Divide 2: The UK/US Divide

Divide 2: The UK/US Divide

For those who are unfamiliar with I/O psychology, it is often surprising to find out that the US and UK have very different histories and philosophies. These differences were discussed in a couple of articles in the June 2006 Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. I share two abstracts with you that were brought to my attention by Paul Barrett many years ago.

Kwiatkowski, R., Duncan, D., and Shimmin, S. (June 2006). What have we forgotten – and why? Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Volume 79, Number 2, pp. 183-201.

British Industrial, Occupational and Organizational Psychology has an important yet largely forgotten history. Before and between the two world wars, significant theory and practice was vigorously developed; Princes and Prime Ministers enthusiastically attended psychological functions and early radio broadcasts unselfconsciously emphasized the national importance of psychology for individuals, industry and commerce. Practical help provided by psychologists resulted in increased productivity and effusive public thanks from both employees and employers. As an illustration, we describe the genesis, flourishing and demise of the internationally admired National Institute of Industrial Psychology (NIIP). We examine both the content and the methodological, political and values basis of its work, and provide examples of its relevance today. We identify several reasons for this apparent memory lapse, including a lack of institutional continuity, academic hegemony and ignorance, U.S. domination of psychology, worship of the new and ambivalence about political influence. An ignorance of our shared history may lead to undesirable consequences, including a debased rediscovery of forgotten ideas disguised as invention or, conversely, a failure to build on the work of the past. A more subtle risk may be a move away from a shared humanistic orientation based on common values and principles.

Highhouse, S. (June 2006). The continental divide. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, Volume 79, Number 2, pp. 203-206. Pg, 205, under the heading “History versus Advocacy”.

“I do want to touch on the important issue raised by Kwiatowski et al., concerning the field’s infatuation with what is ‘new’ and ‘different’. This journal published a wonderful article on the ‘romance of teams’ (Allen & Hecht, 2004) noting that evidence for the effectiveness of work teams is weak at best. Why is it that the field of Occupational and Organizational Psychology seems to be so enamoured with non-traditional work practices? Blasi and Kruse (2002) found that ‘high performance’ work organizations were a ‘negligible phenomenon’ occurring only in about 1% of organizations in the United States. Meta-analytic research on the effectiveness of participation and teams on productivity shows that the effect sizes are so small as to raise concerns about practical significance. We seem to have built up a mythology in organizational psychology concerning the degree to which ‘new’ organizational practices are pervasive, and the degree to which they have been effective. ” 

As I am neither American nor English, I have a geographical view on their histories and contribution to I/O psychology that is without prejudice.

I would say that the English, as cliché as it may sound, still have a ‘high-pedestal’ view of their world view. They have been incredibly protective of their own profession and operate under a veil of science and ‘best-practice’. Moreover, the UK suffers through following of companies and veneration of individuals, both anathemas to science and progress. This is perhaps best captured in two areas: BPS training and the glorification of individual testing companies.

BPS training, while having some great points, has limitations. It forces people to rote-learn statistics (not theory of but formula) and hand score tests (when 95% of people use computers). The course guidelines have not changed in the past 20 years (though change is currently occurring) and control of it is tightly held. The BPS will change only when the market becomes more actively critical. Ultimately an independent body that comprises of both psychologists and practitioners is required to establish how training standards are met.

More problematic is the endorsement of particular figures in the field. In the UK, these people and their associated companies become reputable, independent of practice. The companies, both in their origin and later history, can be seen to be less focussed on science and more on money but this seems to have little effect on the British business that buy their services. The analogy is the emperor’s clothes and it is alive and well in the UK.

American I/O psychology has focussed far more on the science of measurement with most of the quality IRT work originating from this country. Their society (SIOP) is more organised and more open to debate. However, they have focussed heavily on the marketing side of I/O which has inevitably had a positive and negative effect on the industry as a result. The US has a plethora of tools, products and assessments which have commercialised the discipline. While this is not a bad thing in itself (as it has furthered the reach of the discipline), and has meant that many companies are more interested in short-term share-holder value than long-term science based solutions.

This divide, and what it represents in terms of up-holding tradition at the expense of progress, cult of personality versus market forces and commercialisation versus science, must be overcome. How this can be done is the topic for another blog…


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