Redirecting Americans


AN accountant of six years’ experience arrived at the Human Engineering Laboratory in Hoboken, sent by his employers with the advance warning that they planned to discharge him and wished advice about where he should turn next. On meeting the administrator he remarked belligerently: ‘Do not talk accounting to me. I know I’m no good.’ Yet in laboratory tests he scored notably high in accounting aptitude, with a natural speed and accuracy in the manipulation of figures — an invaluable gift in twentieth-century urban life and a prime requisite of accountants, bankers, statisticians, and, among girls, of stenographers, typists, and clerks in general. Later in the same test session, he scored equally high in structural visualization, an inherent sense for three-dimensional forms, an instinctive ability to construct in the mind’s eye from a flat blueprint a clear picture of a solid object.

This man’s work was auditing, which requires the first of these characteristics, but not the second. At the Laboratory’s suggestion his supervisor shifted him to a type of cost accounting where he still needed his accounting aptitude, together with his accounting knowledge and training, but where in addition he used structural visualization in picturing from a working drawing not only a new article to be manufactured but the machine tools to produce it,. In time he became head of the cost-accounting department and ultimately of the organization which planned previously to discharge him.

Architects need structural visualization to foresee vividly the finished building. Physicists employ it in picturing the interactions of electrons within an atom. Cytologists use it in constructing, from a series of microscopic cross-sections, a concept of the three-dimensional cell. Crystallographers call upon it in studying the intersections of crystal planes. Aviators probably use it in bringing a plane to the ground, certainly in blind flying.

The world views structural visualization as invaluable when applied by the eminent engineer in spanning a river with a steel bridge or in digging beneath for a vehicular tunnel, but fails to recognize the same gift when it causes the schoolboy to fail in such abstract subjects as Latin, French, even English and history, or hampers the ineffective accountant, lawyer, teacher, writer, or salesman in grasping abstract ideas. Salesmen who are effective score collectively low in this structural trait; a salesman who scores high often becomes a grumbling failure, even though endowed with every other measurable sales requirement.

Too frequently today organizations, in expressing their appreciation of a skilled toolmaker or diemaker, with a necessarily high degree of structural visualization, advance him to supervision, robbing him of all chance to exercise his structural aptitude, and so lose an excellent mechanic to gain a mediocre foreman. Not many years ago, in a cluttered wooden shack, a born mechanic started to build with his own hands a now nationally known product. He is now president of an organization which occupies two buildings, each covering a city block. Because of his position, he devotes much of his day to talking with subordinates, with colleagues, and with customers, but he spends his evenings in a beautifully equipped shop in his own home, building the preliminary model of some device which the public will later buy in finished form, or sometimes just building for fun. Neither title, success, nor money has displaced his need for using his structural visualization.

At the Human Engineering Laboratory in Boston, a factory workman scored high in every aptitude for his own job, and then equally high in creative imagination.

We asked: ‘How do you use it?’

He answered, in a matter-of-fact tone: ‘Organizing strikes.’

The term creative imagination denotes a measurable aptitude which grows through childhood to the age of fourteen or fifteen and thereafter remains unaltered. Just as the world perceives a chemical, once purified and turned to some constructive use, so it recognizes creative imagination in the poet, the artist, or the musical composer, but frequently fails to recognize the same characteristic in the factory worker. The trait is no more apparent to the unaided eye than sulphur and phosphorus in steel, but nevertheless is as real an entity, as valuable as these two chemical elements but just as harmful when misplaced. Creative imagination displays itself in many brilliant teachers, but not generally in trusted accountants; occurs frequently in the field of advertising, but not often among successful business executives. It seems to be a bubbling over with untried ideas, an effervescive gift which, unless rigidly harnessed, drags one unresistingly toward every novel notion.

