Münsterberg, Hugo

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Münsterberg, Hugo 1863-1916


The science of psychology in the United States dates from the early laboratories of the 1880s, yet it quickly spread beyond the laboratory into several applied fields in the early twentieth century. Arguably, no figure in American psychology was more identified with the promotion of applied psychology than Hugo Münsterberg. By 1916 he had published influential books on forensic psychology, educational psychology, psychotherapy, industrial psychology, and the psychology of motion pictures. Münsterberg was born June 1, 1863, in Danzig, Germany. According to biographer Matthew Hale Jr., when Münsterberg died on December 16, 1916, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was arguably the best-known psychologist in America and the most prominent member of Americas largest minority, the German-Americans (1980, p. 3).

Münsterbergs roles as public psychologist and German nationalist defined his years in the United States. He earned his PhD in psychology in 1885 at the University of Leipzig under Wilhelm Wundt (18321920), usually acknowledged as the founder of scientific psychology. Münsterbergs experimental work there was principally on the subject of the will. In 1887 he earned a medical degree from the University of Heidelberg, and then began his academic career in that same year at the University of Freiberg. Münsterbergs research showed that the will was not directly experienced, but was the result of the perception of changes in muscles, joints, and tendons. That finding was in opposition to Wundts ideas about voluntary control, a controversy that brought attention to Münsterbergs work. One admirer was William James (18421910), who invited him to come to Harvard University in 1892 to direct the psychology laboratory.

Münsterberg accepted Harvards invitation for a three-year period, but then returned to Germany. He hoped to secure a position in one of Germanys more prestigious universities, but when that was not forthcoming he returned to Harvard in 1897. He remained there for the rest of his career.

The laboratory did not hold Münsterbergs interest for long. His first book in English, Psychology and Life (1899), was based on a series of articles in the popular press. It gave him a taste of the role of psychological expert and seemed to lure him into a greater public presence. On the Witness Stand (1908), also based on popular articles, delved into the accuracy of memory, eyewitness testimony, false confessions, lie detection, and jury deliberations. It is considered the pioneering book in forensic psychology. In 1913 he published his most influential work, Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, a book that was popular with American managers seeking to increase efficiency. Münsterberg was interested in matching worker abilities to job requirements. He believed that psychology possessed the tools to create that match by determining the psychological traits required for any job and using mental tests to identify suitable workers. In a time in which efficiency was the watchword for American business, Münsterbergs book promoted opportunities for psychologists in the business world, especially in advertising and employee selection.

Münsterberg also served as a spokesperson for German culture in the United States, a task he carried out in books, magazine articles, letters to editors, and public speeches. His defense of Germanys aggression in the early years of World War I (19141918) made him despised by most Americans, including his Harvard colleagues. He lived the last few years of his life as a social outcast, the stress of which perhaps contributed to his death at age fifty-three.


Benjamin, Ludy T., Jr. 2006. Hugo Münsterbergs Attack on the Application of Scientific Psychology. Journal of Applied Psychology 91 (2): 414425.

Hale, Matthew, Jr. 1980. Human Science and Social Order: Hugo Münsterberg and the Origins of Applied Psychology. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Münsterberg, Hugo. 1899. Psychology and Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Münsterberg, Hugo. 1908. On the Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology and Crime. New York: Doubleday, Page.

Münsterberg, Hugo. 1913. Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Ludy T. Benjamin Jr.

Münsterberg, Hugo

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Münsterberg, Hugo



Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916) made his greatest contribution by applying psychology to practical situations in education, medicine, law, and business. He pioneered in this field when most psychologists were still working only on basic theoretical principles. Münsterberg also did theoretical work, but he is best remembered for several books in special applied fields and for his very comprehensive (for his time) Grundzüge (1914a).

Most of these practical contributions were made in the eight or nine years prior to his untimely death. Münsterberg was born in Danzig in 1863, took his PH.D. under Wundt at Leipzig, and received a medical degree at Heidelberg. In 1892 William James arranged to bring him to Harvard as professor of psychology and director of the psychology laboratory. Except for a year as exchange professor at the University of Berlin in 1910/1911, the remainder of his career was spent at Harvard.

Münsterberg’s initial academic interests were principally philosophical. His system was sometimes described as a “voluntaristic idealism.” He placed a barrier between philosophy and science, philosophy the “real world” of purposes and science limited to causes. Later he tried to formalize this arrangement as causal psychology and purposive psychology. This dichotomy was included in his introductory textbook, but it was not received very well by students in the beginning course; nor did it have much impact on philosophers in general. The same thing was true of his “action theory,” which stated that the vividness of experience depends on the amount of activity in the cerebral motor centers.

It was in applied psychology that Münsterberg’s work had a lasting effect, although much of it was generated in the armchair rather than in the laboratory. His books mentioned numerous implications of psychology for problems in the workaday world and gave suggestions for further exploration and research. He did some experimental work himself and supervised research by students.

One field he explored was the use of psychology in business and industry. He made some of the first efforts toward validating aptitude tests. In an era when a correlation coefficient was something rarely understood or used, Münsterberg was in some fashion relating test results to a criterion of efficiency of workers on the job—motormen and telephone operators, for example—and he saw the implications of fatigue and monotony for industrial efficiency. He was one of the first to get in touch with business people to suggest ways psychology could help them. He was also in contact with aeronautical engineers regarding psychological problems connected with flying

Another field which Münsterberg explored was education. His contributions here were less notable in the sense that he did not stand alone. Many academic educators had contacts with psychologists, and together they turned up problems of common interest.

With his medical background Münsterberg had

some experience with problems of mental health and did some work in therapy by suggestion. He was among the early users of hypnotism in psychotherapy. During his later years he kept on his desk as a symbol of his interest in hypnosis a paperweight consisting of four glass balls in the form of a tetrahedron. The center of this device provided a good fixation point for a patient being hypnotized.

In the field of law, and especially in regard to testimony, Münsterberg noted how mistakes in perception or lapses in memory contribute to the unreliability of a witness. Nobody else wrote along these lines for two decades. In the 1890s Münsterberg suggested that changes in blood pressure might have some relation to the veracity of testimony. The first experimental work on blood pressure in this context was done by a student in Münsterberg’s laboratory. Records of blood pressure are now included in the measurements made by practically every polygraph used for “lie detection.”

Miinsterberg’s contribution to applied psychology had two further facets: first, he let outsiders know how psychology might help them in practical problems; and second, he convinced a small group of psychologists that practical application of the science was a legitimate field for a career. This group has grown through the years.

Had Münsterberg lived longer, it is probable that he would have turned back to philosophy as his major interest. It is said that he had hoped to spend his later years in one of the endowed professorships of philosophy. If that had been possible, his professional life would have come full circle, but Münsterberg died suddenly while lecturing at Radcliffe College in 1916.

Harold E. Burtt

[For the historical context of Münsterberg’s work, see the biography ofWundt. For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, see Aptitude Testing; Hypnosis; Industrial Relations, article On Industrial and business psychology.]


1908 On the Witness Stand. New York: Doubleday.

1909a Psychology and the Teacher. New York: Appleton.

1909b Psychotherapy. New York: Moffat.

1913 Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

(1914a) 1928 Grundzüge der Psychotechnik. 3d ed. Leipzig: Barth.

1914b Psychology, General and Applied. New York: Appleton.


Münsterberg, Margarete 1922 Hugo Miinsterberg: His Life and Work. New York: Appleton.