Home Home | About Us | Sitemap | Contact  
  • Info For
  • Professionals
  • Students
  • Educators
  • Media
  • Search
    Powered By Google

A Brief History on the Tension Between the Science and Applied Sides of I-O Psychology

Michael J. Zickar
Bowling Green State University

In the past couple of issues of TIP, Silzer and colleagues (e.g., Silzer & Cober, 2011; Silzer & Parson, 2011) asserted that there is an increasing divide between scientists and practitioners in recent years. They propose a series of steps that SIOP can do to address this gap. When I read their columns, I found them interesting and provocative, and they reminded me of earlier work that I have done on the history of this science–practice gap (see Zickar & Gibby, 2006). In this column, I document that this gap between science and practice has been with the field for nearly as long as the field has existed, and I argue that this tension can be constructive and useful, even if at times uncomfortable.

History of Basic and Applied Researchers

I have heard people claim that the tension between practitioners and academicians is unique to the field of industrial-organizational psychology. The basic summary of the tension is that the practice side is more concerned with the development of tools designed to solve immediate organizational problems, whereas the academic side is focused on theoretical concerns that might or might not have direct relevance to organizations (one side is more concerned with making money whereas the other side only cares about publications) and that neither side listens to each other. This “exceptionalist” view of I-O psychology being the only field that experiences such tensions is flatly wrong because this tension between the science and practice side occurs in nearly every scientific discipline. Belli (2010) documents the research–practitioner gap in a variety of fields such as education, statistics, and supply chain management. She concludes depressingly, “although issues about the research and practice disconnect have been prevalent in various disciplines for many years, suggestions about how to narrow the gap have not proved successful.” Shepherd (1961) investigated the differences in attitudes between scientists (basic researchers) and engineers (applied researchers) and found significant differences on a variety of dimensions of goal orientation, such that scientists were more interested in developing a “good research idea” whereas engineers were more motivated to “develop equipment.” A more complete review of the practice–science gap should be conducted, but I mention this just to assert that the tensions that we experience within I-O psychology are not unique to us. This tension seems endemic to any discipline that aims to develop both practical and theoretical knowledge.

History of Science–Practice Tension Within Psychology

Initially, before there were psychologists who worked exclusively in industry, the divide was between academic psychologists who believed it important to use experimental findings to solve problems outside of the laboratory, whether it was in an organization or resolving a longstanding social problem, and those who did not. Early applied psychologists, such as Hugo Münsterberg and Walter Dill Scott, had to convince their own lab-oriented colleagues that applying psychological theories, techniques, and results to organizations was an important enterprise. In addition, they had to convince business people and organizational leaders that their work was important and relevant. In short, these early applied psychologists had to convince their own colleagues and their external constituencies that what they aimed to do was important.

The work that was done during WWI to apply psychological principles to personnel-related problems helped create interest in applied psychology among businesses. Before the war, the U.S. military was a small force with little preparedness. With the late entry into the war, the military needed to expand its organization exponentially, making sure that people who were assigned to new roles had the aptitude and skills needed to be successful in their positions. After the war, businesses became more interested in these techniques as psychologists started marketing their services to industry. The market for applied psychology had suddenly expanded.

As psychologists became increasingly interested in applying their techniques outside the laboratory, they faced some pushback from advocates of a pure, experimentalist-based psychology. E.G. Boring of Harvard University was one of the strongest advocates of a pure scientific psychology. He was a disciple of Titchener who, himself, was important for bringing the German experimentalist methods to the U.S. Titchener was quoted as characterizing applied psychology as “the bankruptcy of common-sense psychologizing” (see O’Donnell, 1979). Upon Titchenor’s death, Boring wrote a colleague, “Psychology without Titchner will bob up and down as it’s been doing. You think of all that applied stuff and groan. I am beautifully free of that here; the department would not stand for it” (quoted in O’Donnell, 1979). This tension between applied psychologists and their basic colleagues, captured in Boring’s quote, remains with us today. In fact, many of our country’s elite universities have eliminated industrial-organizational psychology from their psychology departments to focus on basic (and more fundable) research. Highhouse and Zickar (1997) lamented that industrial-organizational psychology has become more distant from its core within psychology. This tension between applied psychology and basic psychology, present at the beginning of field, is still present.

