The Basics of Human Factors Psychology

How to Become a Human Factors Psychologist

The Basics of Human Factors Psychology

As technology progresses and our tools become ever more sophisticated and capable of doing more for us, the human factor becomes ever more important.

A carriage driver who had an accident during the 19th century could have caused some property damage, serious injuries, or even death to a few people.

His descendant working as an air traffic controller could cause the death of hundreds of people in a jumbo jet collision.

Human factors psychologists look at how to ensure that the human factor is the best it can be. They study workplaces and work with engineers and other designers to make sure that factories, offices, and other places of employment are comfortable and safe for workers. They study why errors are made and what factors should be changed to prevent their happening again.

What Does a Human Factors Psychologist Do?

Human factors psychology (also known as ergonomics or human engineering) is an interdisciplinary field that enhances the design of products, systems and environments, making them safer, more productive and more “user-friendly.”

Though this is largely an applied field, human factors psychologists can conduct various types of psychological research, including interviews, scientific experiments, and various types of psychological tests. They can perform research in a multitude of areas, including safety, efficiency, human fatigue, worker morale, management systems and training techniques.

These psychologists can work in just about any environment that includes people, products or machines, and they can help design anything from toothbrushes to electronic equipment to nuclear power plants.

They often work for companies who design tools, machines, computers, telecommunications, equipment, entertainment or other products. But they can also work for the Federal Government in the designing of housing, transportation, weapons, ships, or aerospace equipment.

They can also serve as general consultants for governmental officials.

Not only do human factors psychologists concern themselves with worker safety, but also with the long-term well-being of workers. They design equipment and machines that reduce the repetitive actions and movements that can cause long-term physical ailments tendonitis, over-use syndrome, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome in workers.

These psychologists also consult with managers and workers in order to develop better safer and more efficient work habits and methods. They can provide training or re-training of employees and managers in order to increase productivity. This can lead to less down time and fewer health problems for workers while also improving worker efficiency and decreasing a company’s costs.

Human factors psychologists can also help improve the work environment itself, making it safer, cleaner and more efficient. They can improve environmental factors the lighting or temperature of the work environment, as well as decrease negative factors vibration, dirt and pollution.

Human factors psychologists work with a wide assortment of people from various other fields, so they must have a basic knowledge of at least some of these fields, such as biomechanics, cognitive psychology, anthropometry, industrial design, industrial engineering, industrial and organizational psychology, information design, kinesiology and physiology.

What are the Educational Requirements to Become a Human Factors Psychologist?

The education required for an entry level psychologist is a doctoral degree in psychology. The degree can be either a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) or a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD).

To become eligible for graduate studies, an aspiring human factors psychologist needs to enroll in a baccalaureate degree program. A Bachelor of Arts (BA) or Bachelor of Science (BS) with a major in psychology can be attained in four years of full time study at a university. A bachelor’s degree is usually composed of at least 120 semester units.

A full course load is considered 15 units, and full time students typically spend 8 semesters matriculating. General education courses include English, political science, history, humanities, science, and foreign languages, which make up approximately three quarters of a typical student’s undergraduate work.

Students usually complete 30 or more semester units in psychology.

Related: Difference Between Applied Psychology and Experimental Psychology

Some universities that offer a bachelor’s degree in human factors include Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida and Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.

Embry-Riddle’s program includes exciting courses designed for the cutting edge in technology, including subjects human factors in space, aviation psychology, and simulating humans in complex systems, to name just a few.

Texas Tech offers courses such as psychology of lifespan development and aging, cognitive ergonomics, and several other interesting courses.

High school students looking toward a career in human factors psychology should see the schools’ catalogs and speak to guidance counselors at the schools. Many other online and campus-based universities offer bachelor’s degree programs in general psychology with at least some of the same course material.

Graduate Degree

Aspiring human factor psychologists should apply to graduate school during their senior year of undergraduate work.

Schools that offer graduate programs in human factors psychology include, but not limited to, Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, Wichita State University in Wichita, Kansas, George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Undergraduate students should study catalogs and discuss their plans with faculty advisors at the universities in which they are interested.

PhD Degree

Doctoral programs usually offer students the opportunity to have actual supervised experience in their field. A dissertation is also required.

