Friday, March 27, 2015

Hugo Münsterberg On Psychology and The Cinema

At the turn of the century the "movies" were the latest rage in both Europe and America. For the French, in the tradition of the Brothers Lumière, cinema was a social experience. The very nature of their sewing machine inspired camera, and the gas lamp illuminated projector, made the cinema a public experience. Unlike the American Kinetoscope, which came out of Thomas Edison's New Jersey laboratory, the French cinematic experience was a social event from the start. In 1895, inside the basement Salon Indiene du Grand Café of Paris, audience members watched as a train appeared to burst through the wall, reportedly startling audience members who enjoyed the experience as a group. Edison's Kinetoscope was not a social experience. The Edison device was activated by dropping a coin into a slot and peeking into a tiny viewer at the top of the cabinet. Working class patrons would line up to see prize fights, one round each on a series of cabinets, at a corner arcade. The longest lines were found waiting for the final Kinetoscope, the one that featured the knock-out.

By the time the German psychologist Hugo Münsterberg had settled in to his position as professor of psychology at Harvard, the American "movies" had taken the communal direction of the French. Nickelodeons (literally five-cent theaters) were quickly being replaced with movie palaces as vaudeville odeons were being adapted for picture shows. The attitude of the time was largely class conscious, finding live theater and moving picture shows as a choice of status, rather than an preference of medium. Münsterberg was a proud German emigre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was living up to the image that his predecessor and founder of the department of psychology, William James, had created for him as the genius needed to run the psychology lab at America's "greatest university". Münsterberg accepted James's flattery and his invitation.

Münsterberg was a visionary in psychology who is often neglected in contemporary scholarship. He championed psychology as a useful lens through which to see the world, writing in popular magazines like The Cosmopolitan and Atlantic Monthly, on topics as broad as education, psychotherapy, industry, and personality. It was in 1914 that Münsterberg permitted himself to step into a movie palace to see Neptune's Daughter, a silent film directed by Herbert Brenon.

Despite Münsterberg's reputation for pretense and elitism, he found himself captivated by the film and the experience of seeing a movie in the movie palace. In 1915 he wrote an article about the psychology of the "photoplay" for Cosmopolitan Magazine, and only a year later published a full text on the psychology of movies. In Why We Go to the Movies, first published in the December 15, 1915 issue of The Cosmopolitan, Münsterberg is introduced by the editor as "a wizard at telling us why we do things. He is the first psychologist to take up the study of the strong appeal of the photoplay, and his important conclusions and discoveries here given are quite as interesting and fascinating as those which have proved so helpful in commerce, industry, education, law, and other spheres of practical life."

The article is an intelligent yet accessible introduction to thinking about film, the effects of film on the audience, as well as the experience of going to the movies. Münsterberg begins his article by addressing the class implications of the photoplay, and proposes that the reader abandon any prejudices of cinema as a lesser form of the live theater, and instead encounter it on its own terms. He explores the educational opportunities that film will provide, which he described as "show[ing] us the happenings of the world and  gave us glances at current events and exhibited a little of animal life!" His enthusiasm is that of an academic who is not only celebrating a newly developing technology, but also speculating on how this technology might be used in a practical way, when applied to education as well as entertainment.

The article is not only an entrée into the psychological investigation of cinema (it sets the stage for earliest example of film theory that we can find in academic scholarship, his 1916 text The Photoplay: A Psychological Study), but also serves as a significant declaration for the infant field of psychology--a declaration of psychology as an applied discipline.

Hugo Münsterberg
This effort to make psychology something useful and practical to the masses was not met with cheers from Münsterberg's colleagues. At the time there were about 10 university psychology labs in Germany and 40 in the United States. The attitude with most of those psychologists, including Edward Titchener at Cornell, was that psychology should not degrade itself into a technology, but rather, should strive to maintain its dignity as a "pure science". Münsterberg rebelled against the scholarly attitude of his colleagues and published numerous books an articles that spoke to the general public.

Münsterberg became wildly popular through his writings. He was engaged by corporations, educational institutions, health care facilities, as well as two American presidents (Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft) for his insights on psychological matters. Hugo Münsterberg opened the possibilities for non-academic uses of psychology, and worked to establish psychology as an applied field of study.

With the entrance of the United States into The Great War, Münsterberg found his popularity fading. His years of ardent celebration of German Kultur, as well as his condescending criticism of Americans and their attraction to superficial kitsch, caught with him as he suffered both personal and professional ridicule in the press. Once America's most famous psychologist, Münsterberg died a despised and dishonored German-American who was even caused of being a spy.

Although  Münsterberg is seldom mentioned outside of the history of psychology, his contributions to film theory are significant. His works have become foundational texts in film theory classes, and are often taught in media psychology courses. He authored the first academic text on film theory in 1916, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, as well as two essays, Why We Go to the Movies (1915), and Peril to Childhood in the Movies (1917). The cinema would be the final application of psychology that Hugo Münsterberg would explore. On December 16, 1916, just months after The Photoplay was published, Münsterberg collapsed and died of stroke while lecturing to students at Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Direct questions, comments, & corrections to Matthew Giobbi.