The Psychology Of Learning
( Originally Published 1921 )
LEARNING in its widest sense is profiting from experience. Education is sometimes said to consist of habit formation, but we have seen that habits mean repetition, and that only those acts should be repeated which can best be performed when automatized. Even these acts should not be reduced to habit until they have been perfected and, as has been said, the tendency always exists to mechanize at a low level of attainment. Ability to continue learning—to improve upon what one has already done, to see more meaning in experience—measures intelligence.
The higher animals stand in the evolutional scale the more prominent is the role that learning plays in their lives. In man it is the method of development. There are, however, certain general aspects of learning which may be set apart from its narrower applications as manifested in acquiring facility in some act of manual skill, and it may be well, first, to consider some of these larger phases of the subject.
Human activities may be roughly divided into the mental and physical. To be sure, the one never exists without the other, and, consequently, such a classification only indicates somewhat freely the dominating feature. Now, there is a rather wide-spread belief that these two sorts of activities differ essentially in their origin. The physical activities, including as they do the manual arts and trades, are generally admitted to be improved by instruction. Skill in certain mental arts, however, is commonly thought to be an exception to this rule. They are believed to be above the slow, laborious process of acquisition, and to emerge from innate qualities of the mind.
This attitude prevails not only regarding literary ability, but also in the various branches of business, as in advertising and salesmanship. "Start into the work and if you have aptitude for it your ability will soon show itself," is the advice often given to young men. Recently one of the editors of a large city daily said to the writer that in his opinion young men should be taken directly from the high school into a newspaper office. If within a short time they give promise they should be retained. Other-wise it would be better to dismiss them and try others until the right ones are found.
Certainly, no one will deny special aptitudes. Nevertheless, this contempt for instruction reduces learning to its crudest, least intelligent expression. It is the animal method of blundering along, trying one device after another until a mode of action has been hit upon that by chance secures the desired result. Little intelligence can be used in the selection of methods of procedure because the learner is not sufficiently acquainted with the work to judge their worth. He is like a traveller wandering around in the underbrush of a forest. He cannot see whither the many trails lead. Consequently, if he gets into the right path it is largely accidental. And this is exactly what happens to an uninstructed learner. He is confused by the under-brush of details. He cannot get a bird's-eye view. His methods of meeting difficulties are therefore fallen upon accidentally. If they accomplish the desired end they are adopted. In this way uneconomical and comparatively unproductive methods become habits.
Charles Francis Adams is a splendid illustration of this confusion. His Autobiography is a painful history of opportunities unutilized because of incompetent guidance—a round peg always trying to get into a square hole, as he himself phrases it. That is just what the animal method of meeting problems and situations does. The only difference is that animals in the wilds must remedy their serious mistakes or pay the penalty with their lives. Boys are protected, and thus their errors are continued. I do not remember having read so bitter an arraignment of unintelligent direction as Mr. Adams' enumeration of the mistakes of his childhood and youth. Probably his chief misfortune was that his family had money and social standing. He was kept in pedagogical preserving fluids. "I should now respect myself a great deal more," he writes, "if I had then rebelled and run away from home, to sea, or to the devil. Indeed, if I had had in me any element of real badness, or even recklessness of temperament, it would have been fatally developed. But I wasn't bad or a daredevil; and I was born with a decided sense of obligation to myself and to others." Most of us would not rank Mr. Adams as low as he estimates himself. He certainly did not achieve that of which he was capable, and for this the unintelligent guidance to which he was subjected was responsible; but he was a distinguished failure. His mistakes seem to have been caused by unwise advice and direction, which, of course, produce the same errors as lack of instruction.
It is in the "self-made" men, however, that the animal method of making progress is most clearly discernible. With them; except so far as advice puts them in the instructed class, experience is gained by uncontrolled, and largely uncriticised, trial and error; and it is this absence of intelligent criticism that distinguishes the lower use of the trial-and-error method from the higher. Deficient knowledge because of a lack of preliminary study and instruction leaves a weakened substructure for judgment. Under these conditions interpretation of situations is in-adequate, and experience is reduced to stereotyped opinion.
A brief reference to the learning process of lower animals will show how much it has in common with the uninstructed learning of man. If an animal is confined in an enclosure with winding paths, all except one of which end in blind alleys, he will run about until by accident he finds the path that leads to the exit where food rewards success. Now, if again placed in the enclosure, the animal will not at once follow the direct path to the exit and food, but he will repeat many of his former errors. By degrees, however, he will finally learn to take the direct course to the food. We say that the animal has learned to get out of the enclosure. What actually has happened is that a connection—an association—has been formed between a situation consisting of confinement in an enclosure of definite appearance and following a certain path to food. The situation favored or permitted various responses, the possibility of which was provided for in the instinctive equipment of the animal. The responses were made at first, without selection, and one of them happened to meet the requirements for reaching the exit and securing the food. Gradually the useless actions were eliminated, and the correct associations attained sufficient strength to produce the series of effective responses without error or delay.
This same association can be established between actions that have no necessary relation to one another. It is well known, for example, that dogs can readily be taught to sit, or stand on their hind legs, to obtain food. In the same way they may be trained to go to the corner of the enclosure farthest from the exit and turn around an exact number of times to secure food. The elements of these associations may also be increased so as to form a long series. Several connected enclosures may be made, and the animal may learn to pass from one to the other in quite different ways, pulling a string to open a trap-door in the first case, pushing up a lever in the second, climbing a ladder and going through a hole to reach the third enclosure, and finally returning to the point of departure by a different route to find food awaiting him. In all of these cases the response is made directly to a given situation, without the intervention of ideas. A certain situation is associated with a given response.'
The absence of ideas means absence of thinking. No inferences are drawn. Change the setting to any great extent and the responses are likely to be disturbed, though the essential element in the situation—the one to which a definite response must be made to secure the desired result—may be quite as conspicuous as before. In other words, the result is not connected with a certain action upon a given object. There is no recognition of cause and effect. It is interesting to observe, however, that some of the more highly developed among the lower animals seem to select and pay especial attention to those parts that are connected with the essential element, and changes in its location do not always disturb them. But this is probably due to persistent and strengthened association rather than to any discernment of the relation between cause and effect.