A doctoral candidate selects a faculty adviser and faculty committee to guide him or her in selecting a topic for research, designing a study, carrying it out, and interpreting results. The student then writes a report, or dissertation, which he or she presents to his or her faculty adviser and committee.

If the dissertation is acceptable to the faculty, the candidate is granted his or her doctoral degree. Graduate studies at the doctoral level can typically take 3 to 5 years.

What is an Online Program in Human Factors Psychology?

Online human factors degree programs focus students’ attention on developing a deep understanding of the psychological, biological, physical, and social characteristics that influence the manner in which humans interact with machines, technology, and everyday products. Students in these programs acquire the ability to take that knowledge and apply it to design products such that they are more intuitive, usable, and function better for the end user.

Typical classes in an online human factors psychology program will include statistics, experimental methodologies, industrial engineering, and, of course, various psychology courses. Much of the coursework in these programs centers around a research component, as psychologists that work in the human factors field will conduct a lot of research, regardless of the work setting.

Online studies in human factors have the same goal as traditional on-campus programs: to prepare students for employment in government, academics, research, or industrial settings. As a result, online programs will seek to provide students with as many opportunities as possible to get hands-on experience via practicum or internship placements.

Graduates in this field may find work in a wide variety of fields and applications. Many graduates work in business and industry where they provide insights into the manner in which customers interact with certain products.

Other human factors psychology graduates strictly conduct research for independent research facilities or government entities.

Still other graduates work with designers to provide insight into how a product should be designed, such as the size or shape of the product, or the size and placement of any buttons or labels.

Getting Licensed

States, territories, and provinces require every practicing psychologist to have a license issued by their Board of Psychology or Board of Psychology Examiners. To become licensed, psychologists must show proof of attaining their doctorates as well as fulfilling other requirements created by each board.

The majority of boards require a passing grade on the Examination for Professional Practice in Psychology (EPPP). The examination was written by the Association of State and Provincial Psychology Boards based upon a 2010 survey of professional psychologists. The Association charges $600.

00 to take the test and local testing boards may charge additional fees.

Most psychology boards also require practical experience, Michigan, for example, requires candidates to have 500 hours of practicum during training and 2000 hours of experience with a temporary license before psychologists can be awarded a permanent license. Some boards require special tests on their own state laws as well.

Future psychologists should check with their state boards for individual licensing requirements. Licenses are usually granted for 2 years, and psychologists are required to take continuing education courses to keep abreast of new discoveries in psychology and to maintain their licenses.

What are the Careers in Human Factors Psychology?

Human factors psychologists can work for government agencies such as the Occupational Safety and Heatlh Administration (OSHA) or the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA).

They can study how to make the human/machine interface more efficient in industry or help design training simulators and test pilots for ability to handle airplanes safely. They can work for industry finding ways to make electronic devices more user-friendly.

They can do basic research on perception and working with machines in universities.

As technology and people interact in more ways the field of human factor psychology will continue to present an ever-changing challenge.

Useful Resources


Academics and Curriculum

The Basics of Human Factors Psychology

Human factors psychology is an interdisciplinary field that discovers and applies information about human behavior, abilities, limitations, and other characteristics to the design and evaluation of products, systems, jobs, tools, and environments for enhancing productive, safe, and comfortable human use.  General information about the discipline may be found at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society website.

The Human Factors program in Wright State University Department of Psychology is accredited by Human Factors Ergonomics Society.

Human factors psychology at Wright State University emphasizes that human factors and industrial/organizational (I/O) psychologists work best together to produce results that neither specialty could achieve alone. Students who major in human factors have industrial/ organizational psychology, as a minor area of focus.

  Our program is designed to foster an understanding of the relationships between both specialties.  Students prepare for this by learning the fundamentals of each specialty then interacting with one another in a wide variety of basic and applied research settings.

This unique, multidimensional education prepares students for careers in business and industry as well as research, teaching, government, and consulting.

 Ten tenured or tenure-track psychology faculty mentor graduate students majoring in Human Factors.

