Hugo Münsterberg (June 1, 1863 - December 19, 1916) was a German-American psychologist. He was a pioneer of applied psychology, extending his research and theories to legal, medical, clinical, educational, and business settings.
He made significant contributions to Clinical Psychology. In his work with mental patients, he discounted the unconscious postulated by Sigmund Freud. Rather he believed that all psychological processes had a parallel physical process in the brain, and thus that mental illness had a physical cause.
He is considered by many "the father of industrial psychology," whose work in this area paved the way for the modern industrial-organizational psychology. His research on eyewitness testimony set up some fundamental insights in forensic psychology. There, he brought attention to the role of experience and memory on the perception and recall of events, showing that different people will describe the same event quite differently.
Münsterberg remained loyal to his native Germany, despite the outbreak of the First World War. This, and other views that he held, led him into considerable controversy, overshadowing his professional achievements. Nevertheless, his work inspired other researchers, and many of his ideas have been influential.
Hugo Münsterberg was born on June 1, 1863, in Danzig, Prussia (today Gdansk, Poland). His father, Moritz, was a merchant who bought lumber from Russia and sold it to England. His mother, Anna, was an artist who continued working while taking care of her four sons. As a child, Münsterberg learned to play the cello, and also wrote poetry. It was this artistic environment that influenced the development of Münsterberg’s early psychological theories.
Münsterberg was educated at the Gymnasium of Danzig, where he graduated in 1882. In 1883, he enrolled at the University of Leipzig where he met Wilhelm Wundt, who invited him to join the psychology laboratory. Münsterberg received his Ph. D. in psychology in 1885, with a dissertation on the doctrine of natural adaptation. In 1887, he received his medical degree at Heidelberg. His degrees enabled him to lecture as a privatdocent at Freiburg. In the same year he married Selma Oppler, from Strasbourg.
In 1891, Münsterberg was promoted to assistant professor and attended the First International Congress in Psychology in Paris, where he met William James. They kept up a frequent correspondence and in 1892, James invited Münsterberg to come to the United States, to Harvard, for a three year term as chair of the psychology lab. Münsterberg accepted the offer and spent three successful years in Harvard.
In 1895, he returned to Freiburg due to uncertainties of settling in America. However, in 1897, he decided to return to Harvard in response to an urgent invitation from James and Harvard’s president. In 1898, he was elected President of the American Psychological Association and in 1910, was appointed exchange professor from Harvard to the University of Berlin.
Münsterberg was a vocal critic of prohibition, arguing that drinking alcohol in moderate amounts could be beneficial to German-American beer brewers. In gratitude for his efforts against prohibition, brewing companies donated money for his project of boosting the German image in the United States.
Münsterberg encountered immense turmoil with the outbreak of World War I. Torn between his loyalty to America and his homeland, he often defended Germany's actions, attracting criticism.
He remained at Harvard until his sudden death in 1916, while on a lecture platform.
Münsterberg had a strong interest in mental illness. He did not, however, treat his clients in the traditional way, within a clinical setting. Instead, he took interest only in patients who had scientific value to him, counseling them in his laboratory. His studies led him to publish the book, Psychotherapy (1909).
Münsterberg's work was grounded in the theory of psychophysical parallelism, which argued that all psychological processes had a parallel physical process in the brain. He believed that mental illness had a physiological basis and made diagnoses based on behavioral observations, an interview, and answers received by the patients whom he interviewed. He frequently used direct suggestions and auto-suggestions in treatment, reporting success in his treatment of drug addiction, phobias, sexual disorders, alcoholism, and obsessions. He never charged a counseling fee.
Münsterberg was a pioneer of industrial psychology. He wrote the book Psychology and Industrial Efficiency (1913) which looked at problems of monotony, attention, and fatigue, physical and social influences on working power, the effects of advertising, and the future development of economic psychology. He believed that the key to workplace efficiency was matching jobs with workers' emotional and mental abilities, and that successful matches generated satisfied employees, quality work, and high productivity.
Münsterberg created a series of mental tests and job questionnaires to test the applicants’ knowledge, skills, and abilities. He also conducted research on several different occupations, seeking evidence for a correlation between mental tests and job performance. One of the results of his research was that there was a negative correlation between job efficiency and worker’s talking on a job. Münsterberg suggested a re-arrangement of the workplace to increase difficulty for workers to talk to each other, which in turn increased job productivity.
Münsterberg called for the creation of an independent science—industrial psychology—which would use insights from psychology to create a better atmosphere in the workplace, higher job efficiency, and greater job satisfaction. He was an admirer of Frederick Winslow Taylor, and wrote to him in 1913:
Our aim is to sketch the outlines of a new science, which is to intermediate between the modern laboratory psychology and the problem of economics. [Industrial psychology was to be] independent of economic opinions and debatable … interest.
Münsterberg wrote several papers on the application of psychological information in legal situations. He focused his research mostly on eyewitness testimony, analyzing how people see or remember things, and how they form memories. He was able to prove that people perceive and interpret things differently. He also found that people’s own interests, experiences, and biases influenced how they recollect specific events.
In 1908, Münsterberg published his book, On the Witness Stand, which talked about psychological factors that can affect the outcome of a trial. He argued that witnesses’ testimony in the courtroom cannot be taken for granted, since witnesses are prone to suggestions. He also looked into false confessions, saying that certain types of people, like those who have a strong need to please, would confess to a crime they had not committed.
During one murder trial, Münsterberg administered around 100 mental tests to a confessed killer who claimed that labor unions hired him to commit murders. After analyzing the tests, Münsterberg stated that the murderer was telling the truth, but the judge dismissed Münsterberg’s claims. As a result, Münsterberg’s credibility suffered.
Münsterberg held rather controversial views on women. He believed that women were incapable of rational thinking, and thus should not be allowed to serve on juries or enter into graduate schools. He believed that graduate work was too demanding for them. He also warned of women teaching in public schools, as being poor role models for boys.
Münsterberg's negative views of women and his personal stubbornness in many matters also contributed toward his image as a controversial figure. His loyalty to his German homeland and his work to promote its image in the United States in the middle of World War I additionally reinforced such an image.
In fact, many of his views were controversial, as were those of his followers. One of Münsterberg’s favorite disciples, Lillian Wald, became a powerful advocate of medical incursions into public schools. She wrote in 1905: "It is difficult to place a limit upon the service which medical inspection should perform … Is it not logical to conclude that physical development…should so far as possible be demanded?" One year later, immigrant public schools in Manhattan began performing tonsillectomies and adenoidectomies without notifying parents.
Münsterberg remains best remembered for his contributions to industrial, forensic, and clinical psychology. His work on the correlation between job and personal variables established some key knowledge in the area of industrial psychology. His use of tests to measure personality traits and skills required for certain jobs was indeed pioneering. Modern organizational psychologists employ a wide range of psychometric tests to measure the abilities and personality traits of prospective and current employees.
Münsterberg’s work inspired numerous psychologists, remaining influential well into the 1950s. His views in forensic psychology were rather controversial in his time, but many of them proved correct, especially in the area of witness testimony.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
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