Hugo Munsterberg
Researched and written by:  Donald F. Kneessi
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..

“There is no subconscious”
“Woman should not be allowed to serve on juries because they were incapable of rational deliberation”


Childhood/Family Life  

Hugo Munsterberg was born on June 1, 1863 in Danzig, Germany.  His father, Moritz, was a merchant who bought and sold lumber. His mother, Anna, was an artist who continued working even after she became a mother to four sons.  The boys’ love for books and music was encouraged, and Munsterberg’s love for the arts remained with him through his scholarly work.  Munsterberg played the cello, and he also wrote poetry. His passion for music and art influenced the development of his psychological theories.  Munsterberg spent a few years at a private grammar school, and then at the age of nine he entered the Gymnasium of Danzig (Domingue & Rardon, 2002).

When Munsterberg was twelve, his mother died, and that started his transformation into becoming a thoughtful, serious young man. He engaged in intellectual activities outside of the classroom, such as making a dictionary of foreign words used in Germany.  He also studied Arabic and Sanskrit while at the same time trying his hand at archaeology.  Most of his free time was spent participating in outdoor sports and dancing with his lady friends (Domingue & Rardon, 2002). 

Adult Life

In 1882, Munsterberg passed his final examination at the Gymnasium and enrolled at the University of Geneva for one semester studying French and literature. He was only there for one semester, the following semester he went to the University of Leipzig. He first started studying social psychology but later switched to the study of medicine. In 1883, he was invited to attend lectures by Wilhelm Wundt and was so deeply moved by Wundt that he decided to devote his life to the subject of psychology, and entered the psychological laboratory at Leipzig.  While at the psychology laboratory, he still continued his study of medicine, passing his preliminary examination in 1884. In July 1885, Munsterberg wrote his dissertation on the doctrine of natural adaptation and earned his Ph.D. in psychology.  He still continued his medical studies at Heidelberg and obtained his medical degree in the summer of 1887. With his medical degree he was allowed to lecture as privatdocent at Freiburg (Domingue & Rardon, 2002). 

In September of 1887, he studied at the University of Leipzig in the field of social psychology, but later changed to the field of medicine. During his studies at Leipzig, he got the chance to give many lectures which were mainly on philosophy. The University had no psychological laboratory, so Munsterberg used his own house and equipped rooms with certain equipment that 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. At the Congress he first met William James, and over the next few years they met frequently.  James was so impressed by Munsterberg's genius that in 1892, James invited him to come to Harvard for three years to be in charge of the psychological laboratory.  He was extremely successful as a teacher and administrator that he was offered a permanent job after his three years were over. He declined the offer, and decided to return to Freiburg (Domingue & Rardon, 2002). 

Two years later he returned to Harvard in response to urgent invitations from James and Harvard's president.  In 1898, he was elected president of the APA.  In 1908 Munsterberg stated to argue against prohibition saying that drinking alcohol in moderation could be beneficial to German-American beer brewers.  In exchange for his work against prohibition, the brewing companies donated money for his effort to boost Germany’s image in the United States.  After Munsterberg wrote an article about disapproving prohibition, Busch Brewing Company donated $50,000 for his proposed Germanic museum (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).

In 1910, he was chosen to be an exchange professor from Harvard to the University of Berlin.  He also had some controversial views on women.  He was for woman getting higher education, but he thought that graduate work was too demanding for them.  He also stated that woman could not get trained for jobs, because that would take them away from their homes.  Woman should not be able to teach in public schools because they would be poor role models for boys.  He also thought that woman should not be able to serve on juries due to them being incapable of rational thinking.  On December 16, 1916, Munsterberg died on the lecture platform while beginning a lecture at Radcliffe. He was not even able to finish his opening sentence. (Schultz & Schultz, 2004). 

Professional Accomplishments

           Hugo Munsterberg had a long interest in mental illness; he started his practice in
Germany and then brought it to the United States. He had an unusual style when treating patients; he would meet them in his laboratory instead of a clinic, and his only patients were those who were of scientific interest to him.  None of Munsterberg’s patients ever had to pay a fee for his counseling services.  He believed that mental illness had a physiological basis.  He would first make a diagnoses based on behavioral observations of his patients, and then by the answers he received from interviewing the patients. He often used word association tests as another factor for his diagnosis. After analyzing all these factors, if he felt that the patient was of scientific interest to him and that the patient was not mentally ill, he would continue treatment with a direct approach (Domingue & Rardon, 2002). 