The strike promoter, who clearly recognized his activities as an outlet for an unused aptitude, brought to the Laboratory, one at a time, a small group of companions, all rebellious organizers. Each ranked high in the aptitudes for his own job, but in others besides. While an unsympathetic public often views the resistant troublemaker as a bungling craftsman reaching for any excuse not to work, the cause is occasionally too much ability, rather than its lack. For idle aptitudes lie at the root of many industrial strikes.


Sponsored by two engineering schools, Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago (where a third laboratory now occupies Glessner House) and Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, the Human Engineering Laboratory measures, after twenty years of intensive and continuous research, thirteen aptitudes. The identifying names of these invisible elements of human capacity imply as yet little more than did originally the picturesque designations of the newly found chemical elements. One forgets that the descriptive phrase ‘inflammable air’ once designated the entity now called ‘hydrogen.’ Yet, basing their efforts upon a technical apprehension of some ninety such substances, engineers and manufacturers fabricate a multitude of nearly perfect products. The steel wires supporting a suspension bridge require for their enduring strength and safety not mere size, but a nicely controlled amount of the chemical element carbon, combined with an almost complete elimination of sulphur and phosphorus — meticulous specifications which result from a methodical and often uninspiring study of every factor. Similarly the thin thread of human happiness may depend upon some elusive ingredient, or upon the absence of another imperceptible to the eye. From the intangible elements of man’s individuality which the Human Engineering Laboratory is isolating, civilization may ultimately build happiness much as the modern engineer builds any lasting structure.

Nor is this so impractical a dream as it seemed when the first article on the Laboratory appeared a decade ago in the Atlantic for June 1931. That year 850 persons came individually to be tested by a staff of three. During the next five years the number who came annually increased steadily to 1500, tested by a staff of twelve. Last year a staff of 52 tested nearly 7000 persons. At first a two-hour appointment sufficed. Then, as the number of recognized aptitudes increased, this lengthened to three. Now two appointments of three hours each, within a week of one another, are needed for the evaluation of the measurable traits.

How many elusive aptitudes remain as yet un found no one knows — a total equivalent, perhaps, to the number of chemical elements. On this premise, and at an average cost paralleling that of the thirteen aptitudes now known, — approximately $26,000 apiece, — the discovery and isolation of the remaining eighty, if they exist, demand a research expenditure in the neighborhood of two million dollars. Because of the startling vastness of such a sum, this obvious step toward a permanent understanding of human actions will no doubt drag out over the next several generations, as did the grasping of the chemical elements, for, although scientists ultimately finished the task, virtually one hundred and fifty years elapsed between the identification of hydrogen in England in 1768 and the near completion of the periodic table.

One sees clearly in retrospect that from each fresh chemical element sprang a profitable industry, which might have financed the unearthing of new materials decades earlier. The problem was formulated, the task seen, the techniques understood; but the unbridged gap between investment and return defied the foresight of those who lived between 1768 and perhaps 1900.

Lack of money and lack of labor now block progress in the understanding of human actions, for the recognition of more aptitudes, the purification and increased understanding of those now known, await hundreds of thousands of clerical entries. The automobile manufacturer, the superintendent of every wire mill, or the executive head of any modern steel plant accepts as axiomatic the harmful effects of a bit too much sulphur and phosphorus in steel, though he sees neither. Yet he ignores the devastation wrought by some unused aptitude on his payroll. A fraction of the financial cost of labor disputes, were it invested in putting aptitudes to constructive use, would pay a substantial return in reduced friction, in greater security, in a more certain continuation of our democracy, for at present unused aptitudes occur prevalently enough to undermine universal happiness and any sense of satisfaction with modern civilization.


The United States in its rôle of employer both for the army and for civilian duties might each year place a million citizens nearer the goal of their ambitions. But governments too frequently view their soldiers as ungifted automatons. In talking with men about themselves, as does this Laboratory, the great criticism of enforced military training is the waste of time involved. ‘I do not want to lose a year’ recurs hourly, for most men consider that war service sends them in a direction at total variance with the main current of their lives. Yet these same persons plan to devote their energies to building a better world; some expect specifically to undertake public health, medicine, low-cost housing; others, economics, airplane design, or engineering construction, activities vital to a modern army. For war is today only in part physical. Victory demands airplane pilots, ground mechanics, map makers, photographers, and is dependent for success not upon physique but on some rare combination of aptitudes. More important still, the outcome hangs on new discoveries: protection against bombers, knowledge of how to influence public opinion, and particularly a comprehension of man himself.

