What is Engineering Psychology?


engineering 2Also referred to as Human Factors Engineering, engineering psychology is the psychology field of human capability and behavior. It is the psychology that’s applied to operation and design of different technologies and systems.

It’s an applied science in the field of psychology and it studies the interdisciplinary parts of ergonomics. It also has goals to help to improve the different relationships that happen between machines and people. They do this by taking their findings and then offer ideas for redesigning the equipment. Ways to improve interactions as well as the atmosphere that the work takes place in. Quite often the work of engineering psychologists is described as a position that helps to make these relationships far more “user-friendly.”

Brief History of Engineering Psychology

At the start, engineering psychology was actually created out of what was known as experimental psychology. This field of psychology began back in 1914 during WWI. Engineering psychology was started during this era was because there were a lot of American weapons of war that were simply failing. Bombs were not falling where they were supposed to and some weapons were even destroying marine life at the time. It turned out that the fault ended up being traced back to human error.

One of the very first engineering designs that were built to cut down on human error in WWI was using psychoacoustics. This was created by L.L. Beranek and S.S. Stevens. They were the first two psychologists in America to be asked to help the military to change how people worked with machinery.

Their first assignment was to try and find a way to reduce the noise level of aircraft in the military. This work was pointed to improving the intelligibility of communications systems in the military and this work was extremely successful. But, it wasn’t until late August of 1945 that the research for engineering psychology really began to increase immensely.

Talents of Lillian Gilbreth

Lillian Gilbreth was a talented psychologist, engineer and had twelve children. Her immense appreciation for human factors was what made her a success in implementing motion and time studies along with scientific management. Lillian went on to be the pioneer of ergonomics of working in the kitchen by inventing the pedal bin, as one example.

Engineering Psychology in Great Britain

Both world wars are what generated a lot of formal study of the human factors in Great Britain. Many of the studies showed how the human factor affected the efficiency of the output of munitions and overall warfare. In 1915, during WWI, the “Health of Munitions Workers Committee” was established. This committee were the ones who made recommendations that were based on studies of the effects of overworking someone and their efficiency. The results of these studies resulted in the creation of policies of giving workers breaks and limiting the hours they could work along with no work on Sundays.

In 1918, the “Industrial Fatigue Research Board” was established in order to take this work study and move it forward. During WWII, Kenneth Craik and Frederic Bartlett, researchers from Cambridge University started working the actual operation of machinery and other equipment in 1939 and this work-study ended with the creation of the “Unit Research in Applied Psychology” during the year of 1944.

Cognitive Ergonomics and Engineering

These two fields of psychology study the cognition in the workplace so that workers could optimize their system performance and overall well-being on and off the job. Cognitive and engineering psychology are part of a subset of a bigger field of ergonomics and human factors.

Applied Psychology

This field of psychology is used along with engineering psychology by using the psychological principles learned to help others to overcome their problems in other areas. Some have argued that engineering psychology is and should be separate from applied/cognitive psychology because of the different advances in the cognitive field of psychology hasn’t very often informed those doing research in engineering psychology. On the other hand, though, work done in the engineering field has often informed those in the cognitive field of psychology with any of their new developments. For instance, some research from engineering psychology has benefited cognitive psychologists in explaining why GUIs or graphical user interface seems easier for people to use than using character-based interfaces like DOS (disc operating systems).

Human Factors, Ergonomics, and Engineering Psychology

Even though the comparability of all three of these terms has been topics of debate, key differences in these psychology fields can be seen in their applications.

Engineering Psychology

This field of psychology focuses on adapting equipment and the environment to the workers. They base it on their psychological limitations and capacities. The objective is to improve the overall performance of the systems that involve both machine and human elements.

An engineering psychologist will focus on striving to match the equipment requirements with the abilities of the humans who operate the equipment by changing the designs of the equipment. For example, was redesigning mailbags that were being used by mail carriers. It was discovered that a mailbag with a strap to support the waist or a mailbag that required using both shoulders reduced their muscle fatigue.

Another good example would be the discovery of the cumulative trauma suffered by grocery store checkers as a result of the repetitive movement of their wrists by using their electronic scanners. It was discovered that by changing the design of the checkout stand would let the workers use either hand easily in order to distribute the work more evenly between each wrist.


Ergonomics is the field that bases its findings on the use of scientific studies of everyday people in their different engineering 3work environments. They then apply their findings to the various design processes and the machines and equipment workers work with. This can deal with the workplace layout to different work methods and then control the environment. By controlling the physical environment of a worker they can achieve a much higher grade of efficiency between machine and man.

A good example of a study in ergonomics would be the actual evaluation of the different effects of the shape of a handle on a screwdriver. This also includes:

  • Workpiece orientation on the torque performance
  • Finger force distribution
  • Muscle activity in maximum screw driving torque

Many topics within ergonomic studies will deal with the science of matching equipment with workers. The ergonomic study can encompass the narrower field of engineering psychology.

Human Factors

At one time, the term “human factors” was used instead of ergonomics. When it comes to human factors, it involves the interdisciplinary research and various studies that seek to discover greater understanding and recognition of the characteristics, abilities, limitations, and needs of workers. This is especially important when it comes to products of technology or procedures are being designed for workers. Human factors uses the knowledge of several different fields like mechanical engineering, industrial engineering, and psychology in order to design better instruments and equipment.

Human factors is a far broader science than that of engineering psychology. Its focus is largely on designing different systems that will accommodate the information processing abilities of the human brain.

Even though the work in all of these fields tends to differ, there are many similarities. They all share the very same objectives and that is to try and optimize the efficiency and effectiveness of human activities performed on the job and to help improve the overall quality of life by increasing safety, reducing stress and fatigue while increasing comfort and satisfaction of workers.

Engineering Psychologists and Their Importance

Psychologists in the field of engineering are those who contribute immensely to the design of different products, machinery, office equipment, surgical tools, cameras, car seats and much more. All of which have made life easier for workers in a variety of different jobs.

Research done by this type of psychologist over the years have made life safer and far easier for people to work in environments that require interaction with machines and equipment.




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