Classics in the History of Psychology

An internet resource developed by
Christopher D. Green
York University, Toronto, Ontario

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On the Witness Stand:
Essays on Psychology and Crime

Hugo Münsterberg (1908/1925)


THERE are about fifty psychological laboratories in the United States alone. The average educated man has hitherto not noticed this. If he chances to hear of such places, he fancies that they serve for mental healing, or telepathic mysteries, or spiritistic performances. What else can a laboratory have to do with the mind? Has not the soul been for two thousand years the domain of the philosopher? What has psychology to do with electric batteries and intricate machines? Too often have I read such questions in the faces of visiting friends who came to the Harvard Psychological Laboratory in Emerson Hall and found, with surprise, twenty-seven rooms overspun with electric wires and filled with chronoscopes and kymographs and tachistoscopes and ergographs, and a mechanic busy at his work.

The development of this new science could remain unnoticed because it was such a rapid one, surprising in its extent even to those who started [p. 4] it. When, as a young student, I went to the University of Leipzig in the eighties of the last century, the little psychological laboratory there, founded by Professor Wundt, was still the only one in the world. No Western country college would to-day be satisfied with those poor little rooms in which the master of the craft made his experiments with his few students. But since that time the Leipzig workshop has been steadily growing, and every year has seen the foundation of new institutes by the pupils of Wundt, and later by their pupils. The first German laboratory outside of Leipzig was the one which I founded in Freiburg just twenty years ago. At about the same time Stanley Hall and Cattell brought the work from Leipzig over the ocean. Today there exists hardly a university which has not opened a workshop for this youngest of the natural sciences.

But more brilliant than the external expansion has been the inner growth. If the new science started in poor quarters, it was still more modest at the beginning in its outlook toward the work. Experimental psychology did not even start with [p. 5] experiments of its own; it rather took its problems at first from the neighbouring sciences. There was the physiologist or the physician who made careful experiments on the functions of the eye and the ear and the skin and the muscles, and who got in this way somewhat as by-products interesting experimental results on seeing and hearing and touching and acting; and yet all these by-products evidently had psychological importance. Or there was the physicist who had to make experiments to find out how far our human senses can furnish us an exact knowledge of the outer world; and again his results could not but be of importance for the psychology of perception. Or there was perhaps the astronomer who was bothered with his "personal equation," as he was alarmed to find that it took different astronomers different times to register the passing of a star. The astronomers had, therefore, in the interest of their calculations, to make experiments to find out with what rapidity an impression is noticed and reacted upon. But this again was an experimental result which evidently concerned, first of all, the student of mental life.

[p. 6] In this way all kinds of scientists who cared little for psychology had gathered the most various psychological results with experimental methods, and the psychologists saw that they could not afford to ignore such results of natural science. It would not do to go on claiming, for instance, that thought is quick as lightning when the experiments of the astronomers had proved that even the simplest mental act is a slow process, the time of which can be measured. Experimental ,psychology, therefore, started with an effort to repeat on its own account and from its own point of view those researches which others had performed. But it seemed evident that this kind of work would never yield more than some little facts in the periphery of mental life -- borderland facts between mind and body. No one dreamed of the possibility of carrying such experimental method to the higher problems of inner life which seemed the exclusive region of the philosophising psychologist. But as soon as experimental psychology began to work in its own workshops, it was most natural to carry the new method persistently to new and ever new groups of problems. The tools [p. 7] of experiment were now systematically used for the study of memory and the connection of ideas, then of attention and of imagination, of space perception and time sense; slowly they became directed to the problems of feeling and emotion, of impulse and volition, of imitation and reasoning. Groups of mental functions which yesterday seemed beyond the reach of experimental laboratory methods, to-day appear quite accessible. It may be said that there is now hardly a corner of mental life into which experimental psychology has not thrown its searchlight. It may seem strange that this whole wonderful development should have gone on in complete detachment from the problems of practical life. Considering that perception and memory, feeling and emotion, attention and volition, and so on, are the chief factors of our daily life, entering into every one of our enjoyments and duties, experiences and professions, it seems astonishing that no path led from the seclusion of the psychological workshop to the market-place of the world.

Of course this separation was no disadvantage [p. 8] to psychology. It is never a gain when a science begins too early to look aside to practical needs. The longer a discipline can develop itself under the single influence, the search for pure truth, the more solid will be its foundations. But now experimental psychology has reached a stage at which it seems natural and sound to give attention also to its possible service for the practical needs of life.

This must not be misunderstood. To make psychology serviceable cannot mean simply to pick up some bits of theoretical psychology and to throw them down before the public. Just this has sometimes been done by amateurish hands and with disastrous results. Undigested psychological knowledge has been in the past recklessly forced on helpless schoolteachers, and in educational meetings the blackboards were at one time filled with drawings of ganglion cells and tables of reaction-times. No warning against such "yellow psychology" can be serious enough.

If experimental psychology is to enter into its period of practical service, it cannot be a question of simply using the ready-made results for ends [p. 9] which were not in view during the experiments. What is needed is to adjust research to the practical problems themselves and thus, for instance, when education is in question, to start psychological experiments directly from educational problems. Applied Psychology will then become an independent experimental science which stands related to the ordinary experimental psychology as engineering to physics.

The time for such Applied Psychology is surely near, and work has been started from most various sides. Those fields of practical life which come first in question may be said to be education, medicine, art, economics, and law. The educator will certainly not resist the suggestion that systematic experiments on memory or attention, for instance, can be useful for his pedagogical efforts. The physician to-day doubts still less that he can be aided in the understanding of nervous and mental diseases, or in the understanding of pain and of mental factors in treatment, by the psychological studies of the laboratory. It is also not difficult to convince the artist that his instinctive creation may well be supplemented by the psychologist's [p. 10] study of colour and form, of rhythm and harmony, of suggestion and aesthetic emotion. And even the business world begins to understand that the effectiveness of economic life depends in a thousand forms on factors for which the student of psychology is a real specialist. His experiments can indicate best how the energies of mill-hands can reach the best results, and how advertisements ought to be shaped, and what belongs to ideal salesmanship. And experience shows that the politician who wants to know and to master minds, the naturalist who needs to use his mind in the service of discovery, the officer who wants to keep up discipline, and the minister who wants to open minds to inspiration -- all are ready to see that certain chapters of Applied Psychology are sources of help and strength for them. The lawyer alone is obdurate.

The lawyer and the judge and the juryman are sure that they do not need the experimental psychologist. They do not wish to see that in this field preëminently applied experimental psychology has made strong strides, led by Binet, Stern, Lipmann, Jung, Wertheimer, Gross, Sommer, [p. 11] Aschaffenburg, and other scholars. They go on thinking that their legal instinct and their common sense supplies them with all that is needed and somewhat more; and if the time is ever to come when even the jurist is to show some concession to the spirit of modern psychology, public opinion will have to exert some pressure. 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 this aim in mind -- while working at a treatise on "Applied Psychology," which is to cover the whole ground with technical detail -- I have written the following popular sketches, which select only a few problems in which psychology and law come in contact. They deal essentially with the mind of the witness on the witness stand; only the last, on the prevention of crime, takes another direction. I have not touched so far the psychology of the attorney, of the judge, or of the jury -- problems which lend themselves to very interesting experimental treatment. Even the psychology [p. 12] of the witness is treated in no way exhaustively; my only purpose is to turn the attention of serious men to an absurdly neglected field which demands the full attention of the social community.