Industries clearly gain by putting men and women more fully to work, and should establish controlled inventories of unemployed aptitudes now stagnating on their payrolls. They already conserve physical resources, list exhaustively materials on hand, use substances once called waste products, but prodigally ignore human capabilities, reaching out for new employees as casually as not many years ago they bought quantities of raw materials which they but half consumed.

Conscientious executives frequently liken humanity to a pyramid, unendowed masses at the bottom, culminating in the rarely gifted individual at the summit. But actual statistical findings, which repel the general reader less today than in the past, show no such distribution. On the postulate of thirteen pure aptitudes, only one person among 8000, theoretically one person in 8192, lacks all thirteen — that is, scores below average, below the median, in all. Thirteen persons in the same 8000 possess one aptitude apiece, 78 persons have two each. But nearly 7500 persons in the same 8000 score above average, above the median, in between four and nine of these thirteen aptitudes.

At the bottom of the figure on the opposite page the thin sliver of a man represents little more than one hundredth of one per cent of the country scoring below average in thirteen aptitudes. At the top a similar insignificant percentage scores above average in all thirteen. Horizontally across the centre, the 21 symbols represent 21 per cent (nearly a quarter of humanity) possessing six and another 21 per cent possessing seven of these aptitudes. No one directly observes an aptitude, and not more than one person in several thousand puts his own aptitudes to full constructive use, but the Laboratory now measures them in much the same manner, though not with the same accuracy, as a chemist finds a chemical element, often in the most unexpected environment.

How, then, arose the prevalent belief that American minds score low in tests? Partly from the widespread application of paper-and-pencil group examinations. Inherent aptitudes, freed from the effects of classroom background, can be measured in most cases only by performance tests presented individually, under rigidly controlled conditions, by an experienced test administrator. Few realize the skill needed to unearth dormant traits hidden by a history of school failures, of inarticulateness, of social maladjustment. The Laboratory devotes two full years to training each member of its own staff and believes accurate results impossible to gain in much less time. Yet educators and industrialists write almost daily hoping to purchase sets of tests. Apparatus alone plays only a minor rôle in the accurate measurement of these invisible aptitudes, and for this reason the Laboratory sells only its knowledge tests, not those which measure aptitudes.

Aptitude testing is still in its early stages. It cannot as yet be performed on a wholesale basis. Until testing techniques become more firmly established, both industrialists and educators should rely upon trained technicians for the administration of aptitude tests and should themselves concentrate on inventorying and putting to use now measurable but unused characteristics, for at the moment this aspect of the work stubbornly retards general progress.


To appreciate the Laboratory’s concern over inactive aptitudes, one must differentiate them sharply from knowledge, from acquired schooling, from English vocabulary. For men are often inarticulate, uneducated, but inherently endowed with capabilities which educators underestimate. Schoolmasters imply that, as student bodies grow, standards necessarily drop, thus failing to distinguish incisively between knowledge and capacity. By lowering standards they mean lowering the goal toward which students work. Instead, educational standards in terms of ultimate accomplishments must be raised, for few persons tax to the full their innate endowment.

In a public high school, under the direction of a man who knows every member of the large student body so well that one instinctively calls him headmaster, the Laboratory measured the twenty most difficult cases, delinquents, troublemakers, outcasts scholastically. In acquired knowledge, cultural background, English vocabulary, they fell nearly off the scale at the bottom, and this lack so impressed the educational world as to obscure their array of inherent gifts, for in aptitudes this troublesome group averaged slightly higher than the school as a whole. They lack the words with which to impress others, but possess aptitudes which demand expression and which, if not used constructively, explode subversively.

