The Autonomy of Applied Psychology
Abstract:The claim that progress in applied psychology depended on previous advances in basic psychological research became part of the discipline's scientific rhetoric in the early years of the twentieth century. In reality, however, one finds very few instances where this was indeed the case. Far more commonly, psychologists engaged in finding solutions to practical problems, for example in advertising, the reliability of testimony, or personnel selection, developed their own approaches and methods that owed little or nothing to the basic research of the time. In due course, the major direction of influence was actually the reverse of that claimed by the standard rhetoric: basic research adopted many methodological innovations pioneered by "applied" psychology, including techniques for the analysis of individual differences and control group methodology. Applied psychology merited its name more by its use of concepts, such as association, that antedated the emergence of scientific psychology than by its reliance on an existing basic science.
This vision of science became extremely popular during the second half of the
nineteenth century and was successfully exploited by research oriented
scientists to mobilize support from social institutions whose priorities were
dictated by strictly utilitarian rather than intellectual considerations (Kevles,
1977; Weingart, 1976).
exemplars for the two-step model were provided by the chemical and electrical
industries, but it was quickly generalized as a general norm of scientific
What the model insisted
on was the necessary priority of basic research.
The application of science to industry was supposed to depend on the
prior discovery of universal laws of nature under controlled laboratory
conditions. Thus, investment in basic research was presented rather like
investment in capital goods - it could be expected to pay handsome dividends in
By the beginning of the
twentieth century it had become part of the generally accepted image of
scientific research that it had two levels, a basic level, and an applied level
which used the products of the basic level in practical contexts.
At this point it began to become apparent to a few psychologists in the Old
World, and rather more in the New World, that something more than the use of
laboratory methods would be needed to ensure psychology's acceptance as a
In the long
run laboratory work might not be more effective than pure speculation in
mobilizing social support, unless the results of such work could be shown to
have practical applications.
Successful scientific disciplines had their basic and their applied sectors.
So far, scientific psychology only had a laboratory sector whose products
lacked any apparent practical utility.
The example of the more established sciences suggested that a layer of
"applied" research would have to be added if modern psychology were to prosper
and to be able to draw on a broader level of social support.
The use of the two-step model of science was widespread among psychologists from
the early years of the twentieth century onwards.
Already in 1904 we find J. McKeen Cattell stating in a public lecture:
A rhetorical reference to the relationship between pure and applied studies in
the natural sciences became virtually obligatory whenever some new venture in
applied psychology had to be justified.
Thus, when the Journal of Educational Psychology
- the first major
American journal in the applied field – was launched in 1910, E. L. Thorndike
states in his lead article:
Just as the science and art of agriculture depend upon chemistry and botany, so
the art of education depends upon physiology and psychology (p.6).
Such analogies were not limited to the
It is the task of psychotechnics to make the methods and results of psychology
serve the demands of practical life, just as in a similar way broad practical
areas of application of the theory of electricity were opened up by
electrotechnics (Moede, 1924).
Hugo Münsterberg, a major pioneer of applied psychology, was a particularly
eloquent advocate of the two-step model for the relationship between pure and
The history of mankind shows that the greatest technical triumphs were always
won through the work of scientists who did not think of the practical
achievements but exclusively of theoretical truth. The work of the engineer has
always followed where the physical truth seeker has blazed the path.
It cannot be otherwise with applied psychology (Münsterberg, 1914, p.342-3).
During the early years of the twentieth century the volume of applied
psychological research gradually grew to the point where it justified the
founding of special publication outlets, the Zeitschrift für angewandte
Now the question arises in what sense the research published in the "applied"
journals really constituted an application of the results of "basic"
general way of putting this question is to ask what exactly was being applied in
The notion of
"application" implies two constituents:
Something, call it X, is brought to bear on something else, call it Y.
There is no mystery about Y. These were practical, real-life problems on
which psychologists felt they could throw some light:
the reliability of testimony in courts of law, the effectiveness of
advertising, fatigue among school children, the comparison of instructional
methods, and above all, the selection of individuals in terms of a variety of
institutional requirements in educational, industrial and military contexts.