Now, the prevalent opinion that man's method of learning is commonly different from that of the lower animals is unjustified. Animals learn by association. When one event follows another they assume that the succession will always occur. In some instances the response to such an occurrence becomes settled as an instinct. Chickens going to their roosts in the middle of the day during an eclipse of the sun is an illustration. For all the practical purposes of life such responses assume that the first event is the cause of the second. Now, it is not difficult to show that man employs this same associative learning more commonly than is supposed. Recent investigation' of the way in which he solves a maze problem has shown that "the rational processes reported were unsystematic and seemingly futile. Adequate interpretations were suggested to the learner as the result of prolonged exploration, rather than reasoned out. Cues which logically should be utilized for correct inferences were disregarded, and ideas were acted upon in an uncritical manner until they were proven by trial to be incorrect." If the word "rational" were omitted from this account the description would be such as might be written of animal learning.
In those cases in which this process of associative learning seems to carry the learner forward in his thinking, he assumes that he is reasoning. The difference between this pseudo-reasoning and the real thing is that reasoning, whatever else it means, requires that the essential element in a situation be selected from the mass of unessential factors, and that its necessary connection with the result be discerned. "Associative reasoning" assumes that an action or other event which precedes the second has some necessary connection with it, as that of cause to effect.
One need not go back to the belief in a necessary connection between phases of the moon and sowing crops for an illustrative example of this sort of reasoning among human beings. The summer of 1915 was cold and rainy through-out the central and eastern parts of the United States and, as will be recalled, the belief was quite prevalent that the unusual "weather" was caused by the firing of cannon on the battlefront of Europe. When this idea was first promulgated by the "science editor" of certain newspapers the unintelligent accepted it and those better informed smiled. Later, however, when the low temperature and rain continued, even intelligent people began to say: "After all, there may be something in it." This belief is, of course, the persistence in another form of the old superstition that rain can be caused by producing an artificial atmospheric disturbance. Naturally, "reason" did not give the same conclusion the following summer (1916) when an unusually high temperature was recorded in those localities which were cold the year before, and when, though the firing was continuous, the rainfall was considerably less than usual. Of course the error is forgotten, and right here we find another characteristic of human learning common to that of the lower animals. The latter quickly for-get an event unless it has been worked into their nervous system by repeated experiences or has become instinctive through natural selection. Were it not so, new devices would have to be frequently invented to trap them. In man, also, the same methods of "trapping" continue effective.
The "Spanish swindle," which is a good illustration of repetition of the same deception, is so old as to have its origin almost lost in the past. Yet it still serves its purpose. In its simplest form it consists of information that a large sum of money awaits one in Spain. But a "small" amount is needed to secure the legacy. Again, the tricks of "wire-tapping" to obtain advance information about the winning horse, and other swindling devices, continue to succeed, even with those who know of them. Were it not for forgetfulness, swindlers would need to be geniuses at invention. But, as with the lower animals, the old tricks are usually as good as new ones. In man speedy forgetfulness is both a misfortune and a boon. The sorrows of yesterday are submerged in the joys of today; and an important element in the psychology of the stock-market is that the pessimism of last week is forgotten in the present elation, though to-day's rise may be made to order. This human tendency to forget is of supreme importance in the psychology of learning, so far at least as what one learns through experience or otherwise is to be used in reasoning.
In speaking of animal learning, it was observed that the particular action which produced the desired result was one of many. The others either opposed success or were indifferent to it. The successful movement, or series of movements, was not planned. It was not even consciously selected. Given a continuous succession of more or less random movements, all directed toward a definite end, and some of them will be more effective than the others. Indeed, if the effort is persistent, the desired result will finally be attained. A fly is biting the cheek of a very young baby. Many random movements are made in the struggle to relieve the discomfort. At last one of these movements succeeds and the fly is brushed away. It is the same with the lower animals, and so it is with man in learning any act of skill.
Now, a matter of the utmost importance in the psychology of learning has been noted in connection with the random movements to which reference has just been made. The successful movement is produced without any further conscious guidance or selection than is supplied by the general effort to attain a desired result. Learners, in acts of skill, suddenly find themselves employing definite methods to meet certain difficulties. Quite commonly they do not know that they are using these methods until they notice that the difficulties are disappearing. There seems to be a competition of methods. Just how a selection of the efficient method occurs without conscious interference is not easy to say.' "What happens in such cases," ac-cording to Thorndike, "is that the response, by being connected with many situations alike in the presence of the element in question and different in other respects, is bound firmly to that element and loosely to each of its concomitants. Conversely, any element is bound firmly to any one response that is made to all situations containing it, and very, very loosely to each of those responses that are made to only a few of the situations containing it."
The present writer, in the first report of his investigation of the learning process, called attention to the fact that unconscious adoption of methods of procedure in acts of skill is fundamental in human learning. Later investigation of the writer sustained this observation, and recently it has been verified by various investigators. Because of the importance of this principle, which may be called the law of unconscious adoption of method, it may be well to quote briefly from some of the later investigators. L. E. Ordahl, in her study of Consciousness in Relation to Learning, found that methods changed and improvements appeared without conscious control. Unconscious modifications were continually cropping out. Then, as consciousness was gradually freed from details, these modifications were noticed, practised, and improved upon. Ruger observed that "a large percentage of the fortunate variations came altogether unpremeditatedly." And Book, in further verification of the present writer's original re-port, says that "a second significant fact about learning is that all adaptations and short cuts in method were unconsciously made. The learners suddenly noticed that they were doing certain parts of the work in a new and better way, then purposely adopted it in the future."
Illustrations of this unconscious adaptation to work and games—the method of improvement in uninstructed learning—will readily occur to the reader. The beginner in golf finds himself obliged to make various new muscular adaptations of considerable delicacy. That a nice adjustment of muscles is necessary is shown by the exceedingly slow progress of the learner. There is probably more discouragement in golf because of the intermittent and frequently indiscernible progress than in any other game. This means that the muscular tensions, contractions, force, etc., must be accurately gauged. Driving the ball in just the right direction and in a straight line, especially when the course is lined on either side with hazards or with natural obstacles, involves a nice adjustment and co-ordination of eye, hand, and arm muscles. These adjustments cannot even be named, much less consciously controlled. The most that one can do is to control the larger muscles—stand in the correct position, keep the head still, the eye on the ball, give the arms the right swing—and try to get the general effect.
Every beginner knows how little all this accomplishes until the finer muscles have begun to make their unconscious adjustments; and no learner can designate the time when this occurs except as he, often to his surprise, suddenly finds that his good plays are more dependable. In other words, the learner's attention—except for thought of the larger muscles—is upon the accomplishment of the purpose, upon the result. All of the fine adjustments and coordinations, and there are many, are made unconsciously in the general effort to achieve success. After these adaptations have been made a sufficient number of times to acquire some degree of consistency, the learner observes them and then they are consciously adopted and perhaps improved upon. This is, of course, possible only in the case of such movements and tensions as can be singled out for control when once the adjustment has been made involuntarily.
