Hugo Munsterberg: Author of Psychology and Industrial Efficiency

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We at The Career Project begin our series with the founding father for industrial-organizational (IO) psychology. Hugo Munsterberg (1863-1916) was a German-American psychologist who sought to improve the lives of workers through his gift for writing in science.

Munsterberg was raised in an artistic family, where he spent his childhood writing poetry and playing the violin. When his mother passed away, his personality changed drastically. He became serious and sombre, which led him to dive nose-deep in his research.

His paper Psychology and the Market, published in 1909, detailed the applications of psychology in many sectors. Some topics include: management, employee motivation, job performance, and career choices. He emphasized the importance of combatting monotony and fatigue to improve workers’ attention spans, to ultimately increase productivity.

As for gauging employee-job fit, Musterberg was one of the first to use personality tests in the hiring process. Organizations warmed up to his idea of selective hiring, which had rapidly gained popularity.

Hugo Munsterberg’s Key Ideas

Hugo Musterberg has contributed many ideas to the field of IO psychology. Three key ideas are outlined in his book Psychology and Industrial Efficiency (1913):

  • Employee selection
  • Working efficiency
  • Marketing

He believed that the “best man for the job” should be hired, instead of someone more familiar (such as a friend or family member).

“…young people know very little about themselves and their abilities. When the day comes on which they discover their real strong points and their weaknesses, it is often too late.

They have usually been drawn into the current of a particular vocation, and have given too much energy to the preparation for a specific achievement to change the whole life plan once more.

The entire scheme of education gives to the individual little chance to find himself.”

Munsterberg later criticized how the educational system of the States failed to support a student’s organic career path. He proclaimed that once someone discovers their true strengths and abilities, it’s often too late to make a change. To solve this problem, he encouraged students to understand their strengths and interests before making a vocational choice.

Final Thoughts

Hugo Munsterberg, as a polymath, related many of his findings to the fields of economics as well as forensic psychology. He trailblazed multiple domains and discovered the connections between them. Although he was blessed with intelligence, his social life consequently suffered as he was claimed to be “argumentative” and “stubborn” among his peers.

IO psychology has been launched into the mainstream thanks to Munsterberg. Following his questionnaire creation and research, he relayed his many work insights to the public. For example, workers were more productive when placed apart, to reduce the chances for chatter. His legacy continues to inspire many psychologists to this day to improve the landscape of work for all.


Bazar, Jennifer. (2015). Münsterberg, Hugo (1863–1916).

Benjamin L. T., Jr (2006). Hugo Münsterberg’s attack on the application of scientific psychology. The Journal of applied psychology, 91(2), 414–425.
Hale, Matthew. 1980. Human Science and Social Order: Hugo Münsterberg and the Origins of Applied Psychology. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 0877221545.
Münsterberg, Margaret. [1922] 2007. Hugo Münsterberg: His Life and Work. Kessinger Publishing. ISBN 1432651633.
Porfeli, Erik. (2009). Hugo Münsterberg and the Origins of Vocational Guidance. The Career development quarterly. 57. 225-236.
Weiss, K. J., & Xuan, Y. (2015). You can’t do that! Hugo Münsterberg and misapplied psychology. International journal of law and psychiatry, 42-43, 1–10.

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Hugo Munsterberg

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