Date of this Version
Whether memory research should emphasize fundamental psychological theory in well-controlled laboratory settings (i.e. “basic” research) or practical questions in naturalistic settings (i.e. “applied” research) is a recurrent question in the field. The debate became especially prominent with the advent of the “everyday memory movement” in the 1980s (e.g. Banaji & Crowder, 1989; Neisser, 1978, 1991), but it dates back to the origins of experimental psychology itself (i.e. the basic approach espoused by Wundt and Titchener vs. the more applied perspective taken by Külpe, Ebbinghaus, Binet, James and others). The debate is particularly relevant to the subarea of eyewitness memory, which has such obvious implications for the legal system.
Hugo Münsterberg, who was one of the earliest researchers on eyewitness memory, is probably the first figure to advocate strongly for a wider reliance by the courts on psychological research (Münsterberg, 1908; others, such as Binet and Freud, made similar, albeit less forceful, recommendations). Münsterberg’s efforts were largely rebuffed (Wigmore, 1909), and since that time, there have been repeated calls for the courts to take eyewitness research (indeed, all social science research) more seriously, accompanied by a range of judicial responses ranging from ready acceptance to outright rejection (Monahan & Walker, 2005). Nor are all psychologists of one mind on this issue. Indeed, even Münsterberg himself, who is widely regarded as one of the founders of applied psychology, at times urged caution in applying psychological research findings to real-world problems (Münsterberg, 1898; see Benjamin, 2006).