Psychology History

Hugo Munsterberg

(1863 - 1916)

Compiled by Kyle Harrington (May 1997)


Time Line

Hugo Munsterberg is a pioneer in the fields of Industrial (I/O), Experimental , and Clinical Psychology. Also, he championed behaviorism, investigated the value of prayer, and challenged the effectiveness of eye witness testimonies. He was a famous Harvard professor who helped redefine Wundtian psychology into its modern form. However, the last years of his life were spent in stress and sorrow, and today, he is barely ackowledged.

Dr. Munsterberg was born in Danzig Germany on June 1, 1863. His father, Moritz Munsterberg was a lumber merchant who bought lumber in Russia and sold it in England. His mother, Anna Munsterberg was an artist and although she took devoted care of her four sons, she had plenty time to continue her paintings and drawings. It was in this atmosphere of broad and intelligent thinking and reverence for the arts that Munsterberg spent a happy, care free childhood.

Munsterberg's education began with kindergarten. After a few years at a private school, he entered the Gymnasium of Danzig at the age of nine. His mother died when he was twelve and this first and great sorrow changed him from a child into a serious youth. In 1882, he passed his final examination of the Gymnasium with credit, and as he had desired to see more of the world, he enrolled for a semester at the University of Geneva, where he improved his French Language and literature. In September of this same year, he began his serious studies at the University of Leipzig. He started in the field of social psychology but soon changed to the field of medicine. In 1883, he had the honor of attended lectures by Wilhelm Wundt and was so deeply moved that he decided to devote his life to the subject, and entered the psychological laboratory at Leipzig, which has been the training grounds of many American psychologists.

In 1885, he received his Ph.D. degree in psychology with his dissertation on the doctrine of natural adaptation. Then, he went to Heidelberg to continue his medical studies and in the summer of 1887, he received his medical degree and passed an examination which would allow him to lecture as "privatdocent" at Freiburg. During this time, he lectured mainly on philosophy. There was no psychological laboratory at the University so Munsterberg equipped rooms in his own house with certain apparatus and attracted many students from Germany and other foreign countries.

In 1891, he was promoted to assistant professorship and also attended the First International Congress of Psychology at Paris. It was here that he first met William James. They corresponded frequently over the next few years and James was so impressed by Munsterberg's genius that in 1892, he invited him to come to Harvard for three years to take charge of the psychological laboratory which was then located in old Dane Hall at Harvard. He was extremely successful as a teacher and administrator that he was offered a permanent professorship. He declined the offer due to uncertainty of settling in America, and returned to Freiburg. Two years later he returned to Harvard in response to urgent invitations from James and Harvard's president.

Munsterberg's abilities were recognized far beyond the Harvard commmunity. In 1898, he was elected president of the APA. In 1910, he was be appointed exchange professor from Harvard to the University of Berlin. Inspired by the belief that harmony among nations could be brought about only by fostering the cultural ties between them, he devoted much of his time to the creation of the American Institute. On his return to Harvard, he and his students devised a number of ingenious tests to administer to the personnel of a variety of industrial plants.

In psychology, Munsterberg had two principles. He believed that the casual law held for mental phenomena in so far as they were correlated with physiological processes. Here, he was a determinist. When, however, he considered the mental from the viewpoint of values, he believed in freedom. Munsterberg's chief contribution to the theoretical psychology was his "action theory" which defined attention in terms of the openness of the nerve paths to the muscles of adjustment. This makes him a forerunner in the field of behaviorism. He was devoted to America, but always remained loyal to his own country, and so from the first days of the war, he continued to write in defense of Germany's motives and ideals. This resulted in violent criticism and attack, and the loss of numerous friendships. And, it overshadowed his remarkable contributions.

Munsterberg's Work

Hugo Munsterberg's work in industrial / organizational (I/O) psychology was extremely experimentally based. He looked at problems with monotony, attention and fatigue, physical and social influences on the working power, the effects of advertising, and the future development of economic psychology.

