History of I-O Psychology

A Brief Overview of the History of I-O Psychology

Industrial-Organizational psychology has only been in existence for about the last century. It was primarily an outgrowth of the Industrial Revolution. When factories and assembly lines began coming into existence, the people who ran the factories wanted to try to get as much money as possible out of their workers. The first I-O psychologists weren’t as interested in employees being satisfied and happy as they were about making sure that the jobs were designed to be as efficient and streamlined as possible. A landmark study of this time period involved a study to make trolley operators be as productive as possible, and another involved how best to design a coal shovel to increase production.

The Hawthorne Effect

In one of the early studies (1924-1932) conducted by I-O psychologist Harry Landsberger, a factory was interested in seeing how changing work conditions would affect employee output. For example, Landsberger wanted to see how low the lighting could be and still maintain optimal productivity. While conducting these experiments, the results weren’t at all what he expected. It appeared that no matter what he did, the employees improved their production speed, even if he only gave them low candlelight to work by. After post-analysis, Landsberger discovered that the employees were performing better because there were people around them wearing white coats, carrying clipboards, interested in what they were doing. Thus, work conditions had been trumped by employee feelings about someone being interested in what they were doing.

The Rise of Testing

Any business that has had profits increased by some sort of testing or interview process owes its success to how World War I and II occurred. Because both of these conflicts occurred without the United States being prepared for them, huge numbers of incoming soldiers needed to be placed in jobs they were best suited for as quickly as possible. Psychologists used their knowledge of testing to sort people into different jobs based on brief, massed assessments and did so with great accuracy. When these psychologists returned from the wars, they brought their knowledge home with them and applied their new knowledge of selections to businesses. What we see today in almost every aspect of testing for selections is an outgrowth of this era in history.

Human Capital Becomes Important

Studies like Landsberger’s and the new knowledge of how to select employees started to change I-O psychology. This also all began to cause I-O psychologists and businesses to think of employees as resources to be managed and retained. Instead of thinking about them as tools that could be replaced if they weren’t performing properly. The shift wasn’t necessarily an ethical change where businesses suddenly acted out of an interest in humanism instead of profits. This shift was primarily because of the evidence that I-O psychologists provided, showing that employee retention and managment was more profitable. All of these changes have led to where I-O psychology and business have come to be today.

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