Book Review on the Witness Stand by Hugo Munsterberg

In a flash your role changes from customer to eyewitness. A man with a gun demands money from the clerk and you stand still, as a frozen observer. Later you are asked by the police to recall everything you saw. Do you think you will give accurate information? What if another witness implicates you as the suspect from a photograph array? Would you ever confess to a crime you have not committed? Hugo Munsterberg delves into these topics, among others, regarding psychology and law. In his 1908 collection of essays entitled On the Witness Stand, psychologist Munsterberg shines light on the dichotomy of the human mind and memory. Although the research is over one hundred years old, the information is as applicable now as it ever was.

Everyone perceives the world by experiencing sensations. Sense organs work together with the brain to interpret and assign meaning to these experiences. Due to individual differences in biology and experience perception is different for every person. This means that people can see the same event or object and respond in opposite ways. While it can be accepted that most people looking at a bird will see a bird, the meaning the bird holds for each person may be very different indeed. This is all a matter of psychology and is very relevant to the field of criminal law. Munsterberg was one of the first psychologists to mix psychology and law. Much of his research covered factors such as observation, recall and suggestibility. He believed that you could trust the perception of a person, but must carefully consider the later recollection of that perception. At the time of his writing, scientific research in psychology was explaining why this was the case.

The strength of this book is in how it makes the reader think about how they think. Without specific instruction about memory and recall people take their mind’s ability for granted. There is much more to the process of seeing, remembering and recalling than most people are aware of. Eyewitness testimony of common people holds so much weight in court, but maybe it shouldn’t. Research has shown how easy it is to interfere with accurate observation and recall by manipulating emotion. Misconceptions such as the one that torture works to obtain vital information are set straight through psychological research. On the Witness Stand is a call for the courts to accept the science of psychology. It has been an influential book in the realm of psychology and law since its publication. However, it is interesting to see that even one hundred years later there are still aspects of Munsterberg’s research that haven’t yet made it into the mainstream.

Time has brought about many changes of belief. At the time of publication it was believed that there were biological indicators of criminal behavior. In the years following, those beliefs have subsided. While there are aspects of old science which has since been disproven, the majority of the information given is still valuable today.

At some points the book is difficult to read, either because of the scientific approach or language at the time of writing. Accounts of research and application of hypnosis and word association help the reading to pick up. With a personal interest in the application of psychology to criminal justice the book is able to maintain your attention. When the book came out, it was alone in its class. Munsterberg was a pioneer of what we now refer to as forensic psychology (the combination of psychology and law). His research is still being replicated today, by leading psychologists in the field. Elizabeth Loftus, who provides the forward to some editions of On the Witness Stand, is a well known psychologist working on memory and witness testimony research. For all learners with an interest in social psychology, forensic psychology, law enforcement or criminal justice, this book is valuable.