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Marion Almira Bills

Birth:
1889

Death:
1970

Training Location(s):

BA, University of Michigan, (1908)

PhD, Bryn Mawr College, (1917)



Primary Affiliation(s):

Carnegie Institute of Technology, (1919-1925)

Aetna Life Insurance Company, (1926-1955)



Media Links:

 

Profiles of the early presidents of Division 14

 

Bills' entry in James McKeen Cattell's American men of science: A biographical directory


Biography:

 

Career Focus: Industrial psychology; personnel selection; personnel evaluation; wage incentive; job permanency

 


 

Marion Almira Bills was born July 5th, 1889 in Allegan, Michigan to parents Martha Rood and Walter H. Bills. She began her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan in 1908 and upon graduation enrolled at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she completed her PhD in experimental psychology in 1917. At Bryn Mawr, Bills studied under Clarence E. Ferree. Ferree and his wife, the Bryn Mawr professor Gertrude Rand, were conducting vision research that led to applications in industrial lighting. Bills’ dissertation, the lag of visual sensation in relation to wave lengths and intensity of light (published as a monograph in 1920), predated the Ferrees’ published work in industrial lighting. However, it might have been through their influence that Bills learned of how psychology could extend to industry.

 

Bills held multiple academic posts after completing her PhD. From 1917 to 1918, she worked as a professor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 1918, she became an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas. In 1919, Bills joined the prestigious faculty of the Carnegie Institute of Technology (CIT) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, first as a research assistant, and in 1920, as an associate director of the Bureau of Personnel Research.

 

The CIT was an early hub of psychological industrial research, particularly in the areas of personnel selection and evaluation. The CIT’s Division of Applied Psychology director was Walter van Dyke Bingham, an enterprising expert in personnel research. Van Dyke Bingham remodelled his division, initially a training institution for industrial psychologists, into a research center that businesses and government agencies could hire for consultation. Changes to the Bureau of Personnel Research involved the adoption of a new name, the Life Insurance Sales Research Bureau (LISRB), and relocation to Hartford, Connecticut. Bills relocated with the LISRB, and Hartford became the site of all her work thereafter.

 

At the LISRB, businesses hired Bills to optimize applicant selection, position assignment, and compensation practices. She drew from the technical language of experimental psychology to disrupt ineffective processes and suggest new ways to improve operations. Bills treated staff evaluation as a problem of maximizing test validity. Recruiting various samples of students, stenographers and comptometers (operators of early calculators), Bills demonstrated that evaluations comprised of a variety of measures and scored by multiple judges reflected respondents’ aptitudes more accurately than single test scores. She framed the problem of employee retention in then-popular Darwinian terms and predicted that employees with high mental alertness would cope well in high-demand jobs but poorly in low-demand jobs, while the inverse was true for employees with low mental alertness. This work, published in Journal of Applied Psychology (see Bills, 1923), became the basis for employee placement guidelines. Bills strove to publish all of her work, an effort uncharacteristic of most industrial psychologists at that time, who generally placed less emphasis on the importance of publication because the value of their work was gauged by the results of its implementation. Publication offered little career incentive for psychologists employed in non-academic industries. Bills argued that reporting results in scholarly journals preserved the relationship between applied psychology and the academic standards and methods that initially allowed the applied field to succeed. Her commitment to engaging with the academic community was recognized; Bills was included in James McKeen Cattell’s 1921 edition of the American Men of Science biographical directory.

 

In 1925, Bills ended her tenure at the LISRB and began her work at the Aetna Life Insurance Company as assistant secretary. The title did not reflect the true nature of her work. Bills continued to conduct psychological research and received voting privileges in the company. At Aetna, Bills designed research to inform wage incentive programs, job classification systems and employee evaluation protocols. She also conducted several studies on the role of gender in job permanency, a line of inquiry she began at the LISRB. With sustained output, Bills broadened her readership and began publishing in management journals in addition to psychology journals. It was difficult to justify publishing industrial research in psychology journals because the applied research setting did not grant sufficient experimental control. Business, however, valued actionable results over statistical significance. By publishing her wage incentive and personnel selection work in journals such as Life Office Management Association (see Bills, 1927a), Bills was able to disseminate her findings to businesses that put her programs into practice outside of Aetna. In 1940, the National Office Management Association awarded Bills the Leffingwell Medal in honour of her contributions to the field.

 

In addition to her occupational commitments, Bills participated in a large number of professional societies. In 1939, she was on the conference programming committee for the American Association of Applied Psychologists’ (AAAP) Board of Governors.  In 1945, Bills and the AAAP partnered with the APA’s Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Inc. to mint the Division on Industrial and Business Psychology, the 14th division of the APA (now the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology). Bills served as the first woman president of the division in 1951. Where there were no organizations, Bills initiated her own professional groups. She founded the Connecticut Valley Association of Psychologists (later the Connecticut State Psychological Society), where she served as the second president from 1945 to 1946. Here, she championed the creation of the Connecticut Certified Psychologists Act, the first United States law to control the certification of psychologists according to standards set by an appointed board of psychologists. She also founded Psychologists Employed Full Time in Industry, an informal group that assembled at APA meetings to discuss research that was otherwise local to each psychologist’s own workplace. The first meeting, held in Bills’ hotel room in 1947, had a humble attendance of no more than 20 psychologists; by the 1960s, the meetings became too large to organize on a volunteer basis, and the group was phased out.

 

Bills retired from Aetna in 1955. In her later years, she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She died of the disease in 1970, at the age of 81. Her participation in an applied field conformed to expectations of female psychologists at the time, but her commitment to furthering the integrity of industrial psychology was singular. Bills was amongst the cadre of female industrial psychologists that spurred applied work to greater standards of research, practice and professional organization. 

 

By Tal Davidson (2015)

To cite this article, see Credits


Selected Works:

 

By Marion Almira Bills

 

Bills, M. A. (1923). Relation of mental alertness test score to positions and permanency in company. Journal of Applied Psychology7(2), 154.

 

Bills, M. A. (1927a). An application of principles of the individual bonus plan to home office clerical work. Life Office Management Association, 192, 153-159.

 

Bills, M. A. (1927b). Permanence of men and women office workers. Journal of Personnel Research, 5(10), 402-404. 

 

About Marion Almira Bills


Koppes, L. L. (1997). American female pioneers of industrial and organizational psychology during the early years. Journal of Applied Psychology82(4), 500-515.

 

Koppes, L. L., & Bauer, A. M. (2014). Bridging science and practice. Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology6, 103-116.