Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916)

Münsterberg was born in Danzig, Germany (now called Gdansk, Poland). He attended the local gymnasium and had wide interests including music and poetry. He became a more serious student after his mother died when he was 12 years old. He first attended the University of Geneva briefly but then moved to Leipzig intending to pursue a degree and career in medicine. But, after hearing Wundt lecture, Münsterberg switched to psychology. Three years later, after receiving his PhD under Wundt, he completed his medical degree at the University of Heidelberg. He then secured a faculty appointment at the University of Freiburg. There using his own money, he set up a small psychology laboratory and began to experiment in psychophysics. Titchener and Müller, however, criticized his work saying that it deviated too far from Wundtian principles. Münsterberg did not emphasize emotion enough for them. James, though, found his work appealing and was impressed with Münsterberg following their meeting in Paris. Three years later, James convinced him to leave Germany and to take over the Harvard psychology lab. Münsterberg agreed to come to Harvard on a three-year trial basis, much to James’ pleasure. That was when James dropped his title of professor of psychology and reverted to professor of philosophy. After Münsterberg’s three years were up, he returned to Germany for two years. Once again, James and Eliot were successful in getting Münsterberg to return to Harvard, this time for good.

Early on, James had noticed Münsterberg’s seemingly limitless capacity for work. At Harvard, Münsterberg continued to work at a frenetic pace. However, he soon abandoned the line of experimental research he had pursued in Europe. In its place, he began to work in more practical and applied areas. One of those areas was clinical psychology. Münsterberg conducted some of the earliest examples of clinical

FYI: Research vs. therapy-the late Israel Goldiamond once told me his operational definitions of research and therapy. Research, he said, is when you pay the subject. Therapy is when the subject pays you. By those definitions, Münsterberg was doing research and not therapy.

research. He did not charge his patients and only met with them if he found their cases interesting. Therapy, however, was only one of his applied interests. Another was forensic psychology, the study of human behavior as it relates to crime and its punishment. Münsterberg’s 1908 book, On the Witness Stand, pioneered the development of that area of applied psychology.

Border with social science: Eyewitness testimony- Münsterberg was the first psychologist to research the fallibility of eyewitness testimony and the coerced extraction of confessions. But, his research had little influence on how police interrogated witnesses following crimes or on how they interrogated suspects. It was not until after the dogged efforts of Elizabeth Loftus (1979) that psychological research actually led to changes in police practices in interviewing witnesses (Wells, Memon, & Penrod, 2006) and minimizing the possibility of false confessions due to coercion (Napier & Adams, 2002).

Münsterberg also was among the first to examine the relationship of psychology to the workplace. He founded yet another applied field, industrial psychology (now called industrial-organizational psychology). There he investigated hiring, improving worker efficiency, and advertising. Münsterberg’s greatest contribution to psychology was founding the area of applied psychology. As noted in chapter 1, the area of applied psychology employs the vast majority of psychologists today.

Despite his significant contributions, Münsterberg is today relatively unknown. The main reasons for that were his activities before and during World War I. He kept his German citizenship, never becoming a naturalized American citizen. In 1910, before the War, he even attempted to strengthen the relationship between Germany and the United States by serving as the director of the American Institute in Berlin. After the War began, relations between the two countries deteriorated quickly due to Germany’s invasion of the neutral countries of Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland; done in order to bypass French fortified positions. British propaganda about the violation of neutrality successfully mobilized anti-German sentiments in the United States. Münsterberg, by then a well-known public figure, never ceased to justify the German cause in the war. That led to death threats, accusations of being a spy, and rumors of him being in the employ of the German government. One day, while lecturing at neighboring Radcliffe, Münsterberg collapsed and died in front of his students. Mostly likely, the stress of the war and his defense of his native land contributed to his sudden passing. Münsterberg was the last of the major European talent imports in the young history of American psychology (although the rise of the Nazis after 1933 led to a second wave of European psychologists coming to the United States). Americans who had gone to Europe for their training made up the bulk of the next generation of psychologists. When they returned home, they founded laboratories and conducted research in two new and distinctly different schools of psychology, functionalism and behaviorism. Before those schools fully emerged, however, there were psychologists already at work who did not neatly fit into those yet to emerge schools of thought. One of those was G. Stanley Hall.

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