Tension Between Psychology and the Business Community

The tension between the demands of the slow, cautious nature of science and the quick, results-oriented focus of the business community has been another tension that has been present from the start of applied psychology. Robert Hoxie, an economist who was evaluating early scientific management programs, lamented: “management usually wants to see quicker returns than can be secured by the slow process of systematic and thoroughgoing reorganization and the expert is usually forced to yield to the demand for immediate results that can be measured in cash terms” (Hoxie, 1915, p. 29). Beardsly Ruml, a practitioner with the Scott Company and steward of some of the Rockefeller social science foundations, complained about psychologists’ ignorance of the “values of industry” (see Zickar & Gibby, 2006). The slow pace of psychologists’ scientific work has been a constant complaint by business people and is a common refrain heard by any of us academics who have worked on consulting projects. I would argue, however, that this tension has been a positive one because it has led us to try to quantify the cost–benefit utility of the systems that we propose. In addition, I-O psychologists have exerted positive pressure on the business world, acting at times as a “reality check” on the overly optimistic (and sometimes blatantly deceptive) claims that private industry likes to market. I uncovered a correspondence between Walter vandyke Bingham and a intelligence test developer who wanted Bingham’s endorsement of his new product. Bingham questioned the claims that the test developer was making and asked for the validity evidence. The test developer responded that the evidence Bingham was asking for took too much effort and time (see Zickar & Gibby, 2006). In this case, getting a businessman to think more rigorously about evaluating and validating his claims served an important function. This need to provide substance to overhyped business claims is a recurring theme in the history of the interface between psychology and business; the Burros Mental Measurement Yearbook Index is just another example of the need for critical evaluation of business claims. This tension between applied researchers and basic researchers has also helped improve basic research. Several people have claimed that practitioners’ complaints about the irrelevance of most performance appraisal research in the 1970s and 1980s helped improve the rigor and meaningfulness of that research.


Our field has been guided by the ideal of the scientist–practitioner model, originally formed in clinical psychology. This model posits that we should all aim to be excellent at both science and practice. Although there are excellent people who fit that prototype, I like to think of science and practice as two ends of the continuum. People within the field fit somewhere on the continuum, with some of us more on the science side and others more on the practice side. The history of applied psychology shows that the tensions within the field that are currently being experienced are ones that have been felt even since our field’s inception. I would argue that this tension makes us all stronger. It challenges those of us who are academics to make our work more practical and aware of the practical realities of organizational life, and this tension urges practitioners to take a longer view and subject to scrutiny. And as I pointed out earlier, these tensions that exist within our field are not unique to our field; they are present in nearly all sciences that have the potential for application.

Belli, G. (2010, July). Bridging the researcher–scientist gap: Views from different fields. In C. Reading (Ed.), Data and context in statistics education: Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Teaching Statistics. Ljubljana, Slovenia.

Highhouse, S., & Zickar, M. J. (1997). Where has all the psychology gone? The Industrial Psychologist, 35(2), 82–88.

Hoxie, R. F. (1915). Scientific management and labor. New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company.

O’Donnell, J. M. (1979). The crisis of experimentalism in the 1920s: E.G. Boring and his uses of history. American Psychologist, 34, 289–295.

Shepherd, C. R. (1961). Orientations of scientists and engineers. The Pacific Sociological Review, 4, 79–83.

Silzer, R., & Cober, R. (2011). Practice perspectives: Shaping the future of industrial-organizational psychology practice. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 49(1), 81–88.

Silzer, R., & Parsons, C. (2011). Practice perspectives: SIOP and representation. The Industrial-Organizational Psychologist, 49(2), 85–96.

Zickar, M. J., & Gibby, R. E. (2006). 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.