Psychology as a science is useful insofar as it is applied to solving the issues of everyday life. This is the purpose of Hugo Munsterberg’s 1913 book Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Munsterberg’s approach to psychology is to answer common questions through psychological experimentation. The book is split into three parts, each dedicated to an aspect of industrial psychology: finding the right employee for the job, procuring the best performance of the job, and finding the best possible effect. Although nearly 100 years have passed since the original publication of this book, and some of the terminology and social conceptions have changed, this work by Munsterberg remains relevant. Industry is ever changing and therefore the ways that people interact with it also stands to be changed from time to time in the interest of efficiency.
Munsterberg begins his book by organizing the advent of applied psychology, which is the application of the results of laboratory experiments to life’s dilemmas. Experimental psychology for a time remained outside of practical application. As scientists began seeing the connections between industry and their laboratory experiments the foray into applied psychology began. Munsterberg states the goal is not to determine whether an outcome is good or bad, but simply to determine the most efficient way to get from the starting point to whatever outcome is desired.
The first challenge of industry is in finding the best qualified person for the job at hand. To do this an employer must address the mental, emotional, and physical traits (habits, temperaments, attention, etc) of the person. Scientific assessment can help weed out the unfit applicants. In some cases, an applicant might not be the best person for the job they applied for, but they might fit in well with another position in the company. Employers need to be aware of their organizations needs and constantly be looking for the best people for each job.
In addition to studying the characteristics of the worker, Munsterberg explores the characteristics of the job that need to be considered and applied to finding the best vocational fit. Scientific methodology introduced into industry helps to find the most efficient ways to carry out a task, physically and mentally. In one case, changing the weight of a shovel used by workers shoveling various types of ore and stone allowed a smaller workforce to accomplish more than the larger force. Any part of the working environment that humans interact with is of interest to the industrial psychologist and can be studied for ways to improve efficiency.
The third part of industry presented by Munsterberg is finding the best possible effect, or, the best possible influence on the mind in regards to business. Essentially, he is speaking of advertisements, and presents the results of several experiments where attention and recall are explored. Loud and busy advertisements might catch attention, but they might not be easily recalled later on. Scientific study of the individual is necessary in finding the most effective way to publicize a product and promote sales. The industrial psychologist is interested in how to affect sales, but also how to protect buyers from being manipulated.
At times the reading gets complicated, but overall the book flows well from one concept to the next and isn’t bogged down by extra words and aimless considerations. While reading, it is possible to forget the time and circumstances of society under which this book was written. Taking this book out of the context where it was written may lead to labels of misogyny, but remembering the context helps to overlook the apparent gender bias of the author in order to appreciate the concepts. Aside from the difficulties resulting from 100 years of language and societal evolution, there are no weak points in this book.
To consider this work in the light of modern day industry, we must consider the themes and framework, and ignore the specifics. Modern legal issues and matters of equal opportunity employment are not addressed in the book. With the momentous increases in technology over the span of the last 100 years the superficial aspects of the content are relatively archaic. Many, if not all, of the specific tasks studied by Munsterberg are no longer performed by people; rather, one person with a computer science degree monitors the machines that do the work once performed by hundreds of people. The face of industry has certainly changed since Munsterberg conducted his experiments, but this doesn’t mean his results are no longer valid.
Hugo Munsterberg shares his brilliant perspective of applied psychology quite clearly in this book. He creates a concise package for industrial leaders to consider when seeking the best employees, the most productive tasks, and the most efficient influence. Through all of the questions he answers, through the research he shares, and through his suggestions for the future, the most important message of the book is that psychologists should not exercise moral judgment in solving problems, but simply find the most efficient path between two points. It is not for the psychologist to tell an organization what the best outcome is, they should ask the organization what is wanted and then work to provide the most efficient avenue to get there.