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The History Corner: A Brief History of our Field’s Obscurity

Michael J. Zickar
Bowling Green State University

I had the chance to meet the President of the United States, Barack Obama, while he was campaigning at Bowling Green State University on September 26. I knew that I was going to get a chance to go backstage and get a photo with him and so I deliberated what I would say to him in the 30 seconds to 1 minute that I would probably have with him face to face. After some reflection, I posted on Facebook the night before that I was going to use the phrase “industrial-organizational psychology” in front of the President to gauge his reaction. I know others would have used the short amount of time to push a pet policy issue or brag about a personal accomplishment. My goal was to push the awareness of our low-visibility field with the most powerful person in the country!

I-O psychologists have grappled with obscurity for the whole existence of our field. Currently the Executive Board is working with a company to develop some branding material to help promote I-O psychology to a wider audience. I wish that effort success, but if you are placing bets based on historical efforts, it is likely that by the end of it industrial-organizational psychology will still remain obscure. In this short article, I am going to review some of the history of our obscurity as well as some exceptions—when we had the close ear of policy makers. The hope is that someday this short article could get expanded into a fuller and more scholarly treatment. If you make it to the end of this piece, I will reveal how President Obama responded to the three words industrial-organizational psychology.

Our field started off with large fanfare and lots of excitement among those in the business community and policy makers. During World War I, applied psychologists such as Walter Van Dyke Bingham and Walter Dill Scott performed admirable work in handling the significant staffing problems that resulted from turning the United States military from a small, purely defensive force into one of the world’s leading armed services. After the war, they applied their efforts to translating the testing techniques into helping modernize the personnel policies of the American business community as well as to promote other products. For example, Bingham was used in advertising by the Thomas Edison Company to promote its phonograph machines (see Van Dyke Bingham’s archives at Carnegie Mellon). Although the field itself was still being defined during the 1920s and 1930s, psychologists who were working with industry were held in high esteem and were movers and shakers in many business circles. Bingham’s Personnel Research Federation had labor leader Samuel Gompers as a member; Walter Dill Scott interacted with Herbert Hoover before he became President, studying the issues associated with business cycles. Finally, Beardsley Ruml, an early applied psychologist, was a close confidante of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and an important advisor in shaping the New Deal (see Reagan, 1999). During his academic career, which included a stint at Carnegie Tech, Ruml worked on statistical issues relevant to personnel selection; as a New Deal advisor, Ruml was most famous for proposing the pay-as-you-go payroll tax deductions, which helped stabilize tax collections for the federal government.

Even during our early successes, there was a sense of frustration among many psychologists that our influence was not as great as it should be. Arthur Kornhauser complained in 1930 that “relatively few employers have called upon the psychologist for aid” (Kornhauser, 1930, p. 423). Since our beginning, we have struggled to create awareness among the public about the skills and services that we offer. As noted in Zickar and Gibby (2007), as long as SIOP has been surveying its members, some of the lowest ratings of items are related to “promoting I-O to business.”

There are lots of reasons for our relative obscurity with business and policy makers. Renwick, commented that the “mere mention of the word ‘psychology’ often invokes images of Freud, couches, and psychoanalysis, not to mention sex therapy” (Renwick, 1978, p. 30). We have all had conversations with seat neighbors on airplanes who are excited to talk about Freud and their schizophrenic uncle when they find out what we do. A fuller analysis of the reasons for our relative obscurity would also include our difficulty in distinguishing ourselves from other types of human resource professionals as well as the hucksters who pass themselves off as management gurus. As part of our current branding efforts, we are working on ways to make our field better known to all kinds of constituents, including undergraduates, business people, policy makers, and the general public.

Back to my effort at public relations. The president of our university had ushered President Obama into the back of our basketball arena where she told him some facts about the university, and then I had to wait about 10 minutes to get to the front of the line, with each person in line trying to take advantage of their 30 seconds with the President. When I got to the front of the photo line, I introduced myself to the President as a “professor of industrial-organizational psychology here at the university.” He looked at me and shocked me with his response. He said “Wow, your president told me that you have a really good graduate program in that area.” I was shocked that (a) our university president had used her short amount of time to brag about us, and (b) that the President had encoded the information that she had told him and that he was able to relate what I said to what she said (If I were in his shoes, what went in one ear would have gone immediately out the next!). My time was up and so I cannot vouch that the President even knows what industrial-organizational psychology is, but I can promise you that he has heard the phrase. This is just one small step toward reversing the history of our obscurity!


Kornhauser, A. W. (1930). Industrial psychology in England, Germany, and the United States. Personnel Journal, 8, 421–434.
Reagan, P. D. (1999). Designing a new America: The origins of New Deal planning, 1890–1943. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Renwick, P. A. (1978). A psychologist is a shrink, right? The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 15(4), 30.
Zickar, M. J., & Gibby, R. E. (2007). Four persistent themes throughout the history of I-O psychology in the United States. In L. L. Koppes (ed.), Historical perspectives in industrial and organizational psychology (pp. 61–80). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.