Hugo Munsterberg Biography – Contributions To Psychology

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Hugo Münsterberg's research has helped to resolve a number of issues related to people's health, work, and education. He is widely considered to be one of the founding fathers of applied psychology, forensic psychology, and I/O psychology.

Hugo Munsterberg

Who IS Hugo Munsterberg?

Hugo Münsterberg was a German-born American psychologist who believed that psychology should be used to help solve real-world problems within human behavior. He pioneered applied psychology in the United States and made a significant impact in the fields of industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology, forensic psychology, and clinical psychology.

Hugo's Early Years

Hugo Münsterberg was born on June 1, 1863 in Danzig, Prussia (now known as Gdansk, Poland). His parents were Moritz Münsterberg and Minna Anna Bernhardhi. Moritiz fathered two sons—Otto and Emil—with his first wife. After his first wife passed away suddenly, Moritz married Anna (a cousin of his first wife) who eventually gave birth to Hugo and Oscar.

Hugo was raised in a middle-class Jewish family. However, he did not identify with his Jewish heritage. His father, Moritiz, was a partner in a lucrative lumber business that bought lumber in Russia and sold it to merchants in England and Scotland. His mother, Anna, was a well-known musician and artist who continued to work while she took care of the four children.

The Münsterberg family had a love for music, literature, and art. Moritz and Anna made arrangements for Hugo to attend a private grammar school before enrolling at the Academic Gymnasium Danzig when he was nine years old. As a young boy, Hugo was encouraged to write poetry, play the cello, write for the school newspaper, and perform in local plays. However, his mother Anna died prematurely when he was only 12 years old.

Death of Hugo's Mother 

After his mother's death, Münsterberg developed a much more thoughtful and serious personality. He began to focus more on intellectual pursuits outside of the school curriculum. He developed an interest in archeology as well as several foreign languages, including German, Arabic, and Sanskrit. In his spare time he played sports or went dancing.

Moritz was overcome with grief after losing a second wife and devoted all of his spare time to raising his sons. His parenting methods emphasized self-discipline, academic achievement, and cultural education. In addition to their academic studies, the boys were also given moral education at the Academic Gymnasium Danzig. Hugo graduated from the Gymnasium in 1882.

Death of Hugo's Father

Sadly, Moritz was unable to see Hugo graduate as he passed away in 1880. Hugo was 17 years old when his father died. Despite their parents' early deaths, the Münsterberg boys remained close to each other and continued to focus on their individual pursuits. In time, all four siblings found success in their respective careers.

Educational Background and Career

After leaving the Academic Gymnasium Danzig, Hugo Münsterberg enrolled at the University of Geneva to study French literature and the French language. However, he left after just one semester and registered at the University of Leipzig in 1883. Münsterberg was initially interested in social psychology, but he decided to focus on medicine. Later that year, he attended a lecture by Wilhelm Wundt which reignited his interest in psychology.

University of Liepzig

Münsterberg joined the psychology lab at the University of Leipzig and eventually served as Wundt’s research assistant. He also continued his studies in medicine. In 1885, he earned his PhD in psychology after submitting his thesis titled The Doctrine of Natural Adaptation. He earned his medical degree from the University of Heidelberg in 1887.

University of Freiburg

Münsterberg’s medical degree allowed him to teach courses at the University of Freiburg. His lectures during this period were primarily on philosophy. As the University of Freiburg did not have a formal psychology lab, Münsterberg fitted rooms in his own house with equipment for psychological research. The work he did in his makeshift lab soon began to attract students from all over Germany and international students from foreign countries.

Münsterberg conducted research on topics such as attention, perception, learning, and memory. In 1887, he published a volume titled Activity of the Will. The volume attracted much criticism from psychologists Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Titchener. However, psychologist William James was fascinated with Münsterberg’s research and concepts.

Harvard University

It wasn’t long before Hugo Münsterberg was promoted to assistant professor. In 1889, he met William James at the First International Congress of Physiological Psychology which was held in Paris, France. The men kept in touch with each other over the next couple years. In 1892, an impressed James offered Münsterberg the opportunity to come to Harvard University for three years and serve as chair of the psychology lab.

When Münsterberg arrived at Harvard, he did not speak fluent English. As a result, he spent most of his time in the psychology lab and published his research in German. However, he learned the English language very quickly and became very popular with the psychology students at the university. He did such an excellent job as a lecturer and an administrator that he was offered a permanent position at Harvard.

Despite the offer that was on the table, Münsterberg decided to go back to Germany in 1895. However, he returned to Harvard as a full professor in 1897 when he did not obtain the teaching position he desired in Freiburg. Münsterberg's professional accomplishments, popularity, and influence in the academic world continued to increase after he came back to Harvard. He was elected president of the American Psychological Association in 1898 and elected president of the American Philosophical Association in 1908.