Munsterberg used both direct suggestions and autosuggestions to encourage his patients to expect to get better, and give them immediate relief.  For example, Munsterberg would promise to one of his patients that he would get a good night's sleep and the next day he would wake up feeling rested. Munsterberg used the same techniques in blocking both negative or painful experiences and feelings.  Munsterberg reported that he had success using direct suggestions and autosuggestions for patients who had a wide range of problems, including hallucinations, drug addiction, phobias, sexual disorders, alcoholism, and obsessions.  He eventually wrote about these clinical experiences in his 1909 book, Psychotherapy.  He disagreed with Freud that there was no unconscious, and when Freud came to America to give a lecture, Munsterberg left the country to avoid a confrontation with Freud (Domingue & Rardon, 2002). 

Contributions to Psychology


Munsterberg was a promoter of industrial psychology.  In 1909, he wrote an article named “Psychology and the Market” which covered the topics which psychology could help contribute to: vocational guidance, advertising, personal management, mental testing, employee motivation, and the effects of fatigue and monotony on job performance.  He worked as a consultant for several companies and did a lot of research for the companies.  The research he did for the companies was eventually published in a book, in 1913, called Psychology and Industrial Efficiency, which made the best seller list.  The book was divided into three main sections: the best possible man for the job, the best possible work, and the best possible effect.  The best possible man for the job dealt with selection of workers.  The best possible work discussed factors affecting worker efficiency.  The best possible effect discussed sales, marketing, and advertising techniques. Munsterberg argued that to increase job efficiency, worker productivity, and satisfaction was to hire workers for positions that fit their emotional and mental abilities. To do this he made up mental tests and job simulations to test the applicants knowledge, skills, and abilities for the job being applied for.  To show evidence that mental testing and job simulations could help improve job performance he conducted research on several different occupations such as ship captain, streetcar driver, telephone operator and salesperson.  His research also showed that when workers talked on the job this decreased the efficiency of their work.  So Munsterberg came up with a solution not to prohibit workers from talking to each other, but to rearrange the work place to make it difficult for workers to be able talk to each other (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).   

Hugo Munsterberg also wrote several papers on the application of psychological information in legal situations.  The main objective in most of these articles was eyewitness testimony, which examined the mind of the witness.  Munsterberg looked at illusions, memory of the witness, and ways to prevent the crime. When working with illusions, Munsterberg showed how differently humans view or arrange events. For example, when viewing pictures made of dots, participants would look at the pictures for a period of time and then would be asked to write down what they saw.  The result of this study was that, Munsterberg found that each picture was interpreted differently by each of the participants. Next, he turned to the memory of the witness where he demonstrated events in his own life that affected his ability to recall aspects of an event. An example of an event was a burglary at his home.  He found that his own interests, experiences, and biases were a major factor in his recollection of specific events.  He also conducted research on crime scenes in which witnesses were asked a series of questions after witnessing the crime.  The results were that the witnesses all disagreed on the details, even when the scene was fresh in their memories.  From the results, Munsterberg argued that if witnesses could not agree on the details of a crime when it was still fresh in their memories, they would not be able to testify in court a few months after witnessing the crime. In 1908, he published On the Witness Stand, which talked about psychological factors that can affect a trail’s outcome. Some of the psychological factors that contribute were false confessions, the power of suggestions in the cross examination of witnesses, and the psychological measurements to detect increased emotional stress in suspects and defendants (Domingue & Rardon, 2002).   

In another section of On the Witness Stand, Munsterberg wrote about people who confessed to have committed a crime, but really had not. He looked at situations in which these untrue confessions were likely to occur. Munsterberg found that with intense interrogation of those who have a strong need to please and that with those who have a need to comply with powerful authority, untrue confessions were likely to arise.   He also found that these same results occurred with deeply depressed individuals who feel a need for punishment (Domingue & Rardon, 2002).     

In a controversial move during a murder trial, Munsterberg administered 100 mental tests to a confessed killer who accused a labor union of paying him to murder 18 people.  Before the jury came back with the verdict, Munsterberg stated that the results from the mental test showed that the murderer was telling the truth about the labor union.  The jury still acquitted the labor leader and Munsterberg’s credibility was questioned.  The damage to Munsterberg’s credibility was huge; a newspaper even called him Professor Monster-work (Schultz & Schultz, 2004).

In conclusion, Munsterberg was a controversial yet important figure in psychology.  His mostly negative views on women demonstrated his overall lack of an open mind.  He also remained loyal to his home country by trying to boost Germany’s image in the United States.  Munsterberg will be best remembered for his contributions in Industrial, Forensic, and Clinical psychology.



Domingue, E. & Rardon, J. (2002) Hugo Munsterberg.

   Earlham College

Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2004). A History of Modern Psychology.

p. 246-252. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Making the Modern World (2004) Hugo Munsterberg




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