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The Beginnings of Industrial Psychology: The Life and Work of Morris Viteles

Maura J. Mills1
Hofstra University

Among the early pioneers of the industrial psychology movement in the United States was Morris Viteles, born in Russia on March 21, 1898. In the months following his birth, his family emigrated to England, and later to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Vinchur & Koppes, 2007; Viteles, 1967). Although Viteles’ parents lacked any formal higher education, his own intellectual capacity was realized at an early age, and bypassing two grade levels, he graduated high school at age 16.

Viteles entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1915 and although he majored in history, he credited much of his later interest in industrial psychology to his historical studies of work and labor organizations (Viteles, 1967). Viteles earned his bachelor’s degree in history in 1918 and continued on at the university, this time within the psychology department. Under the guidance of Lightner Witmer, whom he credits with fueling his love of industrial psychology (Viteles, 1967, 1974), he earned his master’s in 1919, and his PhD in 1921, at the age of 23 (Vinchur & Koppes, 2007; Viteles, 1967). He immediately enlisted with the Student Army Training Corps, perhaps the best option for his professional career because of its flexibility and orientation toward the needs of the student enlistee; he was permitted to continue with his studies (Viteles, 1967, 1974).

The university’s psychology department was largely experimental and also emphasized individual differences, which further spurred Viteles’ interest in industrial psychology, as did the department’s focus on the individual as a whole. Witmer, who has been hailed as the father of clinical psychology, taught from a clinical orientation. Viteles (1967) maintained that this orientation served to further his interest regarding individuals within organizations and helped him realize “the exciting appeal of industrial psychology” (Viteles, 1974, p. 449).
Outside of the university, Viteles credits three events with influencing his decision to practice industrial psychology. Before delving into these events, however, it is worthwhile to note that these opportunities, combined with Viteles’ academic experience, were the cornerstone of his emphatic belief in the scientist–practitioner approach to psychology (Vinchur & Koppes, 2007; Viteles, 1967, 1974). Viteles felt as though the field of psychology often seemed unsure as to whether it should be primarily research or action, calling this seeming ambiguity “a crisis of identity in psychology” (Viteles, 1974). Through his involvement in both the academic and industrial circles, Viteles exemplified what would later come to be known as the scientist–practitioner model, long before such a concept was widely endorsed (Thompson, 1997; Viteles, 1974).

The first of these three field opportunities was in 1919 with the Federal Bureau of Vocational Rehabilitation, and the second came in the form of participation in a study group on vocational guidance (Viteles, 1967). Together, these two experiences led Viteles to found the Vocational Guidance Clinic in 1921 (Thompson, 1997). Viteles continued as director of the clinic until the late 1950s, although his interest in the field began to wane in the late 1930s, in favor of industrial psychology (Viteles, 1974). The third of these opportunities was a 1920 research project that Viteles conducted for the Naval Aircraft Factory at the United States naval shipyard in Philadelphia (Viteles, 1967).

Also in 1920, Viteles received his first job offer as a paid consultant. The Milwaukee Electric Railway and Light Company hired Viteles to develop and validate a selection instrument for streetcar motormen, which would later be known as the Viteles Motorman Selection Test and used for many years to come (Viteles, 1974). It was also at this job that Viteles conducted pioneering job analysis work in developing his job psychograph method (Viteles, 1923), which would also be widely used (Vinchur & Koppes, 2007; Viteles, 1974). These events marked the beginning of the decade from 1923–1934 that Viteles (1967) recalled as the most productive of his career. Beyond the job psychograph, Viteles credits his work with the Milwaukee Electric Railway with broadening his awareness about industrial psychology and exposing him to its many aspects. However, he claims that this foray into industry also caused him to realize the importance of simultaneously maintaining a strong foothold in academia so that he could continue in his pursuit of research and contribution to the literature.

After these first experiences in industry and after earning his PhD, Viteles was awarded an American Field Service Fellowship to study in Europe for the year 1922–1923, thereby supporting his effort to learn about industrial psychology in different nations and cultures (Viteles, 1967, 1974). Of course, this was a particularly exciting time for the industrial psychologist, as work in the field was progressing at a relatively rapid rate, having been driven in part by World War I (Koppes & Pickren, 2007).

