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Hugo Münsterberg Biography

By

Hugo Munsterberg
Public Domain
"The story of the subconscious mind can be told in three words: there is none." --Hugo Münsterberg

Best Known For::

  • Pioneer of applied psychology, including industrial-organizational, clinical and forensic psychology.

Birth:

Hugo Münsterberg was born in Danzig, Germany on June 1, 1863.

Death:

He died on December 16, 1916.

Hugo Münsterberg's Early Life::

Hugo Münsterberg was born in Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland) to a merchant father and artist mother. The family had a great love of the arts, and Münsterberg was encouraged to explore music, literature, and art. When he was 12, his mother passed away. His mother's death marked a major change in the boy's life, transforming him from a carefree child to a much more serious young man. Münsterberg wrote poetry, played the cello, published the school newspaper, and acted in local plays. In 1880, his father also passed away.
After graduating from the Gymnasium of Danzig in 1882, he enrolled at the University of Leipzig. While he initially began studying social psychology, Münsterberg later turned his interest to medicine. After meeting psychology pioneer Wilhelm Wundt, who encouraged him to become part of the psychology lab at the university, Münsterberg decided to devote himself to the study of psychology. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1885 under Wundt's tutelage, and then earned a medical degree at the University of Heidelberg in 1887.

Hugo Münsterberg's Career::

In 1887, Münsterberg accepted a position as a private tutor and lecturer at the University of Frieburg and later published a small volume entitled Activity of the Will. The book was criticized by Wundt as well as Edward Titchener who wrote, "Dr. Münsterberg has the fatal gift of writing easily - fatal especially in science...where accuracy is the one thing most needed." William James, on the other hand, was greatly impressed by Münsterberg's ideas, especially because they supported James's own theory of emotion.
In 1891, he became an assistant professor at the University of Leipzig. The same year, he attended the first International Congress of Psychology in Paris, France where he met American psychologist William James. The two continued to meet and correspond quite frequently and in 1892, James asked Münsterberg to take charge of the psychology lab at Harvard. Due to his poor English-speaking skills at the time, he generally remained at in the lab and published his work in German. James McKeen Cattell suggested that the Münsterberg's lab was "the most important in America."

After a three year period at the lab, Münsterberg was offered a permanent position. He declined the offer, and chose to instead return to Europe. Two years later, he returned to Harvard, where he continued to work for the rest of his life. In 1898, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association.

His support for Germany during World War I made him the focus of considerable criticism, both in the press and among other faculty members at Harvard. On December 16, 1916, Hugo Münsterberg died suddenly of a massive cerebral hemorrhage, collapsing before he was able to finish delivering his opening sentence at a lecture at Radcliffe.

Hugo Münsterberg's Contributions to Psychology::

Münsterberg is noted for his influence on applied psychology, especially clinical, forensic, and industrial psychology. His 1909 paper titled "Psychology and the Market" suggested that psychology could be used for a variety of industrial applications including management, vocational decisions, advertising, job performance, and employee motivation. His research was later summarized in his book Psychology and Industrial Efficiency (1913), which suggested that hiring workers who had personalities and mental abilities best-suited to certain types of work was the best way to increase motivation, performance, and retention.
Hugo Münsterberg is also well-known for his contributions to forensic psychology. His 1908 book On the Witness Stand detailed how psychological factors can influence the outcome of a trial. In the book, he discussed problems with eyewitness testimony, false confessions, and interrogations.

While his influence on psychology is without question, his views on women are frequently criticized. While he believed that women should receive a higher education, he felt that graduate studies were too difficult and demanding. He also suggested women should not be allowed to serve on juries because they were "...incapable of rational deliberation."

His role as a self-appointed spokesman for Germany during the first World War made him a target of disdain among many and perhaps explains why his important legacy was dismissed and neglected for many years. As David Hothersall suggested, at the time of Münsterberg's death he was "hated by more Americans than any psychologist before or since." While many psychology history books devote little space to Münsterberg and his influence, his ideas continue to shape and contribute to modern psychology.

Selected Publications by Hugo Münsterberg:

  • Münsterberg, H. 1908. On the Witness Stand. New York: Doubleday.
  • Münsterberg, H. 1908. Psychology and Crime. London: T.F. Unwin.
  • Münsterberg, H. 1909. The Eternal Values. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Münsterberg, H. 1909. Psychotherapy. New York: Moffat, Yard.
  • Münsterberg, H. [1913] 2005. Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Adamant Media Corporation.
  • Münsterberg, H. 1914. Psychology and Social Sanity. London: T.F. Unwin.

References

Domingue, E. & Rardon, J. (2002) Hugo Munsterberg. Earlham College, http://www.earlham.edu/~dominel/webpage.htm.

Hothersall, D. (1995). History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2004). A History of Modern Psychology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Stern, William. (1917). Hugo Munsterberg: In memoriam. Journal of Applied Psychology, 1 (2), June, 1917, 186-188.

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