But what exactly was it that was being applied ”to” these practical problems?
According to the popular two-tier model of science what ”should” have
been applied were scientific laws previously established in the basic research
laboratories. However, in a systematic review of the relevant journal literature
(Danziger, 1990) I have been able to find virtually no cases where this in fact
On the contrary, traditional laboratory work and psychological investigations
prompted by practical problems usually took entirely different directions.
Take the psychology of memory, for example.
Laboratory work in the tradition of Ebbinghaus and G. E. Müller had been
in existence for almost two decades when "the psychology of testimony" became a
major topic for early applied psychology (Stern, 1904).
Was this new line of work an "application" of the methodology and
generalizations developed as a result of work with nonsense syllables?
Not at all.
in the so-called "applied" problems of memory under real life conditions had to
develop their own very different methodology, using meaningful material, and
they had to answer theoretical questions for which the generalizations based on
classical laboratory work were essentially irrelevant.
Or take another example, the psychology of advertising, which had begun to
develop in America by about 1910.
Empirical studies in this area involved the psychology of judgment (Strong,
Subjects had to make
comparative judgments about the merits of advertising material.
Now, a psychology of judgment, based largely on laboratory studies in
experimental aesthetics, had been in existence for some time before this.
But you will not find those who studied judgment in an advertising
context gratefully applying the achievements of the "pure" psychology of
Aesthetic issues were
irrelevant in obtaining answers to questions of practical effectiveness.
Moreover, the information of interest to the advertising psychologists
and those who commissioned their work had (for economic reasons) to be based on
the overt responses of large numbers of naïve subjects, not on the intensive
analysis of mental processes of judgment in a few sophisticated individuals.
So the psychology of advertising developed into a relatively autonomous
field that owed little or nothing to earlier laboratory science.
Another example that illustrates the same point involves the psychology of
emergence of an applied psychology that served the social task of selecting
individuals in institutional contexts there had existed a so-called individual
psychology (Binet and Henri, 1895).
This psychology was based on the intensive comparative study of certain
individuals in an attempt to arrive at a complex qualitative characterization of
individual style. Binet's study of his two daughters is a good example of this
But the development of
mass psychological testing in educational, military and industrial settings
actually owed very little to this earlier work which had been conducted without
any practical ends in view.
only did the new applied psychology of selection have to develop its own
statistical methodology, but it even had to develop new definitions for
fundamental psychological concepts like intelligence, aptitude and personality.
Typically, when psychologists turned their attention to practical, real-life,
problems during the first four decades of the twentieth century they developed
methods of investigation and modes of conceptualization that were developed
sui generis and that diverged sharply from the then existing laboratory
practice of experimental science.
This was nowhere more apparent than in the vast new field of mental testing, but
it was also the case in other areas.
Where genuine attempts were made to apply some of the methods and
concepts of laboratory psychology to practical problems, disillusionment often
disillusionment set in quite soon, as in the field of experimental
psychopathology, where brass instruments were quickly abandoned for paper and
pencil methods (Popplestone and McPherson, 1984).
Sometimes the disillusionment with methods taken over
from traditional experimental psychology took a little longer to develop, as in
the field of experimental educational psychology, or experimental pedagogics,
but develop it did (Travers, 1983).
By and large, the areas where applied work successfully based itself on
previously existing pure research (e.g. work on sensory acuity or sensorimotor
coordination) constituted only a small part of the entire spectrum of
psychological work in practical contexts.
One could try to rescue the two-step model of "pure" and "applied"
research by arbitrarily limiting the label "applied psychology" to these
atypical areas, but this would leave most psychological research carried out in
practical contexts outside the field of applied psychology.
What we find in such research during the first four decades of the twentieth
century is some persistence of old psychological notions, like associative
memory, that antedated the coming of experimental psychology and owed nothing to
What we do not find is
the application of specific empirical or theoretical generalizations based on
pure research to practical problems outside the laboratory.