Upon his return from Europe, Viteles returned to teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. However, it was Viteles’ commitment to industry that began to flourish at this time, and in 1924 he began working with the Yellow Cab Company of Philadelphia (Thompson, 1997; Viteles, 1967). Most of Viteles’ work for the company centered around selection, but it also allowed him to venture into other areas such as those of accident prevention and even labor relations. In 1927, however, Viteles took a hiatus from the Yellow Cab Company, a leave ironically spurred by “dissatisfaction with the atmosphere created by the management of the organization” during a merger (Viteles, 1967, p. 429). Viteles’ major industrial commitment throughout his career was for the Philadelphia Electric Company, having begun work with them in 1927 and retiring in 1964. During his nearly 40 years with the organization, Viteles developed and validated most of the selection tests used by the company, in addition to having developed, administered, and evaluated intensive training programs for a variety of jobs within the company (Viteles, 1974).

Throughout this time Viteles was not only working in both industry and academia but was also authoring several publications that would become seminal in the fields of vocational guidance and industrial psychology. He wrote multiple vocational guidance books, the most notable of which was Vocational Guidance Throughout the World (1938), which he coauthored with Franklin Keller. However, his interest in vocational guidance gradually decreased beginning in the mid-1930s, at which time his research and publication turned more toward the area of industrial psychology.

This redirection of interests may have been spurred by a series of literature reviews commissioned by the editor of Psychological Bulletin (Viteles, 1926, 1928, 1930). These reviews brought much-deserved recognition to both the wide scope of industrial psychology and also to Viteles himself, and they led to the publication of the work for which Viteles is most well known, his textbook Industrial Psychology2 (1932). Beginning almost immediately after its publication and continuing for some time, Viteles’ text was considered to be the new bible in the field of industrial psychology (Vinchur & Koppes, 2007; Viteles, 1967, 1974), explicitly discussing important issues that had been neglected by previous texts (Day & Zaccaro, 2007). For instance, he covered leadership, dissected training, and thoroughly highlighted the zeitgeist into which industrial psychology had emerged, including social and economic issues, which led in part to the concern with efficiency (Viteles, 1932).

Nevertheless, Viteles makes explicit in the text that he considered industrial psychology to have an equal responsibility toward the well-being and betterment of workers as it does toward efficiency. This outlook is reinforced by Viteles’ later interest in humanistic psychological principles and their potential industrial applications.

During 1934–1935 Viteles was awarded a Social Science Research Council Fellowship for study in the USSR (Viteles, 1967, 1974), and as a result he took a year of leave to conduct research overseas. Viteles claimed that he gained a lot from his time in the USSR, as the research there focused less exclusively on selection and also heavily intertwined social and political matters with industrial life: As he put it, he was engrossed in a great opportunity to witness a “great social experiment at first hand” (Viteles, 1974, p. 477). During this time, Viteles also became aware of the widespread international appeal of his textbook Industrial Psychology (1932). While in the USSR he was asked to partake in the writing of a Russian translation of the text but declined once he realized that the deal mandated that he would have to substantially rewrite the two chapters dealing with individual differences in order to make them more consistent with Communist principles (Viteles, 1967, 1974). Nevertheless, Viteles greatly valued his experiences not only in the USSR but also those during his earlier research in Europe. In fact, Vinchur and Koppes (2007) call Viteles “a pioneer in internationalizing I-O psychology” (p. 49), and it is true that he did work to bridge the gaps not only between the various aspects of psychology (e.g., from clinical to statistical to applied) but also between various cultures and nations’ approaches to the field (Viteles, 1967).

Upon returning to the United States, Viteles resumed work at all three of his previous commitments: the Yellow Cab Company, the Philadelphia Electric Company, and the University of Pennsylvania. Furthermore, beginning in 1940, Viteles became involved in numerous military projects that lasted through World War II (Viteles, 1967). During this time he consulted for various branches of the United States military through the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) and the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). While working for the NDRC, Viteles developed and validated a test battery and prepared test manuals for selection of underwater sonar operators. His work with the OSRD was more varied, and in collaboration with the university, he worked for the Army on selection and job classification projects (Viteles, 1967). He also ventured once again into training, developing training for gunners, battery operators, and engineering personnel. In addition, he improved procedures for promoting and assigning naval shipmen to their respective posts. Nevertheless, Viteles’ most enduring military affiliation was with the National Research Council Committee on Aviation Psychology, for which he worked on developing measures of flight performance in addition to dealing with issues of selection, training, and accident prevention (Thompson, 1997; Viteles, 1967).

