people – in this case telephone operators - into the right jobs.
Charles Myers established the National Institute of Industrial Psychology in 1921 to increase efficiency in business and industry.
Henry Welch provided the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP) with important connections in the world of business, industry and finance.
The road to industrial happiness had two lanes: efficiency and welfare.
A series of photographs showing two different ways of operating a hand press, 1920-1930. The first sequence of six images shows the 'Old Method', while the second sequence of five images shows the more efficient 'New Method', which apparently increased productivity by 40 percent.
Industrial psychology – as the NIIP float in the 1931 Lord Mayor's Parade explained – was helping to 'oil the wheels of industry'.
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