What Is Industrial and Organizational Psychology?


Industrial and organizational psychology had its origins in the early 20th century. Several influential early psychologists studied issues that today would be categorized as industrial psychology: James Cattell (1860–1944) at Columbia, Hugo Münsterberg (1863–1916) at Harvard, Walter Dill Scott (1869–1955) at Northwestern, Robert Yerkes (1876–1956) and Walter Bingham (1880–1952) at Dartmouth, and Lillian Gilbreth (1878–1972) at Purdue. Cattell, Münsterberg, and Scott had been students of Wilhelm Wundt, the father of experimental psychology. Some of these researchers had been involved in work in the area of industrial psychology before World War I. Cattell’s contribution to industrial psychology is largely reflected in his founding of a psychological consulting company, which is still operating today called the Psychological Corporation, and in the accomplishments of students at Columbia in the area of industrial psychology. In 1913, Münsterberg published Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, which covered topics such as employee selection, employee training, and effective advertising.

Scott was one of the first psychologists to apply psychology to advertising, management, and personnel selection. In 1903, Scott published two books: The Theory of Advertising and Psychology of Advertising. They are the first books to describe the use of psychology in the business world. By 1911 he published two more books, Influencing Men in Business and Increasing Human Efficiency in Business. In 1916 a newly formed division in the Carnegie Institute of Technology hired Scott to conduct applied research on employee selection (Katzell & Austin, 1992).

The focus of all this research was in what we now know as industrial psychology; it was only later in the century that the field of organizational psychology developed as an experimental science (Katzell & Austin, 1992). In addition to their academic positions, these researchers also worked directly for businesses as consultants.

The involvement of the United States in World War I in April 1917 catalyzed the participation in the military effort of psychologists working in this area. At that time Yerkes was the president of the 25-year-old American Psychological Association (APA). The APA is a professional association in the United States for clinical and research psychologists. Today the APA performs a number of functions including holding conferences, accrediting university degree programs, and publishing scientific journals. Yerkes organized a group under the Surgeon General’s Office (SGO) that developed methods for screening and selecting enlisted men. They developed the Army Alpha test to measure mental abilities. The Army Beta test was a non-verbal form of the test that was administered to illiterate and non-English-speaking draftees. Scott and Bingham organized a group under the Adjutant General’s Office (AGO) with the goal to develop selection methods for officers. They created a catalogue of occupational needs for the Army, essentially a job-description system and a system of performance ratings and occupational skill tests for officers (Katzell & Austin, 1992).

After the war, work on personnel selection continued. For example, Millicent Pond, who received a PhD from Yale University, worked at several businesses and was director of employment test research at Scoville Manufacturing Company. She researched the selection of factory workers, comparing the results of pre-employment tests with various indicators of job performance. These studies were published in a series of research articles in the Journal of Personnel Research in the late 1920s (Vinchur & Koppes, 2014).

From 1929 to 1932 Elton Mayo (1880–1949) and his colleagues began a series of studies at a plant near Chicago, Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works (Figure). This long-term project took industrial psychology beyond just employee selection and placement to a study of more complex problems of interpersonal relations, motivation, and organizational dynamics. These studies mark the origin of organizational psychology. They began as research into the effects of the physical work environment (e.g., level of lighting in a factory), but the researchers found that the psychological and social factors in the factory were of more interest than the physical factors. These studies also examined how human interaction factors, such as supervisorial style, enhanced or decreased productivity.

An image of a factory complex with two functioning smokestacks and a number of buildings is shown.
Hawthorne Works provided the setting for several early I-O studies.

Analysis of the findings by later researchers led to the term the Hawthorne effect, which describes the increase in performance of individuals who are noticed, watched, and paid attention to by researchers or supervisors Figure). What the original researchers found was that any change in a variable, such as lighting levels, led to an improvement in productivity; this was true even when the change was negative, such as a return to poor lighting. The effect faded when the attention faded (Roethlisberg & Dickson, 1939). The Hawthorne-effect concept endures today as an important experimental consideration in many fields and a factor that has to be controlled for in an experiment. In other words, an experimental treatment of some kind may produce an effect simply because it involves greater attention of the researchers on the participants (McCarney et al., 2007).

A photograph shows a warehouse full of people working with machines along assembly lines.
Researchers discovered that employees performed better when researchers or supervisors observed and interacted with them, a dynamic termed the Hawthorne effect.

