Walter Scott: A Shift in Applied Human Resources

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Walter Dill Scott (1869-1955) was an American professor who taught psychology at Northwestern University. In 1903, he wrote The Psychology of Adversting, Theory and Practice. It’s one of the oldest copywriting books in print—a gem in the industry. His finesse with words and personal charisma drove sales and won him many business partners over his life.

His contributions to the field of industrial-organizational (IO) psychology focused upon personnel selection and has influenced modern-day human resources (HR). He saw a future with a kinder, more tolerant workplace filled with peace and productivity. His egalitarian viewpoint earns the admiration from IO psychologists to this day!

Walter Scott greatly admired the work of Wilhelm Wundt, who distinctly separated psychology from philosophy. Unlike many famous founders of IO psychology who pivoted their way into the field, Scott was an industrialist from the start, as he wrote marketing copy for work.

During the first World War, he offered to implement his scientific hiring processes to incoming members of the Navy. His tests turned out to be a great success and received praise from managers and crew (~300,000 men). It was a big hit among his community!

With his hard work, he earned the medal for distinguished army service in 1919. This inspired him to run a company for employee selection, and found success almost immediately. Walter Scott’s ability to match a person to a job was unmatched at the time.

He later carried on to share his insights about consumer psychology and how it can be applied in advertising. The main takeaway from his concept of persuasion was that consumers purchase desires instead of needs.

Key Contributions to Applied Human Resources

Key takeaways from Walter Scott:

  • Likert tests that measured desirable characteristics for a position (i.e., accuracy, appearance, demeanor, judgement, neatness)
  • Optimal vocational selection and placements increase workplace productivity and efficiency
  • Employees had both psychic (self-expression, social approval, meaningful work) and economic (salary) needs
  • Importance of employers vesting a sincere interest in their employees’ welfare and efforts
  • Various tests of aptitude, personality, and skills are necessary to gain a holistic picture of an individual’s potential

“For success, attitude is equally as important as ability.”

Final Thoughts on Walter Scott

As a copywriter turned industrial-organizational psychologist, Scott played a huge fole in the development of human resources. He was a hard worker and believed self-efficacy played a key role in occupational success. During his tenure, he was often criticized by businessmen for being “too liberal” in his beliefs.

Between 1910 and 1911, Scott wrote eleven in-depth articles titled, The Psychology of Business for System within the span of 19 months. He emphasized that interviewers should ask open-ended questions that allow a candidate to fully express their thoughts and opinions. By doing so, the chances of a better person-job fit will rise.

Walter Scott has been known to be a modest man with a strong sense of social justice by his community. His out-of-the-box ways of thought and passion for improving pre-existing systems helped shape the future of HR for the better. We now have various policies governing the health and wellbeing of workers, which can be traced back to Scott’s contributions.


Bazar, Jennifer. (2015). World War I and Clinical Psychology.

Biddix, J. & Schwartz, Robert. (2012). Walter Dill Scott and the Student Personnel Movement. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. 49.

Buckley, M. & Norris, Amy & Wiese, Danielle. (2000). A brief history of the selection interview: May the next 100 years be more fruitful. Journal of Management History (Archive). 6. 113-126.

McMillan, Sarah & Stevens, Sonya & Kelloway, Kevin. (2009). History and Development of Industrial/Organisational Psychology in the Canadian Forces Personnel Selection Branch: 1938-2009. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne. 50. 283-291.

Scott, W. D., “Personal Differences in Suggestibility,” Psychological Review, XVII (March, 1910), 147.

Scott, W. D., “Selection of Employees by Means of Quantitative Determinations,” American Academy of Political and Social Science, Annals, LXV (May, 1916), 182.

Vinchur, A.J. & Bryan, L.L.K.. (2012). A History of Personnel Selection and Assessment. The Oxford Handbook of Personnel Assessment and Selection.

War Department, The Personnel System of the United States Army, Volume I, History of the Personnel System (Washington, 1919), 42.

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Walter Scott

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