The Psychotechnics of Everyday Life: Hugo Münsterberg and the Politics of Applied Psychology, 1892-1920

Jeremy Blatter Harvard University 2012-2013 Dissertation Research Fellow
In my dissertation, "The Psychotechnics of Everyday Life: Hugo Münsterberg and the Politics of Applied Psychology, 1892-1920," I examine the development of applied psychology from the cloistered psychological laboratories of the late nineteenth century through to its diverse applications in everyday life. While early-applied psychologists restricted their work to reformulating practical problems as rigorously controlled laboratory experiments, the twentieth century gave rise to a new class of professional psychologists not isolated but woven into the social fabric of Progressive Era America. Whether in the classroom, courtroom, factory, market, or cinema, these new consulting psychologists sought to assert their authority as experts in modernization wherever the mind was a factor previously overlooked or left to mere common sense consideration. Hugo Münsterberg, Director of the Harvard Psychological Laboratory between 1892 and 1916, was the foremost figure of this new movement, which he called psychotechnics, and so it is through his career that I trace the development, dissemination and contestation of psychological expertise in the decades before World War One. Through the generous support of the PACHS Dissertation Research Fellowship I was afforded the opportunity to further this research at several remarkable collections in Philadelphia. At the University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center, for example, I was especially fortunate to find the original case records of the country's first psychological clinic, founded by Penn psychologist Lightner Witmer in 1896. Through these documents I gained invaluable insight into the everyday workings of clinical psychology decades before its formal recognition by the American Psychological Association. Equally compelling was the 1921dissertation of Penn psychologist Morris Viteles who taking inspiration from Münsterberg studied the psychological competency of streetcar motormen in Philadelphia. In the summer of 1914 Hugo Münsterberg had arranged for one of his students, Robert C. Givler, to develop psychological methods for the improvement of worker efficiency at the famous Wanamaker's Department Story in Philadelphia. Therefore I was particularly eager to visit the more than three hundred boxes comprising the John Wanamaker Collection at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. While I was unable to locate any new information about Givler's time as a psychological consultant at the department store, sifting through this vast collection I was able to piece together important facets of Wanamaker's deep investment in worker training, efficiency, and modern management practices. Following this lead I soon discovered that prior to Givler, Wanamaker had employed the efficiency expert, psychical researcher, and amateur psychologist Stanley L. Krebs, an influential advocate and lecturer on the psychology of salesmanship. My research time in Philadelphia, thanks to the PACHS Dissertation Research Fellowship, was among the most productive periods in my graduate student career. This was not only because of the excellent archival resources at my disposal, but also the vibrant intellectual community in Philadelphia. The PACHS History and Theory working group run by Babak Ashrafi and a guest lecture by Emily Martin at Penn’s History and Sociology of Science Department were especial sources of inspiration during my stay. For their hospitality, support, and unwavering commitment to scholarship in the history of science, I owe PACHS and their staff a debt of gratitude.

Jeremy Blatter