Hugo Münsterberg, Biography of the Pioneer of Applied Psychology

Hugo Münsterberg laid the foundations of forensic psychology, introducing the importance of performing psychological profiles to describe criminal behavior.

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There was a time when psychology was part of the realm of philosophy. However, at the end of the 19th century, things began to change, especially with the arrival of a German-American scientist, Hugo Münsterberg. This psychologist was a pioneer in the application of empirical evidence and laid the foundations of applied psychology, industrial and even forensic psychology.

Münsterberg left an immense legacy with his work as a scientist, philosopher and psychologist. So much so, that many of today’s scientific disciplines owe their roots to this innovative-minded man, who was a disciple of Wilhelm Wundt and, later, a colleague of William James.

Many defined him as a visionary, but also as a victim. Especially because not all the renowned figures of the time wanted to give in to that creative but rigorous scientific vision proposed by Hugo Münsterbg. He wrote, for example, numerous works to teach people to find their professional vocation.

He was concerned to demonstrate how certain behaviors were actually due to brain alterations. He even established the pillars of legal and forensic psychology, helped to create the first psychological profiles and even to better understand the processes of memory and the figure of witnesses during judicial processes.

“Young people know very little about themselves and their abilities. When the day comes when they discover their true strengths and weaknesses, it is often too late. We must help them understand their potentials so they can create their own life plan.”

-Hugo M. Münsterberg-

Biography of a visionary psychologist, Hugo Münsterberg

Hugo Münsterberg was born in Germany in 1863. His family combined love for the arts and sciences, areas that his mother instilled in him early on with music and literature. Hence, his early childhood was almost exclusively devoted to reading poetry and playing the cello.

Now, everything changed when he lost his mother when he was 12 years old. Later, his father followed him. From that moment, his interest in art suddenly turned to the scientific area. So when the time came, he decided to enroll in medicine at the University of Leipzig, and later to continue his psychology degree.

Wilhelm Wundt was his teacher and his mentor, the figure that would inspire much of his career. Recall that Wundt was known to have developed the first laboratory of experimental psychology in 1879, a figure, therefore, key in giving a scientific and empirical basis to the psychological field.

Dr. Münsterberg, the most famous German psychologist in America

In 1887, Münsterberg, began working as a professor at the University of Freiburg. It was at this time when he wrote his first book The Activity of the Will, a work that impressed William James because somehow, he came to scientifically demonstrate many of the theories of emotions that he himself defended.

They would not take long to meet. It was at a psychology congress in Paris, thus initiating a close friendship where James was fascinated by those excellent knowledge of young Münsterberg and by his eagerness to give psychology an applied character. Such was the admiration and confidence that, in 1892, he asked him to take over the psychology laboratory at Harvard.

The arrival in the United States was complicated for Hugo Münsterberg. His English was not good, but even so, figures like James McKeen Cattell went so far as to say that the young man’s work was “the most important in the United States”. His highest recognition came when, in 1898, he was elected president of the American Psychological Association (APA).

However, it should be noted that the figure of Münsterberg was not comfortable for the entire scientific community. His German ancestry created some hostility, especially when the First World War came. He was severely criticized, his revolutionary ideas for psychology and the world of industry were not always well received.

Moreover, some Harvard alumni went so far as to claim that he was a German spy, so that Münsterberg lost friends, colleagues and part of the prestige he had achieved.

Hugo Münsterberg died on December 16, 1916 during a conference, because of a cerebral hemorrhage.

The man who transformed psychology into a “general science of behavior”

The works and perspectives of Hugo Münsterberg made him one of the most outstanding psychologists, but also, as we have pointed out, the most hated. It put in doubt many of the theories that were handled at that time. He criticized, for example, the work of the geneticist pedagogue and psychologist G. Stanley Halls.

He pointed out that many of his studies were not correct because they were made by teachers and not by specialized psychologists. It was, so to speak, that critical voice that questioned the work of other colleagues because it sought a very specific goal: to make psychology a science of behavior, an empirical science, and whose results were replicable.

Let us see, however, what were his main contributions to the world of psychology.

Hugo Münsterberg’s Contributions

Münsterberg facilitated the development of applied psychology to create a very specific branch: career guidance. In his book Vocation and Learning: A Popular Reading Course he tried that people could find their vocation, to choose better what to study and what to dedicate their professional life.

Münsterberg’s vocation theory is based on three dimensions: thinking, feeling and doing. In this way, each one of us should, according to him, find that vocation that best suits our talents, passions and knowledge.

Likewise, it also established the bases for the development of the selection of personnel and the field of advertising.

On the other hand, it should be noted that Hugo Münsterberg was key to the development of forensic psychology. In fact, he participated in various trials and even developed criminal profiles, analyzing the processes of memory, perception, and even describing how to determine the credibility of witnesses.

Judge requesting an expert in forensic psychology, science created by Hugo Münsterberg

Finally, it should be noted that after the sudden death of Münsterberg, part of those colleagues who had left him because of his “philogerman” attitude during the war, were dismayed. Thus, figures such as William Stern (who wrote his obituary) pointed out that psychology had just lost one of its most influential names.

Hugo Münsterberg contributed to give new and great possibilities to psychology. Their advances in the fields of experimental, industrial and forensic psychology are fundamental in many of the methods we use today.