Engineering Psychology (EP) applies knowledge of human behavior to environments where people interact with technology. Several prominent aspects in EP include risk assessment, ergonomics, employee productivity and management strategies. EP takes into account employee as well as customer/end-user interaction with products and machines.
Key classes for an undergraduate EP degree include applied statistics, experimental psychology and various courses focusing on human psychological and physiological reactions to human-machine interaction. In graduate programs, these subjects are explored in more detail. Additional courses and seminars for professional specialization are often available. Organizational psychology and group dynamics are key subjects in EP. Engineering psychology deals with social and cultural factors as much as it does with strictly scientific or technical aspects of human-machine interactions.
EPs at Work — Risk Assessment
Engineering psychology is often invoked in the context of risk. Some risks are sporadic but can carry a high cost and possible loss of life. Other risks and failures occur more frequently but do not entail as much damage when they occur. A risk matrix is a very useful tool for professional EPs.
After an incident occurs, EPs work with other professionals to trace risk and accident cause through various organizational levels. It is rare that an accident is entirely the fault of one person or one malfunctioning machine. Usually, various management and operation-level decisions, all of them benign in themselves, interact in such a way as to enhance risk frequency or severity beyond what was expected. Engineering psychologists analyze cost/safety tradeoffs made by various decision-makers and workers to evaluate if risk and resulting accident costs can be offset with minimal additional investment or hindrance to quality or performance.
Making a Difference
When presenting their findings, EPs need to have a working understanding of their clients’ cultures and organizational psychology. Elements such as group-think, the whims of official and unofficial decision makers, and unstated motives will do much to influence the final decision and perceived merits of an engineering psychologist. The “psychology” part of the job is invaluable considering that organizations function by social mores and office politics as much, if not more, than rational cost/benefit considerations.
It may help to compare engineering psychology requirements of new businesses or institutions with existing EP case studies. This may help make proposed solutions easier to handle, especially if they go against the mentality of organizational decision-makers. Those engaging in engineering psychology have to consider what decision-makers care most about with regards to their employees and end-users. Is it market share, low turnover, customer satisfaction, quarterly earnings, productivity-per-employee or some other variable? Do decision makers focus on a long or short-term time horizon? These questions are important for Engineering Psychologists to evaluate.
An engineering psychology degree will help students gain an in-depth understanding of human-machine interaction. Employee well-being, organizational priorities, customer or end-user satisfaction, and finding realistic solutions to questions of risk, human impulses and reaction to machinery are some of the themes a student of engineering psychology can expect to encounter.
Additional Reading: Engineering—The Smart Career Choice for People Who Love Psychology