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History of Psychology Centre

Beginnings in occupational psychology: The National Institute of Industrial Psychology

28 April 2021 | by History of Psychology Centre

This year we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the formation of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP).

The NIIP was a non-profit organisation which pioneered investigations in industrial psychology (later known as occupational psychology), personnel selection tests and vocational guidance. Through these activities, the NIIP would shape the trajectory of occupational psychology in Britain with lasting effects.

The NIIP was founded by the then Director of the Cambridge Psychological Laboratory and first president of the BPS, Charles Myers (1873-1946), after first becoming aware of industrial psychology during the First World War.[1]

It formally incorporated on 11 February 1921, coinciding with Myers’ first book on industrial psychology ‘Mind and work’ (1921). He was appointed the institutes first Director.

The NIIP’s aim was:

“To promote by systematic scientific methods a more effective application of human energy in occupational life… and a higher standard of comfort and welfare for the workers.”

They wanted to increase efficiency and output in the workplace, but also to create a better work environment and quality of life.

Their focus on the humanity of the worker was further emphasised in that the NIIP’s journal of occupational psychology was called the “Human Factor” from 1932-1937. The journal was later taken over by the BPS in 1975 and is now called the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

After a difficult start, where the Institute initially struggled for recognition and wider support, the NIIP soon proved that factories could increase general output by improving workers’ environment. With this, and the fact that they were the only organisation offering these insights at the time, the NIIP grew considerably during the 1920s.

Some of the NIIP’s first investigations were in trying to improve conditions, and subsequently outputs, in UK sweet factories. NIIP staff suggested simple changes to improve working conditions of factory employees (improved lighting, simpler working methods, adequate training provided etc.), resulting in greater employee satisfaction and higher levels of output. [2]

The NIIP carried out many interestingly titled studies over the years, with one of our favourites being ‘The use of gruesome and humorous propaganda for accident prevention’ (1936). [3]

The NIIP was known as the training ground for early occupational psychologists, including influential BPS members. David Duncan (1926-2009) was a BPS Fellow and played a leading part in the emergence of the BPS Division of Occupational Psychology, whilst also working with the NIIP from 1953. Duncan would later say that anyone who left the NIIP after five years would be able to get a good job elsewhere due to the value of the training provided. Four past BPS Presidents also had strong links to the NIIP.

 Mary B. Stott, T.H. Pear, David C. Duncan, John D. Handyside, Pat McDonell, Isabel Blain, David Cox, John Crowther, Bret Harding and Stan Thorley.

Soon after it started, the NIIP became the first body in England to research psychological test construction. To begin with, only NIIP staff were allowed to carry out these tests. As time went on, the increase in demand from education and industry meant that they started suppling tests to external psychologists and teachers, with the NIIP providing classes on how to use them. [4]

Throughout its history the NIIP researched tests for specific occupations beginning with testing abilities in clerical work, engineering, shorthand typing, and aptitude tests including general intelligence, space perception, mechanical aptitude. [5]

 'Big Timothy' mechanical aptitude test, 1900-1970 and the Dressmaker's aptitude test, 1921-1939 (mages curtesy of the Science Museum Group Collection)

When the Second World War struck, the British Armed Forces needed a way to quickly and efficiently select individuals for recruitment. The NIIP’s experience in personnel selection proved exactly what the armed forces were looking for. However, the NIIP had to completely rethink their methodology.

They had previously been used to testing one at a time but the critical situation needed a more rapid approach. Their solution was to develop a test battery which could be used on a group of people, rather than an individual. Due to being able to test hundreds of people at a time, pencil and paper tests became the most popular method.

Because of this invaluable contribution, it was decided that the employment of psychologists in the armed forces would continue after the war. This meant that many NIIP staff would choose to stay with the armed forces rather than returning to the Institute.

The NIIP began to expand rapidly in the mid-1960s, following support from the Ministry of Technology. The withdrawal of this funding from the end of the decade, however, contributed to the acute problems facing the organisation by the middle of the 1970s. Due to the growing number of competitors, the withdrawal of Government funds and budgeting issues around research, the NIIP suspended its operations in August 1973 and finally closed in 1977. [6]

It’s clear the NIIP played a major part in the development of occupational psychology during the 20th century. They contributed significantly to the war effort and popularised industrial investigations to improve output and working environments. Many of its former staff went on to hold a variety of senior appointments in industry, commercial consultancy and the academic world, spreading the best of its principles and practice to users and students long after its closure. [7]

We at the BPS History of Psychology Centre (HOPC) are hoping to further celebrate the history of occupational psychology at this year’s Stories of Psychology event on 11 November 2021.

Watch this space!


References

  1. Myers, C.S. ‘Autobiography’ in: Blain, I. (editor) Occupational Psychology Vol.44 1970.
  2. C.B. Frisby, ‘The development of industrial psychology at the NIIP’ in: Blain, I. (editor) Occupational Psychology Vol.44 1970.
  3. NIIP, ‘Some publications of the NIIP and its staff’ in: Blain, I. (editor) Occupational Psychology Vol.44 1970.
  4. Vincent, D.F. ‘Problems of test production and supply’ in: Blain, I. (editor) Occupational Psychology Vol.44 1970.
  5. Ibid.
  6. https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/search/archives/7b22d9f0-7767-3731-bab6-c975b58906e4
  7. Ibid.

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