We have said that the law of unconscious adoption of method characterizes uninstructed learning. In a large degree it is also active when the learner is under instruction. In golf, for example, the most that a teacher can do is to give general directions, and tell his pupil wherein he fails. This last is of special importance because one cannot observe oneself. Knowledge of failure, then, centres the attention on definite details, such as the position of the hands in grasping the club, holding the head still, and keeping the eyes on the ball. The adjustment and other adaptations, however, must still be made unconsciously, except so far as one is attentive to the result and to the muscles that can be controlled voluntarily. And this is as it was in uninstructed learning.
This law of unconscious adoption of method has been demonstrated only in acts of muscular skill. But the writer is convinced that it has much wider application. In entering upon new work, as in beginning the practice of law or engaging in salesmanship in a wholesale or retail house, one meets certain difficulties which must be over-come. It is not necessary that these troubles be so conspicuous as to cause the learner to sit down and think them over and consciously decide upon a plan of action which he thereupon rigorously carries out. Indeed, in the writer's opinion, this is the exceptional mode of procedure. Serious and persistent reflection, involving as it does logical thought, is, as we have seen, too difficult to be popular. Besides, successful thinking needs material upon which to work, and in situations involving human beings this raw material consists of knowledge of man's response in various social relations. Few men have this information, and its lack discourages thinking. A naturally hard task is thus rendered still more difficult. As a result men respond to any given situation in what may be called their natural way. That is, their individual peculiarities largely deter-mine their manner of response. They meet the difficulties unthoughtfully as they arise, much as they would in an act of muscular skill. A man suddenly finds that he is performing the details of his work, and acting in the presence of certain situations, in very definite ways. The success of these responses, which the beginner has unconsciously adopted, will, of course, as in the case of muscular skill, depend upon his natural aptitude for the work in which he is engaged.
Even before these forms of response to situations have been noted by the person who makes them, they have become habits of behavior. Unhappily, the person most concerned is usually the last to discover them. An investigator' of teaching has demonstrated the advantage of an accurate shorthand report of everything said in the classroom by teacher and pupils. It is a remarkably valuable critic of human behavior, and might well be adopted in business. If a salesman, for example, could read a verbatim report of his conversation with his customers, he would obtain a picture of himself such as no critic could give. And it would be the most profitable moving-picture performance that he could attend. To be sure, shorthand and phonographic repetition of one's responses to situations would be much like gazing at one's own skeleton, but the view would enable one to clothe it more presentably on another occasion.
The habits that grow out of the responses to situations will depend, among other things, upon the standard of efficiency set by the learner. If he is contented merely with accomplishing the task, any way that produces an approximate result will satisfy. Should he, on the other hand, take account of some of the other factors that make for efficiency, as quality combined with rapidity, his methods or responses will vary until the standard toward which he is striving is attained. This flexibility in habits of performance presupposes an understanding of the significance of the situation. For without this comprehension the standard of attainment will not be commensurate with its possibilities. High standards of achievement therefore demand an inquiring attitude—a state of mind which is continually looking for problems in the daily work. The inefficient teacher, business man, or salesman, is the one who is unable to distinguish the various problems in the general mass of details. For such a teacher the one question is that of order, of discipline, instead of the development of personalities.
To a salesman of this type different customers present no interesting situations calling for varying responses. We see here, again, the need of preparation on the part of the learner to enable him to interpret situations—to see their meaning. The most conspicuous characteristic in the sales and advertising managers, before whom the writer has lectured, is their insistent demand for rules of action. Now rules of behavior imply uniformity in situations. They do not admit differences. They presuppose no problems.
If the writer is correct in this brief analysis of human response to situations, it reveals again the vagueness, the uselessness many times, of "experience." For it is a truism that the experience of an individual is colored by his mode of response. And this is settled quite as much by a man's permanent and temporary "make-up" as by the situation with which he is confronted. The permanent characteristics, being chiefly inherited, are largely beyond control, but the temporary condition is, above all else, the attitude taken toward the several problems presented in the situation. This, again, explains why the same outward set of circumstances is experienced differently by various persons. Their response makes their experience. They see things differently as truly as do myopic people. And their feelings and interpretations vary because of their different visions.
The significance of experience in learning is not merely that it is one phase of the process, but also that it determines future experiences by fixing the attitude and method of approach to situations. A man is biassed by the opinions which he has formed as a result of previous experiences. Consequently, he does not approach the new with an open mind. He has acquired a certain mental "set" which perverts his judgment. This is one of the reasons for the importance of instruction. For, after all, teaching consists largely in constructing and in reconstructing experience. In the case of the more mature it is chiefly the latter.
If the instances which have been cited are indicative of human action in general, they emphasize again the important fact in adaptation and behavior, that man adopts the simplest method that will approximate the results which he wishes to gain, instead of examining ways and means with the view of finding the most efficient plan of action; and in thinking his procedure is the same. He accepts superficial evidence, assumes that things are as they appear to be. Therefore, if one event follows an-other, the first is accepted as the cause of the second. Consequently, when a given method in salesmanship or advertising is attended by success, the method is assumed to be good in all localities and on every occasion. Yet prevailing conditions may occasionally produce results, regardless of the quality of salesmanship or advertising. Since, however, this happy combination of circumstances is not likely to be reproduced, the man who does not understand them is beginning a career of failure. He does not see the meaning of action and response. He misunderstands the human mind. He fails to comprehend the significance of behavior. In thinking and acting, chance thus creates disordered responses, the chance of poor instruction or no instruction at all, and the chance of business tradition and opinions. It is the animal method on which human behavior has been grafted.
Turning now to learning in the narrower sense of gaining proficiency in some definite act of skill, we find that the investigations have disclosed several facts of considerable moment in the psychology of learning. Typewriting is an unusually good illustration because it is typical of much of the work done by the younger men and women in business offices. Fortunately, several investigations have been made of the progress of beginners.
Two different studies were undertaken by Hill and Rejall.' These experiments consisted of typewriting, on successive days, with occasional intermissions, first, the same 100-word paragraph, and second, a 300-word page of changing material. The practice was continued for five months. The measure of progress, in the one case, was the length of time required for writing the zoo words, and in the other the 300 words of new matter. The two striking characteristics of the experiments were irregularity in the acquisition of skill and occasional delays in progress. The meaning of the irregularities is quite clear. Progress is rarely continuous. Some of these variations are caused by the physiological condition of the learner. He may not be "fit." A night out, slight digestive disturbance, or fitful sleep are sufficient to blunt the edge of one's feelings, and consequently to lower efficiency. At times, again, the learner feels splendidly, yet for some undiscoverable reason he is not able to get results. Every one has such days. But the physiological condition does not explain all of the irregularities in progress. A beginner in a new sort of work, or a new subject of study, advances for a time and then suddenly, and often unexpectedly, his progress is interrupted. He may work as hard as before, yet for some reason he does not advance.