Every college freshman class contains individuals who score no higher in the Laboratory’s English vocabulary tests than does the normal eighth-grade pupil. Such students misunderstand the lectures, fail to grasp the texts, dislike the assigned reading, and many educators immediately declare them not college material. But controlled laboratory measurements suggest that they are rather without knowledge than incapable of its acquisition. In the Johnson O’ConnorEnglish Vocabulary Builder, the words horseshoer, soak, and law, words 1, 2, and 3, are correctly known to virtually every adult, and therefore necessarily within his capabilities. One familiar with these may add the words abandon, intact, and boulevard, numbers 56, 57, and 58, and then in turn blunder, mature, and drudgery, still more difficult. Trouble comes when one who barely apprehends these words attempts suddenly to learn plethora, jejune, polity, and glabrous. The clear grasp of each new fact rests upon another which just precedes it in difficulty, for all knowledge may apparently be organized in order of easy acquisition. To learn rapidly and effectively, each person, whether student or adult, must add those facts just at the border of his present knowledge, not concepts far beyond. The challenge is not to lower the goal of low-vocabulary men and women, not to shunt them into restricted, blind-alley fields, but to crystallize their furthest ambitions, catch the dream of possible attainment, hold it ever in sight, and meanwhile build slowly and soundly, word by word, the vocabulary, the knowledge, needed to scale the desired height.

Were those men and women who find vocabulary difficult the low-aptitude group, civilization might justly delegate them to low-vocabulary jobs. But as yet the Human Engineering Laboratory discovers no significant relation between the extent of one’s knowledge, as indicated by vocabulary, and the thirteen measurable aptitudes. Unless educators destine the latter to lie idle, to cause restlessness, dissatisfaction, unhappiness, they must supply the words, the knowledge, the skills, the tools commensurate with existent aptitudes.

The man whose aptitudes and type of knowledge coincide achieves an enviable place. But the matching of the two is not so simple as one imagines. The thirteen now measurable aptitudes appear in more than eight thousand combinations, so that of eight thousand persons tested no two score alike. As work should tax one’s every aptitude, these eight thousand persons require as many different jobs, probably as many different skills and types of knowledge. Yet many come to the Laboratory with the erroneous impression that someone can guide them into a stereotyped groove which will satisfy their cravings. Ordinarily no set task challenges to the full the measurable gifts of any individual, and if such exists, the chance of finding it is negligible.

Even business executives request this Laboratory to test applicants not realizing the slim chance of stumbling upon the one perfectly equipped man or woman in eight thousand. One unselected applicant in every four grades A by definition in any single requisite, — in accounting aptitude for clerical work, in finger dexterity for small assembly, in structural visualization for machine setup, — and most executives accept this person quite unmindful of accompanying aptitudes which forebode trouble. One applicant in sixteen grades A in two specific requisites — for example, the combination structural visualization and observation required for airplane inspection, or structural visualization and tweezer dexterity, required for miniature instrument repair. Only one applicant in sixty-four grades A in any specified three — for instance, structural visualization, tweezer dexterity, and subjectivity, characteristics of the toolmaker, the diemaker, and the airplane mechanic. In consequence an employer seeking an applicant to hold a three-aptitude or four-aptitude job rarely finds him, and so comes to view the world as incapable, not realizing that the individual lacks merely the peculiar qualifications desired at the moment.

Even should the employer come upon the ideal applicant, or the individual land the perfect job, human beings are not static mechanisms, to relegate to permanent compartments, but living organisms. Men shift, advance, develop, and routine jobs unexpectedly disintegrate.