Faculty research interests span neurophysiological mechanisms to multi-person collaborative work, including neuroergonomics, sensory and attentional processes, stress, visual-spatial functions, memory, executive control, expertise, decision making, reasoning, language, strategic interaction, affect, and teamwork. Research methods include experimentation and field studies, and employ brain imaging, mathematical modeling, computational cognitive architectures, statistics, and task and work analysis. Research findings inform applications in training, assessment, human-computer interaction, intelligent interfaces, trust in autonomy, and aging. Many ongoing projects are interdisciplinary collaborations with defense, medicine, computer science and engineering. Please click here to see detailed lab descriptions.

Wright State University also offers a master’s level degree in industrial and human factors engineering housed in the College of Engineering and Computer Science. More information can be found at their website. 

Industrial/Organizational Psychology

Industrial/organizational or I/O psychology is concerned with individual, group, and organizational behavior in work settings.

Industrial-organizational (I/O) psychologists contribute to an organization’s success by improving the performance and well-being of its people.

An I/O psychologist researches and identifies how behaviors and attitudes can be improved through hiring practices, training programs, and feedback systems.

I/O psychologists apply their knowledge of human personality structures, social motivational processes, and statistical measurement to tasks such as selecting people who fit a given work environment or designing more effective organizational structures. I/O psychologists often focus on improving the motivation, performance, training, and job satisfaction of individuals


Industrial/organizational psychology has its historical origins in research on individual differences, assessment, and the prediction of performance.

This branch of psychology first began during World War I, in response to the need to rapidly assign new troops to duty stations. After the war, the growing industrial base in the United States furthered the need for I/O psychology.

I/O psychology continued to gain popularity after World War II, influenced by results from the Hawthorne studies.

What I/O Specialists Do

An industrial-organizational psychology specialist helps develop strategies that build better organizations. An I-O psychologist can help you with staffing, workforce development, and workplace climate issues.

  • Recruit people that best fit your organization.
  • Hire better people.
  • Retain the best people.
  • Develop fair, legal, and efficient hiring practices.
  • Improve the skills of the people you already have.
  • Create a diverse and qualified workforce.
  • Develop performance management systems.
  • Minimize absenteeism.
  • Eliminate harassment and discrimination.
  • Foster a team environment.
  • Increase motivation and dedication.


  • Testing: test development, including tests of job knowledge, skills, reasoning, personality, and physical abilities; assessment centers; certification testing; multimedia testing (Web-based, video, etc.

    ); interpretation of test results; test fairness; test-taker perceptions

  • Selection and Promotion: recruiting; hiring; structured interviews; succession planning; performance appraisal and management
  • Training and Development: computer-based learning; executive coaching, management development, mentoring, and leadership; competency modeling; team design, and training; measuring training effectiveness
  • Employee Attitudes and Satisfaction: involvement and empowerment; retention; job satisfaction; burnout, conflict, and stress management; aging and retirement; gender issues; resignation and voluntary turnover
  • Employee Motivation: factors that motivate employees to perform effectively

Organizational Development:

  • Change Management: mergers and acquisitions; group processes; process reengineering; productivity and quality improvement; strategic planning
  • Surveys: climate and culture
  • Job design and evaluation
  • Organizational structure
  • Team building
  • Workforce planning (downsizing and rightsizing)
  • Cross-cultural and diversity issues 
  • Impact of technology in the workplace
  • Customer service issues

Human Resource Management: I/O psychologists can provide scientific research that HR managers can use in developing strategies and decisions

  • Legal: analysis of issues and expert testimony on EEO/AA, ADA, OSHA, and other issues; discrimination; jury decision processes
  • Workplace Health: ergonomics, human factors, and safety; overcoming stress; workplace violence
  • Compensation and Benefits: pay, perks, rewards, and recognition
  • Employee Behavior: harassment; absenteeism; discipline
  • Employee Issues: union and labor relations
  • Work–Life Programs: flexible work arrangements, quality of work life, work–life balance, working parents, and telecommuting
  • Performance Evaluations and Assessments: design of job performance measurement systems for feedback and performance improvement

Research Expertise:

  • Research design and methods
  • Data analysis and statistics
  • Statistical models
  • Data privacy, confidentiality, and ethics 
  • In-depth knowledge of the research on employee attitudes and behaviors as they relate to organizational performance

Degree Requirements

View Human Factors and Industrial/Organizational Psychology, Ph.D. program information and degree requirements in the Academic Catalog.


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