I-O Psychology: From Early Origins to Current Trends

What is I-O psychology?

Industrial-organizational psychologists research and apply principles of psychology to the world of work. Their mission is to identify and apply techniques that benefit not only employers, but also employees. In general, the more efficient an organization is (be it a for-profit corporation, non-profit agency, or government entity) the more all stakeholders benefit. For more about what I-O psychologists do click here.

Where did industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology come from?

We hope that you’ve at least heard of I-O psychology, but if not, here’s a very brief account of its beginnings. I-O is a relatively new area of specialization within the science of psychology. Many consider Harvard Professor Hugo Munsterberg to be one of the founders of I-O. He began applying psychological principles to the world of work in the early 1900s. For instance, Munsterberg developed a lab based simulation of the controls of trolley cars (he used psychological science to screen out trolley operator applicants to who were at high risk for accidents).

During World War I (WWI) Robert Yerkes (who trained at Harvard under Munsterberg), convinced the US government that psychologists could help with the war effort. Yerkes and a group of associates, worked on the selection and placement of US military personnel. As part of the project, Yerkes and his colleagues developed the Army Alpha and Army Beta mental ability tests, both of which were paper and pencil instruments. Both tests could be administered in group settings, which helped streamline the testing program. Efforts by the Yerkes group helped demonstrate the value of industrial psychology.

During World War II (WWII) Yerkes, Walter Bingham, and Walter Dill Scott were called back by the military to perform functions similar to those they did during the previous war. Organizational psychology also proved its worth in the war effort through work on topics like organizational dynamics and morale. Fortunately, much of the work Yerkes and colleagues developed during WWII was continued through the establishment of several military research laboratories. As a result of the contributions psychology made during the war some private companies, like Standard Oil and General Electric, became interested in how they could benefit from I-O psychology. This work represents just a small piece of I-O history. For a more thorough account, see Koppes (2017).

Current trends in I-O psychology.

Now that you know about I-O psychology’s history and mission, perhaps you’re curious to learn more about current trends in the field. Luckily, The Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology (SIOP), the largest professional organization of I-O psychologists in the US, polls its members and puts out a list of the top 10 trends relevant to organizations each year. Here are the top 10 trends for 2016, based on responses from 7,000 I-Os:

  1. Using Social Media to Make Employment-Related Decisions. Companies have been increasingly using social media, like Facebook and LinkedIn, to recruit potential employees and even make hiring and firing decisions based on content in profiles. I-Os can help organizations use social media to make better-informed and lawful decisions.
  1. Building Healthy, Diverse Workforces. I-Os will help organizations value diversity, build diverse teams, and train employees to be more aware of issues related to diversity in the workplace.
  1. WorkLife Balance across Generations. As the boundaries between work and home continue to be blurred as a result of technology, I-Os will need to help organizations support individuals from different generations maintain work-life balance, despite different preferences for staying connected, working from home, and flexible scheduling.
  1. Increased Focus on Business Agility and Flexibility in Work and Business Processes. With ever changing market demands and customer needs, I-Os can be valuable by showing organizations how to be innovative and quickly adapt to the evolving landscape.
  1. Increasing Focus on Health and Wellness in the Workplace. Research shows that healthy employees are more productive at work. I-Os will continue to play a role in advising organizations on which health and wellness policies and programs to adopt, while also providing guidance on how to motivate employees to take advantage of such opportunities.
  1. Employee Engagement. Research shows employees who are “engaged” in their jobs (versus just kind of present) tend to contribute more to the organizations that employ them. For example they are more likely to go above and beyond their assigned duties, roles, and responsibilities.
  1. Changing Nature of Performance Management and Development. More and more organizations are changing the way they approach managing and evaluating employee performance. They are also increasingly recognizing the importance of helping employees advance their knowledge and skills, benefiting both the workers themselves and the organization.
  1. Managing Virtual Teams. Issues concerning how to manage work teams whose members work from their homes or other locations has become increasingly important in recent years. The questions of how organizations can best help their employees manage themselves and maintain high levels of productivity in the virtual workplace are being currently being addressed by I-O psychologists.
  1. Trends in How Technology Will Change the Way Work Is Done. Organizations are becoming increasingly reliant on technology and automation that will likely change or eliminate jobs. What will the consequences be for organizations, in terms of how many employees they will need, and what kinds of skills those individuals will need? I-O psychologists are working with organizations to help decrease the uncertainty and anticipate and lessen the impact that technology and automation will have on various kinds of organizations.

So what’s the #1 trend in I-O Psychology today?

Making Optimal Use of Big Data to Make Better Decisions. This topic has become very popular within I-O psychology in recent years. I-O psychologists can help organizations understand what valuable information can be gleaned from big data sets. With new advances in technology, organizations are collecting a lot of information that can help them understand their customers, competitors, and employees. I-Os can assist organizations with understanding what questions to ask, the proper ways to analyze big data sets, how to interpret results, and how to employ interpretations to best inform important business decisions.

About the Author

Gary is an associate professor of psychology at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. He earned a BA in psychology at the University of New Mexico, and an MA in clinical psychology at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. After holding positions of increasing responsibility at several psychiatric facilities, Gary returned to graduate school and earned a PhD in industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology at Auburn University. His current research interests are the influence of body alterations on employee selection, work attitudes of Millennials, and the depiction of therapeutic relationships in feature films.
  • Paul Thoresen

    Nice short intro to Industrial Psych.
    Curious why you used last year’s trends instead of the most recent?

    • amacchi

      Hi Paul, thanks for your question. SIOP had started working on this piece before the new list was announced. They plan to write something about the 2017 list in the future!