Hugo Münsterberg and Applied Psychology

Hugo Münsterberg (1863 - 1916)

Hugo Münsterberg (1863 – 1916)

On June 1, 1863, German-American psychologist Hugo Münsterberg was born. Münsterberg was one of the pioneers in applied psychology, extending his research and theories to Industrial/Organizational, legal, medical, clinical, educational and business settings. He was a forerunner in the field of behaviorism: in theoretical psychology, his “action theory” defined attention in terms of the openness of the nerve paths to the muscles of adjustment.

The Birth of Forensic Psychology

Hugo Münsterberg highly supported the idea that psychologists are responsible of uncovering information that could then be used in real world applications. He was among the first to apply psychology to legal studies, thus creating forensic psychology and he authored several works on psychological information in legal situations. Further, Münsterberg applied psychological principles to the field of clinical psychology intending to help those who are ill through a variety of different treatments.

Ahead of his time was his appeal to tasks and methods of psychology, written in 1891:

“This demand is that no mediciner or lawyer, theologian or pedagogue of the university may enter the profession without having proven his knowledge of the psychological phenomena in a thorough examination independent of philosophy”. (1891, S. 272).

On the Witness Stand

On the Witness Stand‘ was a controversial book regarding forensic psychology, published in 1908. In it, the author discusses the psychological factors that can change a trial’s outcome and pointed the way for rational and scientific means for probing the facts claimed by human witnesses by the application of experimental psychology to the administration of law. He further emphasizes reasons why eye witness testimony is inherently unreliable. Münsterberg argues that the a subject’s perceptions could be affected by the circumstances they are in, resulting in inaccurate testimonies, even though the individuals do not intentionally change the facts.  Münsterberg performed experiments on psychology students, testing (for instance) their perception of time and sound descriptions, concluding that one cannot rely on the accuracy of a normal person’s memory.

Industrial Psychology

Considering the field of industrial psychology, Münsterberg’s best known works are ‘Vocation and Learning‘ and ‘Industrial Efficiency‘, published in 1912 and 1913. His research in the field dealt with topics like hiring workers who had personalities and mental abilities best suited to certain types of vocations as the best way to increase motivation, performance, and retention, methods of increasing work efficiency, and marketing and advertising techniques. Hugo Münsterberg was among the first to tackle the issue scientifically, creating tests granting a more objective view on job candidates and measuring their personality, intelligence and various personality traits in order to find the right individual for the right job.

Career and Later Life

Hugo Münsterberg studied psychology at the University  of Leipzig and became Wilhelm Wundt‘s research assistant there.[4Münsterberg earned his Ph.D. in physiological psychology in 1885 and continued his education in Heidelberg where he received his medical degree. After a short term of teaching at Freiburg, Münsterberg was invited to Harvard for a three-year term as a chair of the psychology lab. Hugo Münsterberg stayed longer in Harvard than first expected and there he was affiliated with many organizations including the American Psychological Association of which he became president in 1898. Münsterberg actively supported an improvement of the relations between Germany and the United States and during a one year appointment as exchange professor from Harvard to the University of Berlin, he founded the Amerika-Institut. However, when World War I started, Münsterberg was suspected of being a German spy and many colleagues  disassociated themselves from him. Hugo Münsterberg died in 1916.

Applied Psychology: The Legacy of Functionalism – Ch8 – History of Modern Psychology, [7]

References and Further Reading:


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