The Case Against “I-O Psychology”

Let’s face it. We’ve got a bad name. In this episode, I make the case against the name “industrial and organizational psychology,” consider some of the alternatives, and offer up my own suggestion for a new name. I’d love to hear your opinion about this one, so please hit me up on Twitter, LinkedIn, or email to share your perspective.


This transcript is AI-generated and may contain inaccuracies. Please do not quote myself or any of my guests based on this transcript.

[00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to the Department 12 Podcast where we talk about everything I-O pPsych. I’m your host, Dr. Ben Butina, and I’d like to start this episode by thanking each and every one of you who donated to my family’s GoFundMe campaign in our time of need. Thanks to you and others like you, we are back on our feet and I cannot express my gratitude enough for.

The show is also getting back on its feet. I have some great guests in the queue and in the meantime, I wanted to record this solo episode to talk about something that’s important to me. I’ve discussed this many times on social media, but I haven’t addressed it much here on the show. It has to do with the name of our field, industrial and organizational Psych.

Now we’re in applied field. We try to solve real world problems, so in my opinion, our name should be intelligible to regular people. It should make sense to the people we’re trying to help. The name we have now, it isn’t cutting it. It’s just not [00:01:00] good. Let’s start with the length. 15 syllables long industrial and organizational.

By the time you get to the end of that, You can just see people’s eyes glazing over with boredom. It is a mouthful. It is a heavyweight name and it’s not working. That’s strike one. Now, we often abbreviate it and oh boy, do we have abbreviations. So we’ve got IO i slash o i dash O. We can’t seem to get aligned on what it should be.

Uh, but we have them and they save us a few syllables. We know what they mean, uh, but they’re even worse for outside. And if industrial and organizational psychology is a confusing name, then IO psychology is a complete puzzle. There’s no way anyone would figure out what that means from the abbreviation.

So that’s Strike Two names too long a strike. One abbreviation is even worse. Strike two. Strike three is the use of the word industrial, which in the minds of most people in the 21st century means [00:02:00] manufacturing. There’s nothing wrong with manufacturing. Of course, we work with manufacturers, but we also work with every other sector.

So calling out manufacturing specifically in the minds of at least most listeners, seems like a mistake. There are other problems with this name, but I think the three strikes I’ve just mentioned are sufficient to calling out here . I think these three strikes are enough to justify, uh, a serious consideration of getting a new name.

Now, there are arguments for the status quo, and we should take them serious. One is that, you know, we’ve spent a lot of time and effort and money raising awareness about our field, and we’ve done it under the banner of industrial and organizational psychology. I am sympathetic to this argument, and I appreciate how much has been done to raise awareness, uh, about our field over the last couple decades.

And I’ve even tried to contribute a little bit, uh, to this effort in my own small way in this show, but it’s well past time to admit defeat, at least when it comes to this name. It’s not sticking [00:03:00] and doing more of what’s not working isn’t likely to start working. You know, doing the thing that doesn’t work harder is usually not the right move.

A second argument, I think is that, well, the name makes sense to us, you know, within our world we all know what it means. Uh, I hear this counter-argument more from academics and I get it. You know, you have a field, you built your career. Uh, that kind of thing. However, it just doesn’t address the, my main concern, which is that it still doesn’t make sense to other people.

Um, the third argument, and I think the strongest one, is that any name change is going to be expensive and time consuming and take a lot of effort. And I think that’s true, but if you like me, believe that a name change is inevitable, then you realize that making the change sooner rather than later is the right move.

The longer you wait, the harder it is to backtrack. The more expensive and time consuming it will be. So I think the time to change the name was yesterday. But the second best time to change the name would be today. So that’s my case against, uh, [00:04:00] industrial and organizational psychology as a name. What do I think the name should be?

Uh, is a great question. There’s lots of contenders out there. Occupational psychology is popular right now because it’s used in other English speaking countries. Um, I think there are at least two problems, uh, with this one. The first is that the word occupational. Has been in a gradual decline in common English usage for the last 40 years or so.

Uh, don’t take my word for it. Do a search on n Graham and Google and confirm that for yourself. It’s just, it’s a word that’s losing popularity, so I don’t think we’d be wise to attach our field to it. Second, for millions of Americans, the term occupational is already associated with something else. Very different.

Occupational therapy, it’s one of the fastest growing, uh, fields in the whole country is 104. Licensed occupational therapists out there, and their idea of what occupational is is very different than ours. Uh, so if we’re trying to attach ourselves to that word now, we need to know that there’s, you know, many millions of people who already have some other definition for it.

We’d be [00:05:00] working against that overlap and confusion. Just don’t think it works. Business psychology is another popular one that’s way too restricted in my opinion. Yes, we work with businesses, but we also work with the military, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and others that just common people don’t think of as businesses.

You know, we don’t think of the Air Force as a business, you know, as the Department of Energy of business. They’re still within our scope management psychology. Also way too restricted. Yes, we work on management stuff, but we also work on non-management stuff. God knows we’re good at coming up with leadership theories, but there is other things in our scope than management.

Probably the most popular alternative currently is organizational psychology, and I have three. Problems with that one first, Our field addresses the problems and needs of, of workers of all kinds, whether or not they work in an organization, independent contractors, solo entrepreneurs, gig workers, uh, these are [00:06:00] all on the rise.

In some cases they are temporary or provisional, uh, members of organizations, but in some cases they’re just not. But they’re still within our scope, so I don’t think organizational gets us there. Second problem related to the first. The, the name kind of implies that our work is, is focused on the organizational level, and it certainly can be, but we also study things at the individual and at the group level and at any combination of those three levels.

And the third problem is that organizational psychology kind of implies that we are organization men or women, that we’re company men or company women. And that we’re always going to do what’s right for the organization, you know, rather than maybe the individual worker. And, and sadly, that’s often the.

Uh, in the real world, but it’s not something we should aspire to. Um, various combinations of the previously mentioned titles may address some of these concerns, but we’d end up with a really long name again, which I think we wanna avoid. And it’s also not necessarily [00:07:00] because we just have a better, simpler alternative available, uh, work.

You know, work applies to organizational group and individual levels. Work encompasses those who work in organizations and those who don’t work in organizations, Work covers, nor non-profit businesses and profit businesses, military, government, agencies, you name it. It’s all work. Work applies to paid employment and unpaid activities as evidenced by the.

Volunteer work. Um, in short work is the common thread that binds together all these diverse areas of research and practice in which we’re engaged. And most importantly, in my opinion, work is intelligible to the people we’re trying to help. It just makes sense. We know what work is, we know what it means.

It’s less confusing. This is a word that’s been in common usage steadily for the last 60 years. It sounds simple, right? It, it sounds basic and some people may argue that it’s too simple and it sounds too basic, [00:08:00] but to me, that’s the strongest, uh, strength it has. Uh, the name of our field should be work Psychology and the name of our professional organization should be renamed as Society or Work Psychology.

Uh, why not Psychology of Work? Well, for one thing, work psychology leads more naturally to the title of Work Psychologist. For another, uh, the abbreviation, p o w is is already associated in the public mind with something else, and I don’t think we want to try to appropriate it for our field. So that’s my opinion.

I’d love to hear yours. Please reach out to me on social media or email. Um, I’d love to have you on the show and, and have you tell me why I’m wrong. As always, thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again soon.