I-O Psychology in Europe and the UK

This article is about the history of work and organizational (W/O) psychology, as it is called in Europe; it is also known as industrial-organizational psychology ( (I-OPsychology) in the United States. To correctly interpret this historical account of W/O psychology in Europe, it should be taken into account that our discipline had and has different names, depending on the authors and countries. For example, the following names were used as synonyms: industrial psychology, occupational psychology, personnel psychology, work psychology, organizational psychology, psychotechnics, employment psychology, ergology, and even applied psychology. This article offers a chronological summary of the European milestones in the creation and consolidation of W/O psychology as a scientific discipline. In this sense I will arbitrarily divide the history into three periods: 1900 to 1945, 1946 to 1980, and from 1981 to the present.

The Early Years and The Development Of Psychotechnics: 1900-1945

It is frequently stated that the German psychologist Hugo Munsterberg is the founding father of industrial, work, and organizational psychology. In effect, Munsterberg’s studies on the selection of drivers and his program for industrial psychology and psychotechnics were first described by him in 1910 and 1911 when he lectured as an exchange professor at the University of Berlin. In 1912 Munsterberg published a book in Leipzig, Germany, titled Psychologie und Wirtschaftsleben: Ein Beitrag zur angewabdten Experimental Psychologie, which was subsequently translated into English with the title of Psychology and Industrial Efficiency and first published in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1913. His points of view were subsequently developed in his book Grundzuge derpsychotechnik, which appeared in 1914. However, the work by William Stern on individual differences formed the basis of the main ideas of Munsterberg’s industrial psychology. Furthermore, in several European countries some years before Munsterberg began his experiments on personnel selection, researchers had begun to conduct personnel examinations. For example, beginning in 1901 the psychologist Ugo Pizzoli carried out professional examinations of the apprentices in Modena, Italy. In France between 1905 and 1908, Jean Marie Lahy gave the first steps toward producing a job analysis method and carried out preliminary experiments on the selection of streetcar operators. Studies on work fatigue, work curves, professional work, aptitude for working, and training were done by a variety of researchers. In 1907 the Zeitschrift fur angewandte Psychologie, edited by Otto Lipmann and William Stern, appeared in Germany; it was the first journal in the world devoted to the applications of psychology, among them, the application of the knowledge of work problems. Stern was also the creator of the term psychotechnics. In summary, a complete program for work and organizational psychology has been operating in many European countries since 1907.

Regarding the use of psychological procedures for examining men, Jean Marie Lahy began to use cognitive tests for selecting drivers in France in 1908; Walter Moede, Curt Piorkowski, Otto Lipmann, and William Stern used similar tests in Germany beginning in 1914; Agostino Gemelli used psychological measures for selecting military pilots during World War I (the European War) in Italy; Emilio Mira used attention and perceptual tests for selecting drivers in Spain starting in 1918; and Cyril Burt and the members of the National Institute of Industrial Psychology (e.g., Winefried Spielrein, G. Miles) and the members of the National Board of Health (e.g., Eric Farmer) began developing and using many cognitive tests in the United Kingdom in 1914. Examples from other European countries could be cited. A consequence of this popularity was that many criterion validity studies were carried out during the first half of the 20th century in European countries, and they were largely used in civil and military contexts.

In 1920 the first international congress of psychotechnics was held in Geneva, Switzerland, under Eduard Claparede’s presidency. Claparede was also the first president of the International Association of Psychotechnics founded this same year. Later, in 1952, the association was renamed the International Association of Applied Psychology. In this early period psychotechnics was primarily associated with the use of apparatus tests for the purpose of the assessment of individual characteristics. In the early 1920s various European companies started selling psychotechnical testing equipment, while leading psychotechnicians tended to construct their own devices based on their own ideas regarding the psychological requirements of various vocations and the most suitable instruments for measuring them. The use of this sophisticated equipment contributed significantly to the reputation of psychotechnics as a solid and scientific enterprise. In the early years of psychotechnics, the most well-known psychotechnicians considered their primary task to be the development of instruments that would enable them to assess vocational aptitude as precisely as possible.