These periods of temporary arrest of progress are called plateaus in the curve of learning, and e investigation of the acquisition of skill in typewriting to which reference has just been made reveals several of them.' On the 25th of November, for example, one of the investigators wrote the Too-word selection in four minutes and seventeen seconds; but between that day and the 6th of December, inclusive, there were only three days when he reduced the time required for the task. On all the other days of the ten devoted to the work his record was either the same or worse than on the 25th of November. One of these improved scores was only seven seconds better than the record for the 25th of November. It is quite evident, then, that we have here a period of arrest in progress.
Intermittent improvement in score indicates the tendency of the learner, but he cannot yet be depended upon to maintain the record. In a longer or shorter period of time, however, the better score becomes a permanent acquisition. Barring occasional "off days," the learner no* knows that he can make it. This new record becomes the centre, as it were, around which the score for a week or so is likely to oscillate. Sometimes the learner will do better, and again not so well, but he rarely falls back to an earlier lower level of accomplishment. Improvement is, therefore, usually intermittent. After hovering around a certain record for a time—in typewriting several days or a week—the learner goes forward. Then his new achievement becomes the centre of variation until he is prepared to make a further advance. The following experience in golf, written by a friend, illustrates both retardation, which appears in the curve of progress as a plateau, and also temporary improvement, which, though not maintained, shows, nevertheless, the drift of the learning process.
Professor Thorndike, who prepared the experiments for publication, says that the absence of "any clear plateaus or `resting stages' is noteworthy." The explanation is that his curves were plotted from weekly averages. Whether plateaus would show themselves in such a curve depends, in large part, upon their distribution. In a curve plotted by days from Hill and Rejall's figures several plateaus extending from four to seven days are quite evident.
"I had played golf with unsatisfactory results for a year and a half and had succeeded in getting good control of the various irons, but I had acquired no certainty in driving. In order to overcome this difficulty I had taken lessons and had learned the theory so that it was at my command, but in practice the results were more often disastrous than good. I could not see any positive improvement from month to month in the certainty of my drive. One day I took my usual position for driving. Before making the attempt I thought over the directions for successful driving, and went through the act once, trying to just graze the ground, and following through with my club. Again I took my position. This time the movements were enlivened with the thought that I was going to hit the ball and see how far I could drive it. There was neither pull nor slice, and the ball went almost as straight as one could draw a line in the direction in which I had in-tended. The distance was about 16o yards. Again I took my place and added 20 yards to the drive. As many as fifteen consecutive drives were made, only one of which was defective, and the distance increased until it reached about 200 yards. For several weeks I drove with equal success, in one case on links on which I had never played before. My longest drive was over 240 yards. After a number of weeks of successful driving I was playing one day, and for no apparent reason I topped the ball. Again and again, both that day and on subsequent days, I endeavored to recover the skill which I had lost in a way I could not ex-plain. Several months have passed, and I have not yet regained the successful drive which I acquired so suddenly and carried on so successfully for several weeks and then as suddenly lost. It seems to be a case of persistent retardation, but what I have done I can do again, some time."
The writer has obtained the golf scores of an enthusiastic player. They are his record for three consecutive ars. The scores are given at the left of the curves. It will be observed that there is general progress from year to year, but the plays are irregular and plateaus are evident.
The discussion of plateaus seems at times to reduce itself to a definition of the term. According to some, only those delays which can be measured by weeks are plateaus. Yet an arrest of visible progress during a number of days demands an explanation quite as much as retardation ex-tending through a month. If the cause cannot be found in the physical condition of the beginner, it must be sought in the complexity of the activity, in the aptness of the learner for the work, or in both. Now, periods of retardation of longer or shorter duration are usually observable in most learning processes. They do not occur when the act of skill is so simple as to be at once mastered, and their location depends in large measure upon the nature of the work in which the learner is engaged. In beginning the study of psychology, for example, a long plateau quite commonly occurs about the end of the third or fourth week. In embryology, on the other hand, it is usually observed at the beginning of the course.' The difference between these two subjects of study suggests a possible explanation of these plateaus. In introductory psychology the first week or two is generally devoted to discussing a few fundamental facts. The new terms are not numerous. The effort of the teacher is devoted rather to laying the foundation by establishing the simpler principles. Consequently, there is little chance for confusion. In be-ginning embryology, however, a large number of new words and terms must be mastered at once. This naturally perplexes the student. His progress is therefore slower at the outset than in psychology. He drops almost immediately to a low level of efficiency which reveals itself in his curve of learning as a plateau. What, then, is the cause of this retardation?
The present writer, from his study of the learning process in typewriting and in beginning the Russian language,' concluded that these periods of arrest in progress are caused by the need of time for making associations automatic. In typewriting, for example, these associations consist in connections between the letters of words and the location of the corresponding keys of the typewriter. The learner, starting at the zero stage, advances rapidly at first. This initial rapid advance has been found true of all acts of skill and of subjects of study, in which a large mass of new material is not crowded upon the learner at the outset. The writer's investigation of the early stages in learning the Russian language, the curve of which is given below, shows the same characteristic. This curve of learning also indicates the effect of uninstructed learning. It is much more irregular than would have been the case had the learner been aided by a teacher.
Returning to typewriting, it is clear that after a certain very moderate degree of proficiency has been attained progress will be slower and gains will be roughly proportional to the strength of the connections between letters of words and their corresponding keys. Establishing these connections requires practice, and for this practice time is needed. There are, of course, different degrees of proficiency, depending upon the firmness of the connection between letters and keys, and upon the rapidity with which the associations work. Quite soon the hand goes directly to the vicinity of the desired key, but a few seconds will be required to find the right one. Next the finger, directed by the eye, may strike the key at once, and finally the eye is unnecessary, the sense of location being a sufficient guide.
This is a very sketchy description of the stages of learning to use a typewriter, but it answers the purpose. There are different levels of efficiency, each of which must, so to speak, be consolidated before it is possible to rise to the next level. This consolidation requires practice, the amount needed depending upon the number of details to be mastered and upon their difficulty. In the case of certain individuals especially adapted to a given piece of work, progress may be continuous to a high level of efficiency. There are children, for example, to whom the multiplication tables offer no difficulties. They learn them easily and accurately. Young salesmen may also be found, occasionally, who do not need to learn the art of selling goods. They know how to deal with men and can meet each emergency as it arises. But such children and such men are rare. The majority learn with effort, and from time to time they must stop to organize and reorganize what they have learned.
