Application of ergonomics to psychological problems

Psychology is about the theory of the human mind.

The difficulty with the application of psychology in management services departments is in its vagueness. Psychology is concerned with the analysis and classification of various states of the human mind. Because human beings vary so much between each other and in such complex ways, all attempts at classifying people into groups merely results in the statement of broad principles that may or may not be relevant to the individual worker on the shopfloor or in the office.

We know each other more or less superficially. Psychology attempts to improve this knowledge and is therefore useful. But because psychologists are trying to describe what goes on in the mind and this cannot be actually seen, touched, heard, smelt or tasted, their published works are more often expressions of opinion than checkable fact.

So management services is in the difficult position of needing to know but not being able to judge what is worthwhile. Management is not really concerned with what people think; management is very involved in what people may do as a result of thinking. So the branch of psychology called 'occupational' or 'applied' psychology is of more relevance as much of its research is concerned with the worker's reaction to working conditions.

For example, in an inexpensive Pelican paperback (Warr (1971)) called Psychology at Work, there are 17 chapters which include the topics of: shift work, skill performance and stress, the learning curve, person-machine interface problems, accidents, ageing, worker selection, job appraisal, decision-making, management of managers, worker motivation, worker participation, negotiating behavior, organization relationships.

The book might equally have included chapters on language, the five senses, behavioral disorders, alertness and fatigue, individual differences, speed versus accuracy, information acquisition, information processing, knowledge of results and feedback, frustration, leadership, attitudes and opinion gathering, informal organization within formal organizations, short-long-term memory, imagery, role-playing mediation, forgetting, etc.

All these topics, and there are more, are of direct interest to both the ergonomist and to the management services department as occurring within any typical organization. In addition there is the psychology of society as a whole influencing people at their workplace. This is social psychology, an even more opinionated subject than occupational psychology, and a separate study in itself.

The main difficulty is that so many people are professionally involved in introspective mind searching; so much has been written and so many laws, theories and hypotheses propounded that separating all grain from the chaff has become impossible. What may be fashionable in psychology today may be discredited tomorrow yet heralded as a fundamental truth in 20 years' time.

Frequently, in new ideas there is a small amount of truth encapsulated in a proliferate of transient justifying jargon. Knowing what to peel off and discard is very difficult. Many new psychological theories are presented in the form of case histories that may seem very convincing. Whilst there should always be misgivings as to whether the new theory will fit into one's own circumstances, a word of caution is necessary concerning the case history itself.

For example, the well known Hawthorne Experiment, conducted by Elton Mayo, in which five female workers were studied over a period of five years from 1927 under a variety of working conditions, has been widely reported as showing that active and benevolent interest by management brings about increases in production.

What is not usually reported was that the method of choosing subjects was a little odd; two women, who were reported to be skilled at relay assembly, were asked to choose four others to work with them and the whole lot were segregated from the other 100 or so who were working on this particular job.

Then, when a 'talking problem', occurred, and although they had been told to work 'as they felt', two of the girls were dropped from the experiment. Two replacements were found, and conditions were temporarily as the experimenters desired.

However, when production began to fall, the supervisor used the technique of reprimand and threat, including the threat that the current working conditions which the women disliked so much would be continued for a much longer period. Eventually only three of the original women remained. Although the Hawthorne studies are an example of less competent observational studies, nevertheless they do illustrate how such work is open to error and inconsistency.

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