A good example of the advances in psychotechnics is the proposal by the German applied psychologist Otto Lipmann, who suggested in 1922 that occupations varied according to their cognitive demands and provided a scheme for classifying jobs. Lipmann’s proposal was popular in Europe during the 1920s and was well-known by the American industrial psychologists of that age. According to Lipmann, occupations differ not solely in the mental functions they require but also in the different intensity with which specific mental functions are used. Therefore, Lipmann suggested that occupations be classified based on the nature of the object on which the work is done; and consequently, occupations could be distinguished into three groups depending on whether the action is applied to things, people, or concepts (ideas). Examples of occupations based on things could be carpentry or watchmaking. Professions involving people could be medicine or law. Finally, occupations involving concepts could be philosophy or mathematics. The Spanish psychologist Mira expanded on this classification by incorporating the relation between these dimensions and cognitive abilities. Thus, according to Mira, things are related to spatial intelligence, people are related to verbal intelligence, and concepts are related to abstract intelligence.

During the first 40 years as a scientific discipline in Europe, most W/O work was done in the areas of personnel selection, accidents, fatigue, and other areas. In 1929 Arthur Kornhauser, a pioneer American industrial psychologist, compared the industrial psychology in England, Germany, and the United States. He concluded with regard to England that he observed progress in the adaptation and application of efficiency engineering and the physiology and psychology of industrial work; but he noted little emphasis on the psychology of business management and an acceptance of a fixed status of working men. With regard to Germany, Kornhauser maintained that German W/O psychology (Industrial Psychotechnik as it was called in that time) also showed progress in efficiency engineering, in developing psychotechnical institutes and training methods, and a deep interest in the social aspects of industrial psychology. After his review Kornhauser concluded that American superiority in I/O psychology was little more than an accident of natural wealth and rapid industrial growth and that the United States was nothing short of retarded in psychological matters.

W/O Psychology in Postwar Europe: 1946-1980

The history of European W/O psychology over the next 35 years is a bit different from the previous period. Although during the between-wars period German applied psychology was the leading psychology, after World War II American research was dominant; and its influence has marked, to some extent, the situation of European W/O psychology. Thus the statistical model for personnel selection was followed and many local studies were conducted in various European countries regarding the validity of psychological procedures for personnel selection. For example, during World War II a remarkable amount of research was carried out in Great Britain on the criterion validity of intelligence and cognitive tests for predicting job performance and training success. Simultaneously, important methodological advances were made in those years in the United Kingdom. For example, Cyril Burt developed formulas for correcting for range restriction in the criterion, a kind of range restriction frequently missed in applied settings. Also, Burt and Lawley independently developed formulas for the multivariate range restriction correction. Similarly, in other European countries a considerable volume of research was carried out in the 1940s and 1950s. For example, in France, a substantial program of research was conducted by R. Bonnardel and members of the Institut d’Orietation Profesionnelle. In Spain, Pinillos and other members of the Instituto Nacional de Psicotecnia carried out many validity studies. Another remarkable contribution was made in the United Kingdom when the Civil Service Selection Board, based on the 1949 work reported by Philip Vernon and John Parry, adopted the assessment methods developed by the War Office Selection Boards; and cognitive tests, interviews, and assessment centers were used for hiring personnel. In the period between 1946 and 1970, personnel selection was probably the major activity of work and organizational psychologists in European countries.

Although personnel selection was the dominant activity, studies on organizational psychology started to appear in various European countries in this period. For example, relevant advances were made by the members of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations in London (United Kingdom). Elliot Jaques, who developed the foundations of organizational change based on the Lewinian action-research paradigm, deserves special mention. Another advance of the Tavistock Institute was the development of the concept of organizations as sociotechnical systems. These pioneer studies were conducted in the years preceding the application of this knowledge to work restructuring and to the conduction of experiments on industrial democracy, for example, at Phillips Industries in the Netherlands, in Norway under the auspices of the Oslo Work Research Institute, and in the Volvo company in Sweden. In the 1970s a group of psychologists and sociologists from 12 European countries carried out a study on industrial democracy in Europe. They examined the impact of formal rules for participation (laws, collective agreements, and formal managerial policies) on the factual participation behavior in 134 organizations matched according to size and technology. They found that the best single predictors of de facto participation are hierarchical level and the intensity of prescribed norms for participation. Other relevant studies were made by the Aston group (Great Britain), who studied the effects of organizational variables on individual behavior and their relationship with their environment.

Recent Contributions of European W/O Psychology Since 1980

In the last 25 years, European W/O psychology has made some relevant contributions to the knowledge of human behavior at work both in the professional area and in research advances. A first professional contribution to the field was made by a group of 35 professors of W/O psychology from 15 European countries, who founded the European Network of Organizational and Work Psychology (ENOP) in 1981; ENOP’s objective was to develop a model of the curriculum for the training of work and organizational psychologists in Europe. A second relevant professional contribution took place in 1991, when the organization European Work and Organizational Psychology (EAWOP) was founded with the mission of promoting and supporting the development and application of W/O psychology in Europe and facilitating links between scientists and practitioners working in the field across Europe. Subsequently, EAWOP founded the European Journal of Workand Organizational Psychology (EJWOP) in 1992.

