Hugo Münsterberg's On the Witness Stand

Hugo Münsterberg's On the Witness Stand

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Hugo Münsterberg's On the Witness Stand

For this book report, I decided to read Hugo Münsterberg's On the Witness Stand. This book contains essays on psychology and crime and eyewitness testimony. Today this book is used as a reference for many issues in forensic psychology. For this report, I focused on two chapters of the book: Illusions and the Memory of the Witness. I am going to first summarize the two chapters I read then talk about what was going on at the time this book was written. I will then report some of the research in the book, and finish with my opinion on how this book has contributed to the literature and how it relates to the current knowledge of forensic psychology.
The chapter on illusions starts out with a couple different scenarios in which Münsterberg describes how witnesses viewed what was going on. In the first scenario, he talked of an automobile accident and in which two individuals witnessed. He said that both of the witnesses were respectable people, yet their recollections of the road conditions, how fast the automobile was traveling, and how many bystanders were present varied greatly. The second scenario described the time between a whistle signal and the noise of an explosion. Again two witnesses were present and each one's description of the scene was significantly different. In the final scenario described, one that took place on the sea-shore, one witness claimed that it was a women and a child standing by the sea shore, whereas another witness claimed that he saw a man with his dog. These scenarios are all pointing in the same direction and that is: witnesses to any kind of event disagree about certain important details about what just took place because of the way they perceive the event taking place.
This lead Münsterberg to wonder if all individuals perceive the same thing and do the things we perceive all have the same meaning attached to them. In turn, is the court system aware of all of the differences between men's perceptions? Münsterberg also questioned memory and the demand that is put on the memory of witnesses. To try find out the answer to some of his questions, Münsterberg conducted a couple experiments with students enrolled in one of his psychology courses at Harvard. These studies will be talked about in detail a little later.

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The chapter on illusions comes to a close with a few ending results from the experiments Münsterberg conducted. He stated in everyone of our observations, associations, judgments, and suggestions of our own makes there way in. He continues to say that children always believe what they see, but really what they see may not be true, it may be an illusion. And further he says that we tend to overlook things that may change the meaning of something completely.
A final note on the chapter of illusions stated by Münsterberg is that "Experimental psychology has at last cleared the ground, and do to ignore this whole science and to be satisfied with the primitive psychology of common sense seems really out of order when crime and punishment are in question and the analysis of the mind of the witness might change the whole aspect of the case." With this statement, Münsterberg hoped for the courtroom to come nearer to this truth and for them to share the word onto others.
The Memory of the Witness
Once again, Münsterberg starts off this chapter with a scenario in which he has been called upon as a witness in a trial. A few days after the trial, Münsterberg realized that one of his statements, he said while under oath, was incorrect. After analyzing that statement, he realized that many of his statements were incorrectly reported. He knew that he had surveyed the scene rather quickly, but he thought to himself, how could his memory have failed like this and how could his imagination supplement his mind with false memories? Münsterberg's answer to why he made had made so many errors was that even though a person may have a good memory, there are a series of things (confusions, illusions, forgetting, wrong conclusions, and suggestion) that came into play when he was a witness. He went further to say that this not only happened him, but also happens all the time to other witnesses around the world. Witnesses mix up truth and untruth and come up with wrong conclusions. He was an example of this.
Münsterberg goes on to talk about the different types of memory. To him, memory could be grouped as visual, acoustical, and motor types. Individuals may have excellent memory for one type, but may fail when they have to rely on another form. Still another attribute of memory is that there are variations in memory, which can be discriminated. And with this Münsterberg said that the courts will have to learn to take individual differences into account when interviewing on the witness stand because no two witnesses will be able to come up with the exact same conclusion.
Münsterberg ends this chapter by saying that you cannot only rely on individual differences and the discrimination of memory types but you also have to take into account the new facts of memory variations that have come out of the experiments on attention and inhibition.
Now that I have summarized the chapters I read in On the Witness Stand I want talk a little bit about what was going on in psychology during this time.
Hugo Münsterberg was a student of Wundt's at the University of Leipzig. The psychology lab that Münsterberg worked in while at Leipzig was the only one in the world. By the end of the nineteenth century, Münsterberg had developed his own lab in Frieburg and by the time that this book was published (1908) about 50 psychological labs were in the United States alone.
At this time, experimental psychology was just starting to take off. At first experimental psychology did not conduct experiments of their own, but borrowed them from other sciences. But soon experimental psychology started to look at the inner world of mental life and started studying memory and the connection of ideas, attention and imagination, impulse and volition, and imitation and reasoning. Once experimental psychology had a strong foundation, it was possible to use experimental psychology for the practical needs of life. This brought upon a branch of psychology known as Applied Psychology
Applied psychology became an independent experimental science that is related to the original experimental psychology. Applied psychology worked its way into practical life by getting into the fields of education, medicine, art, economics, and law.
The purpose of this book was to bring full attention to problems in which psychology and the law comes into contact with one another. He also wanted people to be aware of a neglected field which demands the full attention of the social community.
In the chapter on Illusions, Münsterberg talks about some of his research that he conducted that gave direct evident that individuals do perceive events differently. In his first experiment, Münsterberg showed his class a sheet of paper that had 50 little black dots on it. He asked his students to write down how many dots they saw. Answers varied from twenty-five to two hundred. Further, Münsterberg held up another sheet of paper, this time with only twenty-five dots on it. Again, students varied in their answers from anywhere between ten and seventy dots.
A second study looked at the perception of time. Münsterberg asked the students to give the number of seconds that passed between two loud clicks. He varied the time between the two clicks from three seconds to ten seconds. Again the amount of time students claimed lapsed in between the two clicks varied.
In a third study Münsterberg wanted his students to watch and describe everything that he was going to be doing. He got out a color-wheel and made it salient to his students. In the mean time, Münsterberg made a number of moves with his free hand such as taking his watch off, taking a pencil out of his vest, and closing a cigarette box with a loud click. Results showed that only 18% of the students noticed him doing anything with his left hand.
Münsterberg conducted a number of other experiments. The overall conclusion that whatever witnesses expect to see, they do see and if the attention is turned in one direction, they are blind and deaf in the other.
Contribution to Literature and Current Knowledge
In my opinion, On the Witness Stand had a dramatic impact on the reliance of eyewitness testimony. The validity of relying souly on eyewitness testimony is no longer a case. Many factors can intervene and create inaccurate testimony. Furthermore memory can be radically altered by the way an eyewitness is questioned, and how new memories can be implanted and old ones altered in subtle ways. This can lead to false memories and this is precisely what happens to children. Children's testimony varies extensively in its accuracy. In some cases, children come to believe and report false information. Thus, children cannot be relied upon as eyewitnesses because they are prone to make mistakes.
Since the time On the Witness Stand was published, I feel that psychology and the law has come a long way. Forensic psychology was developed because of this book and is devoted to psychology and law. If it were not for Münsterberg and his book, we may not know about all problems witnesses face when called upon the witness stand. Münsterberg, Hugo. (1908). On the Witness Stand. New York: McClure Company.
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