University of Berlin

Although he found professional success in the United States, Münsterberg remained emotionally attached to his homeland, Germany. In 1910, he was asked to serve as an exchange professor from Harvard to the University of Berlin. Münsterberg used his writing to try to improve relations between the United States and Germany. However, as World War I approached, his pro-German stance was viewed with increasing suspicion by people in America.

The last years of Münsterberg's life were filled with high levels of stress. He was severely criticized by the scientific community for openly supporting German policies and was even suspected of being a German spy. Münsterberg spoke and wrote about inaccurate stereotypes that Germans and Americans held about each other. However, his outspokenness led to his receiving death threats and many of his colleagues at Harvard eventually distanced themselves from him.

Munterberg’s Views on Psychophysical Parallelism

Munsterberg agreed with the concept of psychophysical parallelism. Psychophysical parallelism is a dualist theory that states that the mind and the body function in parallel (or move in harmony) but they do not directly interact or cause changes in each other. Munsterberg believed that physical actions always correlate perfectly with specific processes in the brain. Much of his early research on perception, attention, learning, and memory was centered on psychophysical parallelism.

Münsterberg’s Influence on Applied Psychology

In the early 1900s, Münsterberg’s research began to focus on how psychological research could benefit specific industries. He found approaches such as Titchener’s structuralism to be precise, but much too restrictive to be useful. Münsterberg rarely gave a fixed definition of psychology because he believed it may lead to strict rules and inflexibility. He wanted psychology to be viewed broadly and psychological techniques to be widely applicable in the service of humanity.

Münsterberg’s approach contributed to the development of applied psychology. Applied psychology aims to solve problems in human behavior. Problems that may be addressed with applied psychology include work issues, education issues, and health issues. Approaches such as clinical psychology, medical psychology, industrial and organizational psychology, and forensic psychology are specialty fields that fall under the umbrella of applied psychology.

Clinical Psychology

Münsterberg was very interested in mental health. In line with his thoughts on psychophysical parallelism, he believed that a person’s mental health concerns were associated with issues in that individual’s biochemistry. Münsterberg’s approach to treating people with mental health issues was quite unique. For example, he saw clients at his lab rather than at a mental health clinic and he refused to charge his clients a fee because they were of scientific interest to him.

Before he offered a diagnosis, Münsterberg would observe his client’s behavior and conduct an interview. He also used word association tests as needed. If the client demonstrated that he or she could contribute to the advancement of science and was not suffering from psychosis, Münsterberg continued with treatment. Münsterberg did not believe that psychosis was treatable because he associated it with damage to brain cells or other parts of the nervous system.

Münsterberg aimed to provide immediate relief to the clients he treated. His methods involved the use of suggestions and autosuggestions to increase his clients’ expectations that their health would improve. Münsterberg reported several successes using this approach. For example, he claimed that he was able to assist people with issues such as drug addiction, alcoholism, hallucinations, obsessions, sexual issues, and phobias.

Contributions to Industrial and Organizational (I/O) Psychology

Münsterberg conducted several experiments on human behavior in the work environment. Some of the topics he studied include monotony, the influence of advertising, attention and fatigue, and physical/social influences on work performance. Münsterberg’s book Psychology and Industrial Efficiency (1913) is considered to be the first ever textbook on industrial and organizational psychology. The book was divided into three primary sections:

  • The best possible man for the job - this section covered the selection of workers
  • The best possible work - this section highlighted issues that may affect worker efficiency
  • The best possible effect - this section covered techniques in sales, marketing, and advertising

Münsterberg’s research laid the groundwork for the development of industrial and organizational psychology. This form of psychology involves the scientific study of human behavior in work and organizational settings. Although it is true that general psychology focuses on human behavior, the importance of I/O psychology should not be overlooked. This is because people often behave very differently at work than they do in other areas of life.        

Contributions to Forensic Psychology

Münsterberg made massive contributions to the development of forensic psychology. He demonstrated that psychological factors could influence the outcome of court cases and highlighted how psychological data could help bring clarity to legal situations. Some of the topics he researched included eyewitness testimony, human memory, and untrue confessions.

Eyewitness Testimony

In the case of eyewitness testimony, Münsterberg showed that different people may process and arrange information in different ways. In one of his experiments, students in his psychology class at Harvard were shown images that were made up of random dots. Afterward, he asked how many dots were shown. The answers he received varied greatly despite the fact that his students were exposed to the same image for the same length of time. 

Münsterberg believed that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable because human memory is often unreliable. He argued that an individual's memory can be influenced by his or her personal experiences, biases, and interests. Münsterberg found that untrue confessions (where an innocent person confesses to a crime) are more likely if intense interrogation techniques are used when questioning people who have a strong need to please authority figures. Individuals who are depressed and believe they deserve punishment are also more likely to confess to crimes they did not commit.