Munsterberg felt that it was unimportant wether or not the results of his experiments stood the test of further experimental investigations. They should only reflect what has been accomplished and encourage continuous effort. "To stimulate such further work is the only purpose of this sketch"

Munsterberg felt that the future work in I/O psychology will have to be a work of cooperation. The nature of these problems demand a relatively large number of subjects for the experimental treatment. Munsterberg wrote that in most experimental researches, the norm was the number of subjects in the experimental condition is not so important. In applied psychology however, Munsterberg advocated that the number of subjects plays an important role. His work in the field of I/O psychology is presented his 1913 book, Psychology and Industrial Efficiency.

Munsterberg's also looked at the reliability of eye witness testimonies. Within this area are studies that essentially deal with the mind of the witness. He studied illusions, the memory of the witness, and the prevention of crime. Through his work with illusions, Munsterberg brings to light how differently we view or arrange events. Viewing pictures made of dots, subjects would look at the pictures for a period of time and would then be asked to write down what they saw. His findings show that each picture was interpreted differently by each subject. After this finding, he turned to the memory of the witness. Here, Munsterberg pointed out events in his own life of a burglary at his home that affected his ability to recall certain aspects. Munsterberg finds that his own interests, experiences, and biases played a role in his recollection of the events.

For example: A basement door was broken into, candle wax was on the attic floor, and a mantel clock wrapped in a table cloth lay on the table. When Munsterberg was giving this information in court, he found that he was wrong on all accounts. He stated that the burglars entered through a basement window. That the clock was packed with wrapping paper, and that the wax was on the second floor. Later, during re-examination, he noticed the clock, but the impression of it wrapped in a table cloth was not important. Also, he could visualize the wax on the floor, but he did not visit his attic on a regular basis so no association was made. These findings alerted psychologists to a field that needed much attention and are presented in his 1908 book, On the Witness Stand.

Time Line Of Munsterberg's Life

1863 Born in Danzig Germany, June 1.
1882 First semester at the University of Geneva
Started at the University of Leipzig in September
1883 Attended first lectures of Wilhelm Wundt
1884 Passed preliminary exam
1885 Earned Ph.D. in psychology. Dissertation on Doctrine of Natural Adaptation
1887 Earned medical degree, became Privatdocent at Freiburg
Married August 7 to Selma Oppler
1888 Published Die Willenshandlung
1889 Published Beitrage Zur Experimentellen Psychologie
Attended first international congress of psychology at Paris
1891 Promoted to assistant professorship
1892 Invited to Harvard for three year term as chair of psychology lab
1895 Returned to Freiburg
1897 Returned to Harvard in response to urgent invitations
1898 Elected president of American Psychology Association (APA)
1900 Published Grundzuge Der Psychologie
1901 Published " American Traits From The Point Of View Of A German"
1903 Dream of lab especially equipped for experimental psychology on May 25
Editor of four volumes of the Harvard Psychological Studies (1903-1915)
1905 Published "The Principles of Art Education"
1908 Published "On The Witness Stand "
1909 Published "The Eternal Values"
Published "Psychology and The Teacher "
1910 Appointed exchange professor from Harvard to University of Berlin
Creation of the American Institute in Berlin
1912 Attended meeting of German Experimental psychologists
1913 Published "Psychology and Industrial Efficiency"
1914 Published "Psychology and Social Sanity"
Published Grundzuge Der Psychotechniic
Published first and only textbook, "Psychology, General and Applied"
1916 Published "Tomorrow"
Died December 16, 1916


Hothersall, David. (1995) History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
Munsterberg, Hugo. (1907) On The Witness Stand. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company.
Munsterberg, Hugo. (1913) Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Shultz, Duane P., and Schultz, Sydney E. (1994) Psychology and Work Today. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
Scott, W. D. (1911) Influencing Men In Business. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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