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Hugo Münsterberg: Biography of a German Psychologist

“Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916), was a German psychologist and philosopher who laid many of the foundations of psychology applied to different areas, such as law, medicine, education, the clinic, organizations, among others.”

We will see a biography of Hugo Münsterberg, as well as some of his main contributions to psychology.

Hugo Münsterberg: life and work of this important psychologist

Hugo Münsterberg was born on June 1, 1836 in the current city of Gdansk in Poland (what used to be Danzig, in Prussia). Son of a lumber merchant, and an artist who permanently combined his profession with the care of children, Münsterberg grew up surrounded by music and poetry. He soon learned to play the cello and write poems.

In 1882, Hugo Münsterberg graduated from high school, and in 1882 he began his university studies at the University of Leipzig, where he met one of the most renowned psychologists of the time, Wilhelm Wundt. The latter invited Münsterberg to train in his psychology laboratory, and from this, he began his doctoral studies in that area.

In 1885, with an investigation on the natural adaptation, Hugo Münsterberg obtained the degree of doctor in psychology.

Three years later, he also graduated as a doctor from the University of Heidelberg, and from this began his career as one of the most important researchers and academics for the scientific consolidation of psychology.

Training in North American psychology and German psychology

In 1891, during one of the most prestigious psychology congresses, based in Paris, Hugo Münsterberg met William James, who was already one of the most important philosophers and scientists of the time.

James invited Hugo Münsterberg to collaborate as a researcher at Harvard University in the United States. After accepting the invitation, also influenced by the low acceptance of his research in Germany, Münsterberg spent three years in that institution.

The latter made it possible to consolidate an important link between American psychology and German psychology, which was reflected in the constant exchanges of psychologists and psychologists in training, especially from the United States to the most important laboratories in different cities of Germany.

Recognition and outstanding tasks

Hugo Münsterberg was finally named president of the American Psychological Association, in the year 1898 and, 12 years later, was appointed by Harvard University as an exchange professor at the University of Berlin.

Likewise, Münsterberg maintained ambivalent positions regarding the participation of women in universities. While it considered that there was a difference of the intellectual capacities between women and men, what prevented that they participated in equality of conditions in the university; Münsterberg supported different American psychologists in their applications for admission to Harvard University.

This question was controversial, since it opened the possibility of reducing sexual segregation in university education in the United States.

On the other hand, the professional link that Münsterberg maintained with American psychology and German psychology was problematically reflected in his political views after the First World War. On the one hand, Münsterberg maintained feelings of loyalty towards the United States, and on the other, he felt a certain sympathy for German actions.

In fact, he developed a project to boost the image of Germany in the United States, an issue that was partly financed by different brewing companies, which Münsterberg supported while advocating against prohibiting alcohol consumption.

Hugo Münsterberg continued in the United States, working as a professor at Harvard University, where he died suddenly while teaching a class in the year 1916.

Main contributions to psychology

Hugo Münsterberg studied in different areas of psychology. Mainly he worked in clinical psychology, educational psychology, organizational psychology and forensic psychology. He is also credited with having developed pioneering studies in psychology and film. In brief we will see below its main contributions to psychology.

1. In clinical psychology

True to his training in experimental psychology, as well as attracted to consolidate an applied psychology, Münsterberg served as a clinical psychologist within his laboratory.
For him, psychological processes always had a physical correlate located in the brain, with which, psychopathology could be observed via neural, and also through behavioral observations.

2. In organizational psychology

Münsterberg studied pioneering topics for applied psychology in organizations, such as fatigue, the psychological and social influences of workload, the effects of advertising, attentional processes, monotony, and finally applied psychology in economics.
I also develop some theories on how to improve efficiency in organizations, considering the emotional, mental and motivational elements of the workers.

3. In legal and forensic psychology

Something that Münsterberg focused on was the study of eyewitness testimonies, analyzing how people see, or think they have seen certain things.

This inevitably led him to the study of memory, memories, processes of individual interpretation, and the basis of the social influence of this. Münsterberg was one of the first psychologists to study the suggestion processes to which people called to confess in legal settings are exposed.

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