The periods of arrest in progress—the so-called plateaus of the curve of learning are, then, intervals for consolidating the information or skill won by the learner during his advance, but not well organized because he was too busy making gains. This cessation of progress, however, is only apparent. It is not a real arrest, for during this time the facts and information are being automatized for ready use. Progress seems to be delayed, because it cannot be measured and recorded so as to be visible to the eye. Loosely accumulated information is only partially usable. It comes to mind slowly and some of it does not come at all until it has been relearned. More than this, the meaning of facts grows as their connection with other facts is observed, and these new relationships give added significance to what one has learned, and make it more serviceable in one's thinking. This requires time—time for the nervous processes underlying the learning to be-come set and time for new nervous connections which are the basis of recalling ideas to be established and fixed.
In the early stages of learning the real advance is there-fore made during the periods of seeming arrest of progress, because it is then that the consolidation of details is going forward. In acts of skill these details are the finer movements, together with the judgment of the amount and direction of muscular effort, and in subjects of study they include facts and ideas which must be both learned and organized. Progress during these plateau-periods assumes, of course, that the learner is a zealous worker. This ex-planation of these periods of apparent retardation is illustrated by the experience of those who have spent several years in a foreign country trying to learn the language. The first rapid, though slight, advance is attended with a feeling of elation. This, however, is followed by a long period of discouragement. The best endeavors seem to bring no progress. The length of this plateau-period varies with different persons—with their aptitude and preparation for the language—but all feel its oppressiveness. Now, an interesting feature of this plateau is the suddenness with which it often disappears. At times it seems to vanish in a night. The word-associations and peculiarities of thought-sequence had been automatized during the long period when no visible progress was being made. Beginners in golf, again, are only too familiar with the long period of discouragement when they seem to be making no advance. Perseverance finally brings results, but for a long time improvement is intermittent.
Evidence that these plateau-periods are days of automatization is found in the fact that they are always followed by a rapid advance.' Since this is a regular occurrence, it must be accounted for, and the explanation of the sudden advance seems to be that something has been going on, during the interval of apparent retardation, to make what has been learned more usable. These periods of delay in visible progress, then—assuming that the learner is working faithfully and intelligently—are the days when real progress is being made, for during that time the skilful movements, or the material of knowledge, as the case may be, are being automatized for instant use.
The latest investigation of learning adds further evidence for the explanation of plateaus as periods of automatization. Batson concludes from his- experiments that when progress requires the organization of different movements into a unit, plateaus represent the time needed to establish this serial and unitary combination. In other words, a plateau is the visible expression of the time needed to master or automatize the chain of associated movements which, so long as they require individual attention, pro-duce temporary retardation. Book also seems to accept the principle of automatization when he says that "it takes some time for the new way of writing" [on the type-writer] "to become sufficiently automatic to allow part of the attention to forge ahead in quest of more economical methods." The length of the plateau, excluding physical conditions, ennui, etc., will depend upon the number and difficulty of the details which must be coordinated and automatized, that is, upon the complexity of the work. Automatization, as has been said, means mastering details sufficiently to make them readily usable. These details consist of whatever is essential to success in the work upon which the learner is engaged. If progress requires that separate movements be combined into a series, this serial activity must be practised until the learner need not attend to the separate movements; but this is one phase of automatization.
Complexity, however, is not merely a matter of the activities involved. It is not wholly an objective condition. So far as successful accomplishment is concerned—and this is the psychological problem—the ease or difficulty with which an individual masters the movements makes them for him, at least, either simple or complex. Plateaus do not occur in every learning process. It is doubtful, indeed, whether they are inevitable in every objectively complex process. It is quite conceivable that a learner may have such aptitude for a feat of skill as to master its complexities without any retardation. This was true of one of the subjects of the writer's experiments in tossing and catching two balls with one hand; and this is a fairly complex activity. At the same time plateaus are the rule, and the more complex the combined movements the more likely they are to occur.
The question may well be asked, however, whether these characteristics of learning are true in the case of those preparing to do the world's work. Experiments in the psychological laboratory are sometimes thought to be so artificial and unreal as to be of little value for the outside world of action. Fortunately, tests of those engaged in the world's work have been made, and they have verified and enlarged the results obtained in the laboratory. Some of them may be briefly considered.
Investigation of learning over long periods of time, for example, until, as we say, the apprentice has learned his trade, shows that finally a level is reached above which the man does not rise without putting strenuous effort into his work. This exceptional effort is rarely expended unless new demands and responsibilities are put upon him.
The study of telegraph-operators by Bryan and Harter showed that a new increase in the rapidity of receiving and sending messages begins after an operator is transferred from an unimportant office to the main line. There are, of course, individual differences in the possible rate and range of improvement, but few reach the limit of their ability. This is a phase of the human tendency not to expend unnecessary energy, to which reference was made in an earlier chapter. Man does not exert himself needlessly. That which produces a result satisfactory to the demands of the occasion is good enough.
Aschaffenburg, again, tested four skilled typesetters, with nine, eleven, twenty-one, and twenty-six years' experience, respectively, and found that, under the stimulus of competition and observation they made a marked improvement in the quantity of type set during the four days in which they were tested. A new stimulus was applied and their level of production was raised. It is improbable that these typesetters were exceptional. Indeed, evidence has been found which shows quite conclusively that even with adults who think that they are doing their best, slight incentives materially increase the output. Further, Wright's investigation has demonstrated experimentally that "through the continued use of a stimulus not sufficient to call forth their strongest efforts the subjects accepted the same as a standard, and when they were deprived of this standard objectively, its subjective influence still persisted to such an extent that the total accomplishments of the subject were materially lessened."
This investigation is experimental proof of the tendency to minimum effort of which we have already spoken. It shows that man accepts as a standard of efficiency the demands of the situation confronting him—that he is subject to false limits of production and achievement, which he erroneously thinks represent his ability. This is probably true not merely of employees but also of managers. Indeed, observation has led the writer to believe that a good part of the inefficiency of employees reduces finally to the inefficiency of those who direct them. Most men are upon levels of production above which they could rise if the right stimulus were applied. Of course one may feel that it is not worth the effort, but in that case change of occupation is probably desirable. The human tragedy is to settle down, contented, into the animal method of mere adaptation. Rather, find something worth while, then decide upon a definite plan of action instead of drifting into the line of least resistance and expending the minimum amount of effort that will meet the needs of the situation. It is supremely important to find something that one feels is worth one's best efforts. Then learning may be carried to the highest level of which an individual is capable. "Something worth while" assumes an end for which one zealously strives.