Most of the time the relation of "applied" psychology to its "pure" counterpart
did not in the least correspond to the two-step model that had been popularized
by examples from the physical sciences.
The actual relation of "basic" and "applied" psychology was not grounded
in the generalization of natural laws from the laboratory to practical real life
It would have been far
closer to the truth to speak of "practical" rather than "applied" psychology.
But that would have meant dispensing with the very considerable
rhetorical effect conveyed by the term "applied psychology."
For such a term implied (largely without foundation) that psychology
conformed to the two-step model of basic science and its applications that had
been so successfully deployed by representatives of the established and
relatively well funded physical sciences (Potter & Mulkay, 1982).
The term "applied psychology" must be regarded as part of the rather
extensive armamentarium of rhetorical devices (Leary, 1987) that the new
discipline of psychology employed to legitimize its claim to scientific status.
But in the long run talk of "applied psychology" had the effect of hiding much
more than the existence of two parallel and factually independent disciplines of
psychology, one devoted to the pursuit of abstract truth under laboratory
conditions, the other devoted to the solution of practical problems.
If one follows the relationship between these two disciplines into the
period between the two World Wars one finds that it is often the
of that implied by the traditional two-tier model. Increasingly, one finds that
quite fundamental methodological innovations that originated in the area of
so-called applied psychology are imported into the research practice of
A notable example is the use of control groups which was completely unknown in
experimental psychology prior to the nineteen twenties, and which only became
common in laboratory practice during the next two decades (Boring, 1954).
However, the use of control groups in psychological research originated
in the practical context of research in schools during the early years of this
Parallel grades of school
children began to be used at the time to compare the effects of different
conditions of instruction on such variables as mental fatigue and memory
transfer (Winch, 1908; 1911).
after the use of control groups had become accepted in the "applied" field of
educational psychology did their advantages begin to be appreciated in the
context of "pure" laboratory research Danziger, 1990).
Another example of a fundamental methodological innovation that was pioneered in
practical contexts was the use of individual differences in performance measures
for the investigation of intelligence and personality.
The methods employed in theoretically motivated research on cognitive
processes were clearly irrelevant for the solution of practical problems.
They were the introspective methods pioneered by the
A similar state of affairs prevailed in the field of personality research. At
the end of World War I theoretically motivated personality research was
area of "pure" research only emerged gradually during the nineteen twenties and
thirties as a result of the increasing availability of techniques of
investigation that had been initially developed for the solution of practical
More specifically, these
were the techniques of projective testing, developed in the context of clinical
diagnosis, and personality ratings, initially developed for purposes of
personnel selection in both civilian and military contexts (Parker, 1986).
Expressive methods had a similar practical background (Geuter, 1984). The entire
area of "personality" as a recognized field of psychological investigation owes
its existence to the need to provide a theoretical foundation for work that had
flourished as a result of widespread attempts to give practical answers to
practical problems (Cohen, 1983).
What conclusions can be drawn from this brief review of early historical trends?
Undoubtedly, one can detect lines of influence between "basic" and
"applied" psychology in both directions.
However, these influences were not symmetrical. Generally, the influences
emanating from the established "basic" psychology were relatively specific in
character and of limited application.
They included such things as specific techniques of measurement and the
utilization of specific findings in limited areas like sensory discrimination.
By contrast, the influences in the reverse direction often involved a
fundamental methodological re-orientation that resulted in widespread changes in
In other words,
the relationship between "applied" and "basic" psychology came close to being
the reverse of that suggested by the two-step model borrowed from late
nineteenth century natural science.
Having arrived at this conclusion, it must be emphasized that it is not
applicable to the whole of psychology at all times and in all countries.
First of all, there were always large areas of both "basic" and "applied"
psychology where there was no detectable influence in either direction.
To a significant degree, both divisions of psychology remained
autonomous. Secondly, the susceptibility of "basic" psychology to methodological
innovations originating in "applied" psychology was more marked in the
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