Watch this video to hear first-hand accounts of the original Hawthorne studies from those who participated in the research.

In the 1930s, researchers began to study employees’ feelings about their jobs. Kurt Lewin also conducted research on the effects of various leadership styles, team structure, and team dynamics (Katzell & Austin, 1992). Lewin is considered the founder of social psychology and much of his work and that of his students produced results that had important influences in organizational psychology. Lewin and his students’ research included an important early study that used children to study the effect of leadership style on aggression, group dynamics, and satisfaction (Lewin, Lippitt, & White, 1939). Lewin was also responsible for coining the term group dynamics, and he was involved in studies of group interactions, cooperation, competition, and communication that bear on organizational psychology.

Parallel to these studies in industrial and organizational psychology, the field of human factors psychology was also developing. Frederick Taylor was an engineer who saw that if one could redesign the workplace there would be an increase in both output for the company and wages for the workers. In 1911 he put forward his theory in a book titled, The Principles of Scientific Management (Figure). His book examines management styles, personnel selection and training, as well as the work itself, using time and motion studies.

Photograph A shows Frederick Taylor. Photograph B shows the cover of Taylor’s book titled The Principles of Scientific Management. Across the top it reads “The Principles of Scientific Management. Below that it says “by Frederick Winslow Taylor, M.E., Sc.D. Past president of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.” Below that is a picture of a hand passing a torch to another hand, with foreign lettering behind. At the bottom it reads “Harper and Brothers Publishers. New York and London. 1919.” Photograph C shows a steam hammer.
(a) Frederick Taylor (1911) strived to engineer workplaces to increase productivity, based on the ideas he set forth in (b) his book, The Principles of Scientific Management. (c) Taylor designed this steam hammer at the Midvale Steel Company. (credit c: modification of work by “Kheel Center, Cornell University”/Flickr)

One of the examples of Taylor’s theory in action involved workers handling heavy iron ingots. Taylor showed that the workers could be more productive by taking work rests. This method of rest increased worker productivity from 12.5 to 47.0 tons moved per day with less reported fatigue as well as increased wages for the workers who were paid by the ton. At the same time, the company’s cost was reduced from 9.2 cents to 3.9 cents per ton. Despite these increases in productivity, Taylor’s theory received a great deal of criticism at the time because it was believed that it would exploit workers and reduce the number of workers needed. Also controversial was the underlying concept that only a manager could determine the most efficient method of working, and that while at work, a worker was incapable of this. Taylor’s theory was underpinned by the notion that a worker was fundamentally lazy and the goal of Taylor’s scientific management approach was to maximize productivity without much concern for worker well-being. His approach was criticized by unions and those sympathetic to workers (Van De Water, 1997).

Gilbreth was another influential I-O psychologist who strove to find ways to increase productivity (Figure). Using time and motion studies, Gilbreth and her husband, Frank, worked to make workers more efficient by reducing the number of motions required to perform a task. She not only applied these methods to industry but also to the home, office, shops, and other areas. She investigated employee fatigue and time management stress and found many employees were motivated by money and job satisfaction. In 1914, Gilbreth wrote the book title, The Psychology of Management: The Function of the Mind in Determining, Teaching, and Installing Methods of Least Waste, and she is known as the mother of modern management. Some of Gilbreth’s contributions are still in use today: you can thank her for the idea to put shelves inside on refrigerator doors, and she also came up with the concept of using a foot pedal to operate the lid of trash can (Gilbreth, 1914, 1998; Koppes, 1997; Lancaster, 2004). Gilbreth was the first woman to join the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1926, and in 1966 she was awarded the Hoover Medal of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Taylor and Gilbreth’s work improved productivity, but these innovations also improved the fit between technology and the human using it. The study of machine–human fit is known as ergonomics or human factors psychology.

Photograph A shows Lillian Gilbreth. Photograph B shows an open refrigerator with shelves inside and on the door. Photograph C shows a person stepping on a garbage can's foot-pedal, which causes the lid to open, and inserting garbage into the garbage can.
(a) Lillian Gilbreth studied efficiency improvements that were applicable in the workplace, home, and other areas. She is credited with the idea of (b) putting shelves on the inside of refrigerator doors and (c) foot-pedal-operated garbage cans. (credit b: modification of work by “Goedeker’s”/Flickr; credit c: modification of work by Kerry Ceszyk)
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