This lack of a purpose or end in the work of children has been mentioned by Dewey as one of the causes of inefficiency in the schools. Questions are asked and problems given, the answer to which the teacher is assumed to know. There is no incentive to achievement except the artificial one of rivalry in rapid work. The answers are known, there is no opportunity for disagreement, no mental stimulation of discovery. The difference between the dearth of interest under these conditions and in the presence of a real problem to be worked out, with an end that is worth while, was shown in a country school. There were no books for the English class—the eighth grade—so the teacher' decided to let the children "write a book." Each week's composition was to be a "chapter," describing an "adventure" of the hero. Here was a real end, something worth doing, something in which originality had free play; and the result far exceeded expectations. Instead of the usual stupid "compositions" culled from encyclopaedias, these children put their best efforts into the work. Unused reservoirs of ability were tapped, and some of the productions were so good as to be accepted for publication by editors of magazines with departments for children's stories.
It is commonly thought that the work of adults differs from that of children by this distinction of an end. Unfortunately, this is often not the case. The increased or improved production reveals the difference when a vital end or purpose lures the worker on. Thomas Huxley hated composition until he reached an age when he had something that he wanted to say, and Harriet Martineau says of herself: "I was the first of my family who failed in handwriting; and why I did remained unexplained. I am sure I tried hard; but I wrote a vulgar, cramped, untidy scrawl till I was past twenty—till authorship made me forget manner in matter and gave freedom to my hand." The explanation is that no purpose stirred her till the incentive of authorship took possession. Incidentally, it was observed that the class in the country school, to which reference has been made, improved markedly in the appearance and neatness of their writing under the stimulus of "writing a book." An end that appeals to the learner as worth while is closely related to Thorndike's theory of the influence of satisfaction and annoyance. "In playing golf," he says, "the satisfyingness of the sight of one's ball speeding down the course spreads to make the way one held and moved the club a little more satisfying as a response to the situation which provoked the stroke."' Improvement, to be permanent, must result finally in certain habits which constitute the form, tensions, and movements; and satisfaction certainly promotes habit formation. Certain obstructions, however, are likely to be in the way.
Monotony is perhaps the most insidious obstacle to progress. It is hard to raise the lower grades of work to the level of achievements. "Begin at the bottom" is a good business proposition. It is also psychological. Man, however, is restless at the bottom. The details do not interest him. Americans, at least, are not much impressed with the importance of beginnings. Were proof of this feeling necessary it could be supplied in abundance from our numerous "finish-quick" institutions. The most that can be said in favor of such places is that they do what they promise. They finish their students and they do it quickly. The short and altogether inadequate courses in medicine, law, and commerce to which young men flock instead of going to well-equipped schools are cases in point. The degree or license to practice is the important attainment, as they view it, not knowledge, training, and skill.
In business probably the most effective antidote for monotony is to make an outlet for success. Blind alleys in occupations are discouraging and discouragement generates drudgery. No visible outlet to one's work, and discouragement, are the conditions that breed monotony. The selection of an occupation is, of course, a supremely important matter, and vocational guidance will justify it-self if it merely starts boys and girls to thinking about the vocation in which they would like to engage. As a mat-ter of fact however,it does much more.
Closely related to monotony is the effort that goes into one's work. Maximum effort is a variable quantity, even in the same person. Temporary "fitness," fatigue from any cause, emotional disturbance, bad air or high temperature lessen the output if not the effort itself. Some of these matters are beyond the control of managers, but not so with the office or factory air; and business men have not given enough attention to ventilation. In those cases in which the output has been measured under varying conditions of temperature and humidity, these factors have been found significant. Educators have already learned this, but business men have not acted upon the discovery. Human energy is as much a matter of physical and physiological conditions as of the wish to achieve. It is easy to drop into a state of partial relaxation. This, again, is a phase of adaptation; and external conditions should be studiously planned to promote work.
To relax is human. It is an expression of racial indolence. Civilized man is kept at a prolonged high level of activity by the incentives of civilization. The motives are always personal, and prominent among them is the desire to better one's condition. Remove the hope of advancement and effort drops to an easier level. But the psychology of habit also plays an important role here. There is always an inclination to return to a lower order of habits. In learning the touch method on the type-writer, for example, one tends to fall back upon sight. It is easier. Consequently, beginners in any line of work should maintain a high degree of alertness until efficient habits become automatic. Then effort is not required to carry them out.
One way of doing a thing is not harder than another. It is habit that makes the difference. Any unhabitual movement, or series of movements, is difficult. Change of habits involves strain, muscular or mental. Flexibility is subject to the same physiological restraints. Effort must therefore be severe and continuous until the new habits that further a higher order of skill are established. The prolonged training needed to produce soldiers is a matter of "fixing" habits. So long as there is danger of dropping back into former modes of action, so long as a given situation does not produce the definite military response, little reliance can be placed upon the men. They must be trained until they cannot think or act in other terms than those of the soldier; and this thinking and acting must be instantaneous. It must be reflex. "Seasoned veterans" means this as much as it signifies hardened muscles. Such training is only carrying the automatization of complex habits of response to given situations to the highest level of efficiency.
What, then, is the function of instruction in learning? The usual idea of instruction is that it consists in possessing and imparting the requisite knowledge. This, how-ever, is the lowest conception of the art. It ignores the mental condition of the recipient and assumes that a given morsel of knowledge is equally important to different per-sons and to the same individual at the varying stages of his progress. The same knowledge, however, has different carrying power according to the time when it is imparted. Difficulties arise in an act of skill or subject of study as the learning proceeds. These difficulties present problems, and the learner is keen for the solution. This is the moment when the needed information is welded into knowledge by the learner because his mind is at white heat. He sees its use and he applies it. With the best instruction progress is uneven, with mediocre, even though the instructor be learned in the matter, the inequality is immensely increased.
Irregularity in progress is not due merely to physical conditions to which reference has been made. Progress is usually by sections. Certain efficient habits are acquired, while others equally important lag behind. The writer has recently observed this in golf. He has been trying for months to assume the right form, to keep his eye on the ball, to hold his head still, to avoid pulling or slicing, and to follow through. A few days ago he observed, for the first time, that his eyes remained glued to the ball, and this acquisition has persisted. Yet the other no less important acts remain unlearned. Inquiry among friends has given corroborative evidence. Their experience has convinced them that certain habits essential to the game are acquired, while others no less needful for success re-main stationary. The mental attitude is, of course, important. Young Richard was quite right when he advised little Una, who was struggling to control her fork at her first dinner-party, to keep her mind on her knife and let the fork take care of itself. "Then I began to succeed," she said later, looking back. "The fork was as meek as a lamb if I paid no attention to it." The same observation has been made by a music-teacher who says to her pupils, after something has been clearly shown and unsuccessfully attempted: " Stop trying, and it will do itself."
