Biography of Hugo Münsterberg, Applied Psychology Pioneer

Hugo Munsterberg

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Hugo Münsterberg was a German psychologist primarily known as a pioneer of applied psychology, including industrial-organizational, clinical, and forensic psychology.

"The story of the subconscious mind can be told in three words: there is none." — Hugo Münsterberg

Early Life

Hugo Münsterberg was born in Danzig, Germany (now Gdansk, Poland), on June 1, 1863, to a merchant father and artist mother. The family had a great love of the arts, and Münsterberg was encouraged to explore music, literature, and art. When he was 12, his mother passed away. His mother's death marked a major change in the boy's life, changing him into a serious young man. Münsterberg wrote poetry and played the cello. In 1880, his father also passed away.

After graduating from the Gymnasium of Danzig in 1882, he enrolled at the University of Leipzig. While he initially began studying social psychology, Münsterberg later turned his interest to medicine. After meeting psychology pioneer Wilhelm Wundt, who encouraged him to become part of the psychology lab at the university, Münsterberg decided to devote himself to the study of psychology. He earned his Ph.D. in Psychology in 1885 under Wundt's tutelage and then earned a medical degree at the University of Heidelberg in 1887.


In 1887, Münsterberg accepted a position as a private tutor and lecturer at the University of Freiburg and later published a small volume entitled Activity of the Will. The book was criticized by Wundt, as well as psychologist Edward Titchener, who wrote, "Dr. Münsterberg has the fatal gift of writing easily—fatal especially in science...where accuracy is the one thing most needed."

The American psychologist William James, on the other hand, was greatly impressed by Münsterberg's ideas, especially because they supported James's own theory of emotion.

In 1891, Münsterberg became an assistant professor at the University of Leipzig. The same year, he attended the first International Congress of Psychology in Paris, France, where he met William James. The two continued to meet and correspond quite frequently, and in 1892, James asked Münsterberg to take charge of the psychology lab at Harvard. Due to his poor English-speaking skills at the time, he generally remained in the lab and published his work in German. James McKeen Cattell suggested that Münsterberg's lab was "the most important in America."

After a three-year period at the lab, Münsterberg was offered a permanent position. He declined the offer and chose to instead return to Europe. Two years later, he returned to Harvard, where he continued to work for the rest of his life. In 1898, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association.

His support for Germany during World War I made him the focus of considerable criticism, both in the press and among other faculty members at Harvard.

On December 16, 1916, Hugo Münsterberg died suddenly of a massive cerebral hemorrhage, collapsing before he was able to finish delivering his opening sentence at a lecture at Radcliffe.

Contributions to Psychology

Münsterberg is noted for his influence on applied psychology, especially clinical, forensic, and industrial psychology.

His 1909 paper titled "Psychology and the Market" suggested that psychology could be used for a variety of industrial applications, including management, vocational decisions, advertising, job performance, and employee motivation.

His research was later summarized in his book Psychology and Industrial Efficiency (1913), which suggested that hiring workers who had personalities and mental abilities best suited to certain types of work was the best way to increase motivation, performance, and retention.

Hugo Münsterberg is also well-known for his contributions to forensic psychology. His 1908 book On the Witness Stand detailed how psychological factors can influence the outcome of a trial. In the book, he discussed problems with eyewitness testimony, false confessions, and interrogations.

While his influence on psychology is without question, his views on women are frequently criticized. While he believed that women should receive a higher education, he felt that graduate studies were too difficult and demanding. He also suggested women should not be allowed to serve on juries because they were "...incapable of rational deliberation."

His role as a self-appointed spokesman for Germany during the First World War made him a target of disdain among many and perhaps explains why his important legacy was dismissed and neglected for many years.

As David Hothersall, author of History of Psychology, suggested, at the time of Münsterberg's death he was "hated by more Americans than any psychologist before or since." While many psychology history books devote little space to Münsterberg and his influence, his ideas continue to shape and contribute to modern psychology.

Selected Publications

Hugo Münsterberg published a number of works, including:

  • Münsterberg, H. 1908. On the Witness Stand. New York: McClure
  • Münsterberg, H. 1909. Psychology and Crime. London: T.F. Unwin
  • Münsterberg, H. 1909. The Eternal Values. Boston: Houghton Mifflin
  • Münsterberg, H. 1909. Psychotherapy. New York: Moffat, Yard
  • Münsterberg, H. [1913] 2005. Psychology and Industrial Efficiency. Adamant Media Corporation
  • Münsterberg, H. 1914. Psychology and Social Sanity. London: T.F. Unwin
2 Sources
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  1. Harvard University; Department of Psychology. Hugo Münsterberg.

  2. Associated Press. Munsterberg dies while lecturing. Cornell Daily Sun.

Additional Reading
  • Hothersall D. History of Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.; 1995.

  • Munsterberg MAA. Hugo Munsterberg: His Life and Work. New York, NY: Appleton; 1922.

  • Schultz DP, Schultz SE. A History of Modern Psychology. 11th ed. Boston, MA: Cengage; 2015.

  • Stern W. Hugo Munsterberg: In memoriam. J Appl Psychol. 1917;1 (2):186-188. doi:10.1037/H0074508

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."