Hugo Munsterberg

Hugo Mnsterberg: the Rise, the Fall, the Legacy


Alan Kunz Lomelin

February 26, 2015

Hugo Mnsterberg was a pioneer who revolutionized and strengthened psychology in the United States. Mnsterberg left a legacy from his work as a scientist, philosopher, and psychologist. His influence on the fields of applied, forensic, and industrial psychology have shaped and have expanded the future of the American psychological movement and its influence over several different fields.

Mnsterbergs career began in Germany, but with the help of American psychologist William James he was able to bring his ideas and writings to the American public. Mnsterberg received his doctoral degree in Leipzig under Wilhelm Wundt, where he wrote his thesis titled The Doctrine of Natural Adaptation. After Leipzig, he continued his medical studies in Heidelberg, where he wrote his thesis on target separation and received his Dr. med in 1887. He then became a teacher at the University of Freiburg, where he taught epistemology, ethics, philosophy of natural sciences, psychology, and education. A year later he published On Voluntary Action: A Contribution to Physiological Psychology , in which he challenged Wundt by claiming that There is a psychological counterpart in the brain for every psychological action (Spillmann, 1). Mnsterberg categorized psychology into two areas: scientific (applied) and nonscientific (purposive), but he placed a larger emphasis on scientific psychology. In 1891, he was promoted to associate professor at Freiburg and began his studies on how body/brain and soul/consciousness are interrelated (2). Mnsterbergs findings were greatly criticized in his own country, but praised in England and the United States. In 1889, Mnsterberg met William James at the First International Congress of Psychology in Paris. James admired his work and considered him the ablest experimental psychologist in Germany (3). In 1892, James invited Mnsterberg to a five-term sabbatical at Harvard to set up a laboratory of physiological psychology (this new laboratory would be rated most important in the country) (3). After Mnsterbergs sabbatical was finished, James offered him a permanent position at Harvard, but Mnsterberg returned to Freiburg to try to gain a position at a German university. Since Mnsterberg was unsuccessful in all his attempts to gain a position at a prestigious German University, he decided to accept James offer (4). In 1897, Mnsterberg moved to Cambridge and succeeded William James as head of the Psychology department (William James changed from professor of psychology to professor of philosophy to allow Mnsterberg to take over the Experimental Psychology department at Harvard). This greatly advanced Mnsterbergs career. He accomplished many things in the following years: he was elected president of the American Psychological Association (1898), published his first book (Psychology and Life) in English (1899), and established Harvard Psychological Studies (5) . Mnsterberg was a loyal and patriotic German citizen, but it was the United States that offered him the opportunity to expand and cultivate his new and sometimes controversial ideas.

The influential works and beliefs that Mnsterberg introduced to the field of psychology made him the best psychologist of America at the time, but also one of the most hated. Hostile sentiments towards Mnsterberg started in 1989 when his article, The Danger of Experimental Psychology, was published by Atlantic Monthly magazine. In his article, Mnsterberg expressed his discontent with G. Stanley Halls child study. Mnsterberg believed that the results of Halls experimental findings, used to understand children, could not be used by teachers in real life scenarios. He also argued that teachers were not qualified to make the assessments proposed in these studies. Mnsterberg argued that the quantitative measurement of mental states was an illusion (Benjamin, 2). Mnsterberg also attacked Edward Wheeler Scriptures book The New Psychology (2). James showed Mnsterbergs address attacking Scriptures book to his friend Walter Page (an editor for Atlantic Monthly ), and Page invited Mnsterberg to publish his address. These critiques also served as a response to many attacks and criticisms that Scripture had made against James, Mnsterberg, and the Harvard Institute. Mnsterbergs critiques on child studies made him unpopular in the eyes of psychologists like James McKeen Cattell and E. L. Thorndike (3). Eventually Mnsterberg would shift his work and beliefs on applied psychology from opposition (in his article in the Atlantic Monthly ) to influential support in the areas of industrial, forensic, and scientific psychology.