Applications of Munterberg’s Theories

Münsterberg's research has been implemented in many fields such as business, criminal justice, education, and mental health. His contributions to the development of I/O psychology were instrumental in highlighting how employees behave in work settings. This type of data helps companies to:

  • Select the right people to maintain or increase company production
  • Evaluate and improve how their employees work
  • Identify factors in the workplace that affect employee happiness, performance, and wellbeing

While organizations clearly benefit from Münsterberg's research, it can also help individuals who plan to work in an organizational setting. For example, understanding why people behave the way they do can make communication with managers and coworkers easier. Improved communication skills and a thorough understanding of human motivation in the workplace are also helpful when negotiating a new contract and managing personal career goals.

Münsterberg highlighted the need for judges, lawyers, and juries to be cautious when listening to eyewitness testimony as this form of evidence may be less reliable than it appears to be. He also showed how environmental and psychological factors may impact the likelihood of getting a false confession. Münsterberg's contributions encourage professionals in the legal system to become more objective in how they examine any evidence that is presented. As a result, individuals who have actually committed crimes are more likely to receive the punishment they deserve and innocent people are less likely to go to prison.

Münsterberg encouraged psychologists to focus on solving problems in human society rather than simply learning for learning’s sake. His example prompted his contemporaries to examine ways psychology can be used in clinical settings. Münsterberg’s view that mental health issues are linked with underlying physical conditions is widely accepted today. This perspective has informed many current body-mind treatments such as yoga, tai chi, massage therapy, and dance therapy.

Criticisms of Munterberg’s Theories

Münsterberg has been criticized for his stance on psychophysical parallelism. He insisted that there is no causal relationship or interaction between mental and physical processes, despite many empirical studies showing that there is a very high degree of correlation. Modern science calls for the assumption of a cause when the coefficient of correlation between two factors approaches 1.

Münsterberg publicly disagreed with Freud's theory of psychoanalysis and rejected the existence of the unconscious. While many researchers today do not place the same emphasis on the unconscious as Freud did, some researchers have also criticized Münsterberg for his complete dismissal of unconscious psychological material. Münsterberg was also criticized by two of his contemporaries—Wundt and Titchener. Wundt disagreed with Münsterberg's views on free will, while Titchener believed that Münsterberg's experimental methods were flawed.

A considerable amount of criticism has been levied at Münsterberg for his views on women. Although he believed that women should receive an education, he claimed that they were unable to think rationally so they should not be allowed to attend graduate school or used on juries. Münsterberg also believed that women should not be employed as teachers in public schools as they provided poor role models for boys. However, most of the criticism he received throughout his career stemmed from his public support of Germany in the years leading up to the outbreak of World War I.

Hugo Munsterberg's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments

Hugo Münsterberg was a very prolific writer over the course of his career. Some of his most impactful works include:

  • Psychology and Life, 1899
  • American Traits from the Point of View of A German, 1901
  • The Americans, 1904
  • The Principles of Art Education, 1905
  • The Eternal Life, 1905
  • Science and Idealism, 1906
  • On the Witness Stand: Essays on Psychology and Crime, 1908
  • The Eternal Values, 1909
  • Psychology and the Teacher, 1909 & 1916
  • Psychotherapy, 1909
  • American Problems from the Point of View of a Psychologist, 1910
  • Vocation and Learning, 1912
  • Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, 1913
  • American Patriotism And Other Social Studies, 1913
  • Psychology and Social Sanity, 1914
  • Psychology, General and Applied, 1914
  • The War and America, 1915
  • Business Psychology, 1915
  • Tomorrow, 1916
  • The Photoplay. A psychological study, 1916


A few of Münsterberg awards and accomplishments include:

  • President of the American Psychological Association (1898)
  • Vice-President of the International Psychological Congress in Paris (1900)
  • Vice-President of the International Congress of Arts and Sciences in Saint Louis (1904)
  • Vice-President of the International Philosophical Congress at Heidelberg (1907)
  • President of the American Philosophical Association (1908)
  • Founded the Berliner Amerika-Institut (1910)
  • Member of the Washington Academy
  • Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Personal Life

Hugo Münsterberg married Selma Oppler on August 7, 1887. The couple had two children. Some individuals who interacted with Münsterberg briefly may have thought of him as an intimidating figure due to his relatively large frame and serious countenance. However, people who knew him well have described him as a man with a “keen sense of humor, a warm heart, and a generous spirit.”

Münsterberg had a wonderful relationship with the psychology students at Harvard, so much so that he even attracted students from other psychology classes. His lectures were very engaging and he always kept his audience involved in his discussions. Münsterberg respected people who had views that differed from his own, but he was firm in his own ideas and beliefs. Although he did not engage in sports, he was said to have great energy.

How Did Hugo Munsterberg Die? 

Hugo Münsterberg died from a cerebral hemorrhage on December 16, 1916. He passed away on the lecture platform at Harvard before he could finish the opening sentence of his lecture. At the time of his death, Münsterberg was a widely despised and criticized figure due to his public support of the German cause after the outbreak of World War I. Nevertheless, his concepts greatly influenced the growth and development of modern psychology as well as successive generations of researchers and practitioners.


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Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2021, March). Hugo Munsterberg Biography - Contributions To Psychology. Retrieved from

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