The mental attitude, however, has a much wider reach. There are several ways in which it may influence progress in learning. Belief that the goal is unattainable, uncriticised and unjustified assumptions regarding the meaning or nature of the work, cause delay and perhaps ultimate failure, while confidence and a mind unhampered by hasty conclusions favor progress. All of these attitudes and still others have been found in learners, and their effect upon the curve of learning has been experimentally tested. The scientific attitude of examining a problem before drawing conclusions, and then of holding these convictions tentatively so that they may be readily changed, as further examination suggests new view-points, is essential to progress. Assumptions, perhaps accidentally made, become intrenched before the learner is aware of it, and distort his judgment. Ruger found that "in general, the solutions" [of problems] "were not the result of mere straightaway thinking, and the consequent formulation of a thorough-going plan of action, but were the outcome of an extremely complex interrelation of more or less random impulses and ideas." Incentives are also important, because, as Wright has shown, they act as a mental stimulant.
Here also belongs the "spirit" of the office, shop, factory, or school. The significance of the group sentiment, both in learning and in getting results, can hardly be over-stated. It rules with irresistible force. In schools it must be secured as an ally or the work is a failure; and in business it means stagnation followed by bankruptcy, or the enthusiasm that sweeps aside all obstacles. There must, however, be something worth getting enthusiastic over. Group sentiment needs content or it is like the super-heated air of which one hears in slang. The hurrah method is empty. When, on the other hand, ideals and purposes with carrying power arouse emotions, and the whole is welded into a sentiment that tolerates no inefficiency, abilities previously unknown even to their possessor are brought into action. There is nothing that so stirs a young man as the feeling which accompanies the belief that he is an essential part of a great organization. In the retail business this feeling pervades the store and gives to it a distinctive tone; and in the factory it means a greater and better output. Yet the increased production is accomplished with less than the usual fatigue, because the mental attitude raises the work above a task. Further, this alertness has been found to be the truest guide in the conscious and unconscious selection of methods in the learning process.
But with all the organization for efficiency there still remains one factor which cannot be organized out; and that is the element of time. It is not for practice alone that time is needed. We shall find later that distributed study yields better results than concentrated work, and Strong' has shown that moderate distribution of observations of advertisements makes a more lasting impression than concentrated observations. When four advertisements of one firm "are seen within a few minutes of each other, the four create an impression that is 82 per cent superior to that created by one advertisement. When the four advertisements are seen at intervals of a week the four create an impression go per cent greater than did one." The intervals between the advertisements may, of course, be too long. So Strong found that when the interval was lengthened to one month the impression from the four advertisements fell to 45 per cent more than that from one advertisement.
Nerve-cells, when stimulated, continue their activity after the stimulation has ceased. At least this seems to be the explanation demanded by the observed facts. Applying this to a learner's task in any field, if the study of new material is continuous, or if an apprentice seeks to cover ground too rapidly, details accumulate faster than they can be organized and consolidated. Stating it in cerebral terms, the nervous processes that persist after practice or study do not have time to do their work and become "set." Time itself is evidently a factor in learning.
In acts of skill requiring automatization of movements this need of time has been approximately determined, and there is no reason to believe that learning to meet human situations—to judge human behavior—differs in this respect. To be sure, in the latter case associations that have not been noticed may produce the helpful inferences, but the fact still remains that these inferences come only after the lapse of time, and not infrequently when the learner's mind is engaged with quite different thoughts. Consequently, explanation of these inferences by unnoticed associations still leaves open the question of their origin. The answer, again, is the continued activity of nerve-cells. Mental processes are dependent upon the nervous system. If there are disembodied minds hovering about, psychology knows nothing of them. Association of ideas is primarily a connection or relationship between the activity of nerve-centres and the resulting nervous processes. This relationship is such that when two brain processes occur simultaneously or in succession, the activity of one tends to excite the other.
Association, again, is a mental fact for the sole reason that it is a physiological fact. Assuming, then, as modern psychology does assume, that mental processes never take lace unattended by nervous action which is essential to J their occurrence, we seem forced to the view of a gradual decrease of this nervous activity, and with it a corresponding diminution of the correlated mental processes, until the nervous activity is of so low an intensity that we have what, for want of a better name, has been called the organic correlate of remembering, associating, etc. There is no other escape from the assumption that "mind" was inserted, de novo, at some stage of the developmental process, and this certainly no evolutionist is willing to admit.
This view of the decreasing intensity of nervous activity leads, of course, to subconscious nervous processes, some of which may yield results available for consciousness. This transmarginal field "contains, for example," James once said,' "such things as all our momentarily inactive memories, and it harbors the springs of all our obscurely motived passions, impulses, likes, dislikes, and prejudices. Our intuitions, hypotheses, fancies, superstitions, persuasions, convictions, and in general all our non-rational operations, come from it."
The writer is aware that subconscious, or extramarginal, mental processes have been in some dispute because of the vagarious conclusions which unscientific writers have drawn. The belief in some sort of activity outside (beyond or below) the personal consciousness has recently, however, become scientifically respectable? Different names are applied to it, and the views of its nature are various, but there is general agreement that in some way it exerts an influence upon the personal consciousness, affecting opinions, beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. It cannot be otherwise, for cerebral localization and the modern view of mental diseases, indeed all of brain physiology, are unintelligible except on some theory of psycho-physical parallelism, and the latter in turn necessarily assumes extramarginal processes. Since their occurrence and connection with the facts of consciousness, rather than their nature, is the important consideration for our present purposes, it does not matter whether they are called "physiological cerebration" or "subconscious mental processes." Now that the existence of extramarginal processes has been admitted, if somewhat hesitatingly, it is not necessary to refer to the unusual instances of crystal vision, automatic writing, and hypnotism for illustrations of their integrative activity. A few days frequently clears the most perplexing problems, though the person may have been guiltless of thinking of them except as they occasionally emerged above the level of consciousness only to disappear again as the work in hand proceeded. The sales manager of a large wholesale house recently gave the writer the following bit of personal experience:
"A few weeks ago I had occasion to make a quotation on a large quantity of goods. The prospective sale amounted to about $200,000. In using a table to arrive at the figures for the unit of the product upon which I was quoting, I found the price figure so high that I used half the price. I also found the size so large that I used half the size. When I made my computation I doubled one figure but forgot to double the other. The result was a price about half of what it should have been per thousand. These prices were accordingly wired to two different companies in the afternoon. The articles quoted on were new to i and, consequently, there was nothing to arouse suspicion in my mind regarding the inaccuracy of the prices. On going to my home in the evening I found company, and, after passing a pleasant evening, I retired about eleven o'clock, without having thought of the transaction or of the price, so far as I can recall. Certainly no doubt arose in my mind concerning the accuracy of the figures that I had quoted. In the night I awoke suddenly—I afterward noticed that it was about one o'clock—house quiet and lights out. I pushed the electric button and started for the telephone, realizing instantly that I had committed an error of many thousands of dollars on the wrong side of the ledger."