The development of applied psychology led to the creation of a new branch focused on vocational guidance. This new movement started after Mnsterberg published his book Vocation and Learning: A Popular Reading Course. This could be considered the first psychological theory of vocation, which attempted to match people with careers. This theory would eventually influence Hollands theory of career personality (Porfeli, 1). Mnsterberg began his research in this field as an associate of Frank Parsons (a law professor at Boston University). Their research together would lead Parsons to become the founding father of vocational guidance and Mnsterberg of applied psychology (3). Mnsterberg claimed that a big problem of the time was the shift to an industrial economy that made it hard for the youth to find employment in areas that were relevant or suited to their needs and abilities. Mnsterberg wrote a five-part book as a response to this problem. This was meant to be a correspondence course that combined a three-part triangular psychological theory of vocation and a trait-and-factor approach (4). Mnsterbergs theory of vocation defined vocation as being composed of thinking, feeling, and doing. In his book, he analyzes peoples vocations and qualities under these categories to help people find a vocation that best suited their talents and knowledge; Mnsterberg believed that psychologists were best fitted for this job, while Parsons believed counselors should be in charge of vocational guidance. Counselors viewed Mnsterberg as a threat to their practice and psychologists saw his theories on applied psychology as a source of embarrassment, which might be the reason why many of his theories on vocational guidance dissipated (4). Mnsterberg is not commonly known for his influence in vocational guidance, but it was his work in this field that led to the creation and development of industrial psychology (5).

Mnsterberg was an influential figure in the development and application of industrial psychology (IO) for personnel selection and advertising. His first book on IO was Vocation and Learning (described above); later he wrote Psychology and Industrial Efficiency , which showed improved methods.   Psychology and Industrial Efficiency was divided in three parts: selection of workers, the improvement of worker efficiency, and the stimulation of the economy throughmarketing and advertising (Moskowitz, 12). He proposed two methods to determine job requirements and the creation of aptitude tests; first, analyze a task and its psychological components, and then create tests that assess each component. Mnsterberg believed that we should focus on other important factors that might influence industrial efficiency such as working environment, physical conditions of workers, and psychological conditions of workers. These are the most influential ways in which Mnsterberg participated in the movement and growth of industrial psychology in America (12).

Mnsterbergs research and methods were also essential for the application of psychology in a court of law and the development of the psychological branch known as forensic psychology. Mnsterbergs popularity in this field increased after his involvement in two criminal cases. In the case of William Haywood (accused of conspiring to kill the ex-governor of Idaho) he was called as a scientific expert to determine the credibility of the only witness to the crime, Harry Orchard (self-confessed mass murderer). His work defined the beginning of forensic psychology in the United States (8). Mnsterberg also published articles describing the different apparatuses that he used in his laboratory as lie detectors. He showed that there was a visible difference between an eye witness testimony and the objective truth, and he made people aware of the horrors of forced confessions. The other case that contributed to the increase in Munsterbergs popularity involved a young man accused of murder who gave a full confession after intensive questioning (the man was convicted and hanged). A nerve specialist from Chicago contacted Mnsterberg and described the case, the facts, and the behavior of the young man before, during, and after the trial, with the hope that Munsterberg could give him his expert opinion on the case. Mnsterberg replied in a letter claiming that according to his analysis, the young man was innocent. This letter was later found and published, which resulted in a great increase in Munsterbergs popularity. His involvement in these two cases and his new interest in the application of psychology in law led him to write his essays On the Witness Stand (8).

On the Witness Stand is a series of essays that Mnsterberg published to describe his research on eyewitness testimony, false confessions, and the different uses of psychology in legal problems. In the first chapters Mnsterberg describes how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be, and he gives a personal account proving this. Mnsterberg describes the time when someone broke into his house and the police asked him to describe the scene and any relevant information about what had happened. Mnsterberg gave his description, but it was incredibly inconsistent with the deductions that the detectives confirmed to be true (Mnsterberg, 43). It was at this time that Mnsterberg realized the horrible truth that witnesses every day affirm by oath in exactly the same way much worse mixtures of truth and untruth (43). Mnsterberg argues that just as a railroad company would not hire a man who has not been tested for color blindness ( risk of confusing red and green on the job), a court cannot take witness testimonies as absolute truth without further investigation, because in both cases the consequences of hiring or trusting such a man can be disastrous (68). Mnsterberg argues that the problem is that the law does not care to examine the mental color blindness of the witnesss testimony (69). Another problem with eyewitness testimony Mnsterberg notices is that a recollection may be entirely distorted by suggestive side influences (197). Mnsterberg points out how the media and local rumors can be a suggestible influence in witnesses recollections. He claims that everything becomes unintentionally shaped and molded (197). He argues that these new ideas will be rejected and fought by memory at first, but as the suggestions become stronger, the original memory will lose its power (197). Mnsterberg also points out that we must not only fear the suggestibility of the criminal or the witness, but also that of the juryman (198). Mnsterberg describes the problems with confessions on one of his essays, where he points out how in a criminal procedure there cannot be any better evidence than a confession... [yet] experiences have suggested a certain distrust of confessions (143). He talks about the dangers of suggestive questions and how they can affect recollection during confessions. Suggestibility interferes with the pursuit of justice and Mnsterberg argues that only psychological experiment can bring such deficiency to light (199). He argues that by allowing suggestion to happen in a court of law we stop practicing law and begin practicing politics (199). In his essays, On the Witness Stand , Mnsterberg made a major contribution to forensic psychology by bringing to light many problems in the court system and the conviction of criminals, to which he thought psychology could provide solutions.