In later years, Viteles recalled his years working for the military with pride, having felt as though he was able to make a contribution to his country through his profession. Upon the end of his service, Viteles went through what he referred to as a “return to normalcy” (1967, p. 441): He resumed his full-time commitments in academia and practice and was finally able to begin the revision of Industrial Psychology. In this, he felt the need to add an additional chapter addressing the topic of motivation, which was an issue of increasing interest at that time. However, in the process of researching for the book, Viteles realized the extent of the topic and abandoned the text revision in favor of authoring a new book, Motivation and Morale in Industry (1953). The resulting text was the first comprehensive and self-contained evaluative publication regarding work motivation, and for 3 decades it remained the authoritative book on the subject (Latham & Budworth, 2007). This text was also Viteles’ first foray into the organizational side of industrial-organizational psychology, which he had avoided for much of his career (Vinchur & Koppes, 2007; Viteles, 1974).

As Viteles said, he also possessed a “deep interest in the interaction between science and the humanities and the role of humanistic education in a developing industrial civilization” (1967, p. 443). Viteles attributed his keen interest in a humanitarian focus in part to his work with the Bell Telephone Company in the early 1950s (Viteles, 1967, 1974). Hired to consult regarding the increasing problem of employee boredom, he rectified the issue through job enlargement techniques and increased employee involvement and investment in their work. He was also involved in Bell’s Management Coordination Program, through which he further involved employees in management decision making, in addition to offering Bell executives and other managerial personnel a humanistic education through collaboration with the university (Viteles, 1959).

Viteles saw this educational opportunity for Bell executives as a chance to supplement traditional education. As he stated, “a common and justifiable criticism of higher education is that increases in knowledge are not accompanied by a commensurable increase in wisdom,” expanding that “progress toward wisdom is not, however, solely a function of subject matter but relates perhaps even more to the spirit and aims of teaching” (1974, p. 465). In statements such as these, Viteles’ propensity toward favoring a holistic approach to teaching is evident.

It is in statements such as these that we can bear witness to Viteles’ progressive thinking. His humanistic viewpoint is further evident in statements such as the opening sentence in his 1941 article: “One basic test of any civilization is the extent to which it improves material conditions of those who live under it” (p. 156). Likewise, he maintained that humanity should be evident throughout the practice of industrial psychology, with practitioners always recalling the human aspect of their jobs. As he put it, industrial psychology should always be concerned with “making the most effective use of the human element in industry” (1941, p. 156) while simultaneously not neglecting the humanity inherent in those “human element(s).”

Viteles retired from the University of Pennsylvania in 1968, at the age of 70 and after a half century of service (University of Pennsylvania, 1996; Viteles, 1967). Also in 1968, Viteles resigned his presidency of the International Association of Applied Psychology (IAAP), a capacity in which he had served  since 1958 (Vinchur & Koppes, 2007; Viteles, 1967). In these later years of his life, Viteles enjoyed focusing on his writing and was finally able to accomplish the publication of an updated edition of Industrial Psychology. He was also asked to write two autobiographical essays of his life and work, which were published in 1967 and 1974 respectively.

Shortly following his retirement, Viteles received a variety of accolades, including an honorary LLD from the University of Pennsylvania (Thompson, 1997), the Psychology Professional Gold Medal Award from the American Psychological Association, and honorary membership in various European psychological associations. Viteles lived the remainder of his life with his wife Rebecca, and died at the age of 98 on December 7, 1996 (Thompson, 1997; Vinchur & Koppes, 2007). Indeed it was a somber day for the field of industrial psychology, given his extensive impact in the field as well as his exemplification of the scientist–practitioner model.

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1 Comments regarding this article can be sent to Maura Mills, PhD, at Maura.Mills@hofstra.edu.

2 Viteles also published a condensed and less popular version of this text, entitled The Science of Work (1934).