Regarding research, in the last 15 years various European integrative studies or quantitative meta-analyses have been published; this represents a significant contribution to our understanding of relationships between individual variables and subsequent measures of job performance and other organizational criteria. For example, Ivan Robertson and Silvia Downs examined the validity of work sample tests of trainability in 1989. Jesus Salgado examined the validity of the Big Five in the European Community in 1997. Salgado’s studies showed that conscientiousness and emotional stability were valid predictors for all occupational groups, and it generalized validity across samples and criteria. His findings also showed that conscientiousness and agreeableness were predictors of counterproductive behaviors (i.e., deviant behaviors at work) and that the five dimensions predicted turnover. More recently, he found that job complexity is a relevant validity moderator of personality measures and that the magnitude of validity coefficients was much larger than was previously thought. The validity of cognitive abilities for predicting job performance and training proficiency was also examined in the European context. A European team of researchers led by Salgado and Anderson examined the magnitude of the validity of the cognitive measures in six European countries and across the European Union; and they found that general mental ability is the best single predictor of job performance and training success (Salgado & Anderson, 2003).

In this last period, European research has also made a relevant contribution to the study of deviant behaviors in the workplace. This contribution refers to the topic of mobbing or bullying; and it was first described in 1984 by Heinz Leymann in a report published by the National Board of Occupational Safety and Health in Stockholm, Sweden. The term mobbing is typically used in the Nordic countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland), Germany, the Netherlands, France, Italy, and Spain, whereas bullying is used in English-speaking countries. Furthermore, two special issues of the European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology (Zapf & Leymann, 1996; Zapf & Einarsen, 2001) were devoted to the theme.

In this last period Europe has also contributed to the discipline with several international reviews and journals. Examples of the journals and reviews published in Europe are the International Journal of Selection and Assessment, Journal of Occupational and Organisational Psychology, Applied Psychology: An International Journal, Journal of Organizational Psychology, European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology Series, Le Travail Humain, and European Review of Applied Psychology, together with national journals in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Italy, and other countries.


Since its origin in the early 20th century, W/O psychology has benefited from the contributions of European researchers in the field. In the first decades, European psychologists pioneered many advances in the knowledge of human behavior at work and they practically established the discipline as it is currently known. It could be said that W/O psychology was European in its origin. Among the most relevant contributions to cite are the creation of the psychotechnic laboratories in many European countries and many apparatuses for assessing human aptitudes important for work, the development of the first paper-and-pencil tests for assessing intelligence, the development of methods for job analysis, the study of fatigue at work, and the learning curves. The European W/O psychologists conducted hundreds of local studies for estimating the validity of different personnel selection procedures, and German and British psychologists may be considered the creators of the assessment center method, now widely used across the world. The European W/O psychologists are also responsible for many contributions at the organizational level—such as the Tavistock Institute studies, the studies on industrial democracy and the participation of workers, and the studies of the Aston group on the effects of the environment on organization. More recently, they have contributed by conducting meta-analytic reviews on the prediction of job performance and other organizational criteria through individual difference variables and they also contributed to the examination of the deviant workplace behavior known as mobbing or bullying.

Today, European work and organizational psychology enjoys remarkable success, as is demonstrated by the number of journals published on the Continent, the presence of European researchers on the editorial boards of non-European W/O psychology journals, and the international conferences in this area, and by the many studies conducted in Europe that are cited by colleagues from other countries and taken as models for the advance of W/O psychology as a science.


  1. Robertson, I. T., & Downs, S. (1989). Work sample tests of trainability: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 74, 402-410.
  2. Salgado, J. F. (1997). The Five Factor model of personality and job performance in the European Community. Journal of Applied Psychology, 82, 30-43.
  3. Salgado, J. F., & Anderson, N. (2003). Validity generalization of GMA tests across countries in the European Community. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 12, 1-18.
  4. Vernon, P. E., & Parry, J. (1949). Personnel selection in the British Forces. London, UK: University of London Press.
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  6. Zapf, D., & Einarsen, S. (Eds.). (2001). Bullying in the workplace: Recent trends in research and practice [Special issue]. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 10(4).
  7. Zapf, D., & Leymann, H. (Eds.). (1996). Mobbing and victimization at work [Special issue]. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 5(2).