Mnsterbergs final years were characterized by widespread hatred, rejection, and isolation from the American public. A major factor that fueled American hatred towards Mnsterberg was his extreme patriotism for his German homeland. He was greatly criticized for his pro-German statements during World War I, where he declared the righteousness of German aggression (Benjamin, 1). Mnsterberg also considered German culture as superior to that of America and worked to convince Americans of the many values and practices that they needed to adopt from his homeland (7). American hatred increased from Mnsterbergs attempts to reconcile the ideals of the two countries and his attempts to dissuade the US from entering the war, which rekindled earlier accusations from Harvard alumni who claimed he was a German spy (Spillman 11). Anti-German sentiment turned Mnsterberg into an outcast in Harvard, and even his life was threatened at some points. Mnsterberg lost his reputation, friends, colleagues, and credibility. Mnsterberg died on December 17, 1916 at the age of fifty-three from a cerebral hemorrhage. Mnsterbergs departure had a major impact in Harvards psychology department, and it would take years before this institution could achieve the prestige it once had (13).

William Stern wrote Mnsterbergs obituary, in which he describes the many inner struggles that Mnsterberg had to face throughout his life. Stern starts out by describing Mnsterbergs first conflict as a man with two Fatherlands (Stern, 1), whose goal throughout life was to strengthen the relations between them. Stern described the second conflict as Mnsterbergs attempt to reconcile psychology and philosophy. He described this as the two souls in Mnsterberg, which never were completely harmonized (2). Stern then points out the importance of the books that Mnsterberg wrote and how they introduced us to various new uses of psychology in administration of justice, the healing of the sick, education, and industrial life (3). The world can agree that when Mnsterberg died, psychology lost one of its most influential figures, whose thoughts and theories introduced us to the different applications that psychology can have over multiple areas of our lives (3).

Mnsterbergs theories were criticized and rejected at first, but it is now undeniable that they have had great influence in the development of psychology in the United States. The world can see that throughout his life, his love for America and his loyalty to his homeland played a major role. He considered himself a representative of German knowledge in America, and an ambassador of American strengths and virtues in Germany (Spillman, 9). Mnsterberg is rightfully titled the father of Applied Psychology. His contributions in the fields of experimental, industrial, and forensic psychology have been instrumental in the development of the theories and methods used today. Throughout his life Mnsterberg was admired by many and despised by many others, but it is undeniable that his work laid the foundation for modern psychology and its applications.


Works Cited

Benjamin, L.J. (2006). Hugo Mnsterbergs attack on the application of scientific psychology. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 91 (2), 414-425. Doi:10.1037/0021-9010.91.2.414

Moskowitz, M.J. (1977). Hugo Mnsterberg: A study in the history of applied psychology. American Psychologist, 32 (10), 824-842. Doi:10.1037/0003-066X.32.10.824

Mnsterberg, H. (1915). On the witness stand: Essays in psychology and crime. New York, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company.doi:10.1037/10854-000

Porfeli, E. J. (2009). Hugo Mnsterberg and the origins of vocational guidance. The Career Development Quarterly, 57 (3), 225-236.

Spillmann, J. L. (1993). The rise and fall of Hugo Mnsterberg. Journal of The History Of The Behavioral Sciences, 29 (4), 322-338.

Stern, W. (1917). Hugo Mnsterberg: In memoriam. Journal Of Applied Psychology, 1 (2), 186-188. Doi:10.1037/h0074508.


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