Editorial from the May 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard
For the last few years there has been a boom in psychology. Most bookshops exhibit ponderous volumes dealing with this particular subject. Booksellers’ lists advertise numerous books setting forth conflicting theories.
As a general rule, when there is a boom in the scientific or pseudo scientific world in any particular subject, a close examination of the matter will disclose some important material interest lying at the back of the boom; or some material interest that is served by assisting to boom whatever matter is in question.
To this general rule psychology is no exception.
A short time ago a little book was published by Methuen & Co., Ltd., entitled "Present-Day Applications of Psychology, with special reference to Industry, Education, and Nervous Breakdown,” by Charles S. Myers, M.A., M.D., Sc.D., F.R.S., Director of the Psychological Laboratory, Cambridge.
The author defines Psychology as the scientific study of the human and animal mind. He advocates the appointment of trained Psychologists in all branches of industry as a profitable proposition from a commercial point of view. In order to illustrate how valuable such a proposition would be to employers he gives a description of certain experiments that have been made.
One such experiment he describes as follows—with reference to the principle of the number of contractions that could be carried out in lifting weights before exhaustion ensues:—
“This principle has been applied practically in the case of 500 shovellers who were being employed in shovelling, with a shovel of constant size, material of very varying weight—sometimes coal, sometimes ashes, at other times heavy iron ore, etc., etc. Experiments were conducted with shovels of different sizes in order to ascertain the optimal weight per shovel load of a good shoveller. The best average weight was found to be 21 lbs. Accordingly, shovels were made of different sizes, in proportion to the heaviness of the material shovelled, so that each shovel whether full of coal, ash or iron, etc., weighed 21 lbs. This was the most important innovation, although others were at the same time carried out. The results were as follows :—(i) the average amount shovelled per day rose by nearly 270 per cent—from 16 to 59 tons per man; (ii) 150 men could now perform what 500 men had performed under previous conditions ; (iii) the average earnings of the shovellers increased by 60 per cent,; (iv) the cost of the management, after paying all extra expenses, was reduced by 50 per cent.; (v) there was no evidence of increased fatigue of the shovellers.” (Page 9— italics ours.)
From the above it will be seen that by applying the results of scientific psychology in this particular case the gain to the capitalist would be 270 per cent, in the amount shovelled, whilst the increase in shovellers’ earnings was only 60 per cent., i.e., a nett gain to the capitalist of 210 per cent. Of course, experience tells us that the workers in question would not be long in receipt of the 60 per cent. increase. There is little doubt that in such a case a revision of piece-work rates would soon occur.
On top of the nett gain of 210 per cent, there is a further advantage to the capitalist of 50 per cent, decrease in the cost of management.
The following quotation from the "Daily News" (11/3/22) gives an illustration of the application of scientific psychology in another branch of industry. The quotation refers to the activity of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology: -
“Dr. C. S. Myers, the director of the institute, who stated that he had resigned the chair of psychology at Cambridge University to devote himself to the work of the institute, said that during the year investigators had examined into the methods of packing chocolates for Messrs. J. Lyons & Co. By favouring rhythmical movements and abolishing unnecessary ones, an average increase of output amounting to 35 per cent. had been obtained." (Italics ours.)
Here again we have the same point illustrated—a gain to the employers.
According to the above two quotations it will be seen that the nett result obtained by the application of scientific psychology to industry may be stated as follows: A larger amount of surplus value will be obtained by the capitalist and there will be less employment to be obtained by the workers. This will be due to the more economical handling of the means of wealth production.
One main point is forced to our notice here. The application of science to industry under capitalism has two general effects: it increases the productiveness of a given quantity of human labour power, thereby increasing the profits of the capitalists, and at the same time increasing the unemployment and consequent misery of the workers.
How topsy-turvy, then, is a system of society in which the valuable productive methods provided by scientific research are of necessity converted into a source of profit for the few and a source of misery for the mass of the population?
The only way to avoid such an anomaly is to substitute for the present form of society another form in which all the means and methods that science can discover to aid in the production of wealth and lessen the toil of the producers will be welcomed by the whole of society as means to obtain increased leisure and enjoyment.