Classics in the History of Psychology

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Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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On the Witness Stand:
Essays on Psychology and Crime

Hugo Münsterberg (1908/1925)


THE administration of justice is susceptible of division into two general branches: one having to do with the determination of the facts, the other, with the application to the determined facts of legal precepts.

The facilities of administration in the jural held have reached a state of high development. In the class-room and the seminar, the attention of the student of law is concentrated upon mastery of legal principles as applied to determined facts; he is educated in legal bibliography and precedent. In practice, legal erudition earns signal commendation and oft-times lucrative reward.

Legal principles have been formulated into rules, doctrines, and statutes, and have been harmonized and codified. The legal practitioner, therefore, usually approaches his task proficient in the knowledge of legal science.

But there is the other branch of the administration of justice which is no less important than the jural. It has to do with the domain of facts which holds the dramatic episodes of every controversy between man and man or man and state. For the tasks here the lawyer is not usually well prepared. The ability to discern the facts which control the application of legal principles is not methodically developed. The education and training of a lawyer for eliciting the facts are more or less adventitious.

The difficulties experienced by judges, juries, and lawyers in probing for the truth where conflicting versions are presented are in no small measure responsible for the cynical attitude which is general toward the administration of justice. The effort is often made to overcome contradictory testimony of witnesses, in forensic contest, by crimination and recrimination. Such methods inspire no confidence in the resulting judgment, but produce distrust toward administrative and judicial processes.

Professor Hugo Münsterberg, in this book "On the Witness Stand," in which is collected a series of magazine articles previously published by him, pointed the way to rational and scientific means for probing facts attested by human witnesses, by the application of Experimental Psychology to the administration of law. Psychology had been classified as a pure science. Experimental methods, to the development of which Münsterberg,[sic] made notable contribution, have lifted this branch of knowledge into the classification of applied sciences. Applied Psychology can be employed in various fields of practical life -- education, medicine, art, economics, and law. Experience has demonstrated that "certain chapters of Applied Psychology" are sources of help and strength for workers in various practical fields, but, says Professor Münsterberg -- "The lawyer alone is obdurate. The lawyer and the judge and the juryman are sure that they do not need the experimental psychologist . . . They go on thinking that their legal instinct and their common sense supplies them with all that is needed and somewhat more . . . Just in the line of the law it therefore seems necessary not to rely simply on the technical statements of scholarly treatises, but to carry the discussion in the most popular form possible before the wider tribunal of the general reader."

With that aim in mind the author wrote the popular sketches which are republished in this volume, in which he selected "only a few of the problems in which psychology and law came in contact."

Professor Münsterberg was a prolific writer on philosophic and psychological themes. He was a member of a famous group of educators who were associated with Harvard University. In his field, he was a deep scholar and a thorough and intensive researcher. He delighted in the extension of his educational work, and in elucidating the technique of his scientific studies for easy comprehension by lay minds. He had a fascinating style of writing.

In the work which is now republished, Professor Münsterberg furnished an instructive exposition of what may "legal psychology." Although the articles were first published about fourteen years ago, they have lost none of their timeliness, interest, or helpfulness. They introduce the reader to the subject of psychology as a science; and they contain lessons in experimental psychology which are invaluable to any one interested in the administration of justice. The book should stimulate an interest in the study of this branch of knowledge, which should form an important and essential adjunct of the equipment of every investigator and trier of fact, and should encourage the application of this science to practical use in testing the truth or accuracy of historical narrative by witnesses.

Dated, New York City, December 15, 1922.
[Ex-Governor of New York
Former District Attorney of New York County]