Business must inventory inactive aptitudes from the beginning, so that when an opening arises which demands two, it may give the opportunity to someone on the payroll now using one. It must shift the mechanic with the structural visualization needed for his job, and observation in addition, into the higher types of mechanical inspection where he can use both traits. It must shift another mechanic high in the same structural visualization, and in addition objective in personality, into the supervision of airplane construction, perhaps; and shift still a third, high in structural visualization and high also in creative imagination, to the construction of experimental models in coöperation with the engineering department, or to the building of new designs which tax his ingenuity. The successful executive views promotion as inevitably into the executive ranks, and forgets that, for others, a chance to use two aptitudes instead of one contributes more to happiness than an executive title, even more, perhaps, than a raise in pay.


Is it practical to stimulate with unsolved world problems the overwhelming majority of humanity that discloses more aptitudes than it, exerts? Applied in the right direction, aptitudes break new ground, push back the unknown; while knowledge and vocabulary tell merely how to do again something already done before. Only a few decades ago, the United States granted ambitious men uncleared land in the Far West, automatically forcing them to exert aptitudes merely to exist. Despite the vast tracts thus dispensed, the government rarely encountered a dearth of volunteers even for so hazardous a task, which demanded untold labor. Men of this country never fear work which challenges capacity; but those who today go West, hoping to meet the same problems, discover no untilled land, no impenetrated forests to fell.

Youth turned from such dangers to so-called white-collar jobs, not for dread of work, but for want of opportunity; for America progresses by reducing the hand operations needed to live. The next step ahead is not a return to physical labor, but an attack on a new frontier, for only at such a point can one hope to use every aptitude. Since land frontiers have virtually disappeared, the new goal is probably the frontier of human understanding.

The difference between a job one executes by rote and the vivid exploring of unknown regions is more a manner of thinking than of acting. Jobs are ephemeral — particularly war jobs, which must be done well and rapidly, with all one’s energies, but which seldom last forever. One who regards his daily job as ultimate security loses with it, should it vanish, his ambition, his goal, and confidence in himself. But aptitudes remain; one who knows his own grasps with greater certainty each opportunity which life presents, faces each decision more intelligently, with less chance of restlessness and discontent. To one who builds life about his own combination of characteristics, whose ambition is to use his aptitudes more fully, the loss of a job presents no catastrophe, but rather an opportunity for new experiences. Perhaps even more important, such a person seldom loses the job, for as he gropes to exert his aptitudes, the job grows under him. It becomes no longer a monotonous carrying out of orders, but a solving of problems, never finished, for in the history of human knowledge the solution of each mystery has but uncovered others equally obscure.

Instead of advising some specific nineto-five job, the Laboratory furnishes each person an inventory of his or her own aptitudes about which to build life; for while every adult recognizes without tests one trait he possesses, and often uses it, almost no one classifies his capabilities clearly in terms of as many as thirteen. With an itemized list, arranged in order of preëminence, the most outstanding aptitude first, one ultimately finds occasion to integrate at least the more important. The Laboratory illustrates, in such of its brochures as Unsolved Business Problems, known applications of each aptitude, but it can predict future developments no more than can the chemist who discovers a new element. Occasionally the Laboratory suggests a use for some specific combination of two aptitudes, but an integrated, constructive use of four, five, or more aptitudes demands painstaking study and presents the individual with a life’s problem equivalent to that confronting industry in seeking a use for some waste product.

Democracy faces the challenge, not of the rare individual with a single aptitude, for such an exceptional person succeeds today without help, but of the normal man or woman eager to apply five, six, seven, or more idle traits. A priori no democracy can survive without furnishing a considerable number of its citizens both a right to pursue happiness and some chance of savoring it. The majority which rules seeks satisfaction from the government or changes it, not necessarily for the better, but inevitably to something different.

Nations, vividly aware of unmistakable defenselessness, miss the total picture. France constructed elaborate fortifications, conscripted a huge army with devastating expenditure of money and youthful years; but its troubles came in the end from within as much as from without. To outlive this world revolution, America must manifestly strengthen its physical defenses, but must spend an equal sum reënforcing itself from within by building richer satisfaction, fuller happiness, by aiding large masses of its citizens to use their now measurable aptitudes.