The cerebral processes apparently do their share toward the organization, clarification, and automatization of de-tails, if the material is put clearly before the mind. "A man's conscious wit and will," James once wrote, "so far as they strain toward the ideal, are aiming at something only dimly and inaccurately imagined. Yet all the while the forces of mere organic ripening within him are going on toward their own prefigured result, and his conscious strainings are letting loose subconscious allies behind the scenes, which in their way work toward rearrangement; and the rearrangement toward which all these deeper forces tend is pretty surely definite, and definitely different from what he consciously conceives and determines. It may consequently be actually interfered with (jammed, as it were, like the lost word when we seek too energetically to recall it) by his voluntary efforts slanting from the true direction." 1 And again, referring to this subconscious organization of knowledge and experience, James continues, the extramarginal field, "whatever else it may be, is at any rate a place now admitted by psychologists to exist for the accumulation of vestiges of sensible experience (whether inattentively or attentively registered), and for their elaboration according to ordinary psychological or logical laws into results that end by attaining such a ` tension' that they may at times enter consciousness with something like a burst." This is probably the explanation of sudden revelations, like the thought of natural selection. "The idea came to me," says Alfred Russel Wallace, "as it had come to Darwin, in a sudden flash of insight; it was thought out in a few hours—was written down with such a sketch of its various applications and developments as occurred to me at the moment—then copied on thin letter-paper and sent off to Darwin—all within one week."
The great majority of our judgments and "intuitions" are obtained by this unconscious interaction of extra-marginal, cerebro-mental processes; and the function of the "reason" is rather that of criticising the ideas and beliefs which come to us, as Alfred Russel Wallace once said, "We hardly know how or whence," and of reinforcing those that stand the test. The human mind is at best a very imperfect instrument for thinking. Aside from this imperfection, however, all the data cannot be accumulated at will within a set period. Much of it comes to us unexpectedly through associations started in the marginal and extramarginal region during the lapse of time. "The conclusions at which I have from time to time arrived," says Herbert Spencer, ". . . have been arrived at unawares—each as the ultimate outcome of a body of thought which slowly grew from a germ. Some direct observation or some fact met with in reading would dwell with me, apparently, because I had a sense of its significance. . . . Apt as I thus was to lay hold of cardinal truths, it would happen occasionally that one most likely brought to mind by an illustration, and gaining from the illustration fresh distinctiveness, would be contemplated by me for a while, and its bearings observed. A week afterward, possibly, the matter would be remembered; and with further thought about it might occur a recognition of some wider application than I had before perceived. . . . Again, after an interval, perhaps of a month, perhaps of half a year, some-thing would remind me of that which I had before remarked; and mentally running over the facts might be followed by some further extension of the idea. When accumulation of instances had given body to a generalization, reflection would reduce the vague conception at first framed to a more definite conception; and perhaps difficulties or anomalies passed over for a while but eventually forcing themselves on attention, might cause a needful qualification and a truer shaping of the thought. .. . And thus, little by little, in unobtrusive ways, without conscious intention or appreciable effort, there would grow .up a coherent and organized theory."
Evidently, the organizing activity of brain and mind, below the level of consciousness, is an ally of no mean worth, provided the mind is supplied with the material upon which to work. Merely loading it with facts, how-ever, does not produce the result. In reading or studying, the subject-matter should be systematized to the best of the learner's ability. Questions and problems must be clearly thought if the mind is to do its share toward furnishing the solution. Whatever thinking one does should be orderly. A clear-cut error may lead to truth, but mental confusion never. Force a conclusion or belief back against the wall, doubt its accuracy, cross-examine it, tear its inferences from it; then leave it to its fate, and before many days its truth or falsity will be revealed; and this subconscious cerebral activity is of inestimable importance for learning so far, at least, as knowledge, experience, prejudices, and "intuitions" bear upon our present opinions or the acquisition of new view-points.
Learning, then, we have found to be largely an unconscious process. In acts of manual skill new ways of securing results are happened upon accidentally and adopted. The learner then becomes conscious of their value for the work in hand. It is the trial-and-error method, in which the useless movements are gradually eliminated.
In mental activities the same unconscious adoption of methods of improvement is observable; and in thinking we tend to accept the ideas, beliefs, and opinions which surround us. The conventional views of "our set" are compelling; but "our set" is not altogether local. It includes those of our social standing, respectability, conservatism or radicalism, with whose views we are constantly confronted in the newspapers that we take and the books which we read.
Efficiency requires that the selection of ways and means, as well as of ideas and beliefs, be more conscious and intelligent. Methods of improvement will continue to come accidentally, for this is the nature of the learning process. We should, however, be critical in accepting and adopting them, since only in this way can progress be continuous.
Intervals of cessation of progress are likely to occur in complex acts of manual skill, and at this time practice is especially important. The mind should be active during the practice, in order that errors may be more quickly eliminated and the most effective improvements chosen.
There should be periods of rest in everything—in manual skill that the movements may become "set," and in mental activity to give new ideas a chance to assert themselves. A man who continuously works at white heat will not secure the results that will be obtained by one who stops at times to deliberate. An efficiency expert once told the manager of a large business that his chief defect was lack of leisure moments in which calmly to view his problems. This expert, by observing many men, had discovered one element of efficiency which psychologists have found in their laboratory experiments.
Finally, a man having acquired a degree of efficiency that meets the minimum requirements of his position and enables him to hold it, settles down at that level. He may be capable of much greater achievements, but the situation does not demand more energy. So he does not expend it. We cease to form new habits when no incentives for improvement stir us; and the amount of mental energy expended is as much a habit as is the quantity of physical energy applied to doors with check attachments. There is always adaptation to the needs of situations, but parsimony continually operates. We thus act below our ability unless the conditions force exceptional effort.