The History of Psychological Testing

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    1The History ofPsychological Testing

    T O P I C 1A The Origins of Psychological TestingThe Importance of TestingCase Exhibit 1.1 The Consequences of Test ResultsRudimentary Forms of Testing in China in 2200 B.C.Psychiatric Antecedents of Psychological TestingThe Brass Instruments Era of TestingChanging Conceptions of Mental Retardation in the 1800sInfluence of Binets Early Research upon His TestBinet and Testing for Higher Mental ProcessesThe Revised Scales and the Advent of IQSummary

    CH A P T E R

    The history of psychological testing is a fasci-nating story and has abundant relevance topresent-day practices. After all, contemporary testsdid not spring from a vacuum; they evolved slowlyfrom a host of precursors introduced over the lastone hundred years. Accordingly, Chapter 1 featuresa review of the historical roots of present-day psy-chological tests. In Topic 1A, The Origins of Psy-chological Testing, we focus largely on the effortsof European psychologists to measure intelligenceduring the late nineteenth century and preWorldWar I era. These early intelligence tests and their

    successors often exerted powerful effects on theexaminees who took them, so the first topic alsoincorporates a brief digression documenting thepervasive importance of psychological test results.Topic 1B, Early Testing in the United States, cata-logues the profusion of tests developed by Ameri-can psychologists in the first half of the twentiethcentury.

    Psychological testing in its modern form origi-nated little more than one hundred years ago in lab-oratory studies of sensory discrimination, motorskills, and reaction time. The British genius Francis

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  • Galton (18221911) invented the first battery oftests, a peculiar assortment of sensory and motormeasures, which we review in the following. TheAmerican psychologist James McKeen Cattell(18601944) studied with Galton and then, in 1890,proclaimed the modern testing agenda in his classicpaper entitled Mental Tests and Measurements.He was tentative and modest when describing thepurposes and applications of his instruments:

    Psychology cannot attain the certainty and exact-ness of the physical sciences, unless it rests on afoundation of experiment and measurement. A stepin this direction could be made by applying a seriesof mental tests and measurements to a large num-ber of individuals. The results would be of consid-erable scientific value in discovering the constancyof mental processes, their interdependence, andtheir variation under different circumstances. Indi-viduals, besides, would find their tests interesting,and, perhaps, useful in regard to training, mode oflife or indication of disease. The scientific andpractical value of such tests would be much in-creased should a uniform system be adopted, sothat determinations made at different times andplaces could be compared and combined. (Cattell,1890)

    Cattells conjecture that perhaps tests wouldbe useful in training, mode of life or indication ofdisease must certainly rank as one of the propheticunderstatements of all time. Anyone reared in theWestern world knows that psychological testinghas emerged from its timid beginnings to becomea big business and a cultural institution that per-meates modern society. To cite just one example,consider the number of standardized achievementand ability tests administered in the school systemsof the United States. Although it is difficult to ob-tain exact data on the extent of such testing, an es-timate of 200 million per year is probably notextreme (Medina & Neill, 1990). Of course, thetotal number of tests administered yearly also in-cludes millions of personality tests and untoldnumbers of the thousands of other kinds of testsnow in existence (Conoley & Kramer, 1989, 1992;Mitchell, 1985; Sweetland & Keyser, 1987). Thereis no doubt that testing is pervasive. But does itmake a difference?


    Tests are used in almost every nation on earth forcounseling, selection, and placement. Testing oc-curs in settings as diverse as schools, civil service,industry, medical clinics, and counseling centers.Most persons have taken dozens of tests andthought nothing of it. Yet, by the time the typical in-dividual reaches retirement age, it is likely that psy-chological test results will help shape his or herdestiny. The deflection of the life course by psy-chological test results might be subtle, such aswhen a prospective mathematician qualifies for anaccelerated calculus course based on tenth-gradeachievement scores. More commonly, psychologi-cal test results alter individual destiny in profoundways. Whether a person is admitted to one collegeand not another, offered one job but refused a sec-ond, diagnosed as depressed or notall such de-terminations rest, at least in part, on the meaning oftest results as interpreted by persons in authority.Put simply, psychological test results change lives.For this reason it is prudentindeed, almostmandatorythat students of psychology learnabout the contemporary uses and occasional abusesof testing. In Case Exhibit 1.1, the life-altering af-termath of psychological testing is illustrated bymeans of several true case history examples.

    The importance of testing is also evident fromhistorical review. Students of psychology generallyregard historical issues as dull, dry, and pedantic,and sometimes these prejudices are well deserved.After all, many textbooks fail to explain the rele-vance of historical matters and provide only vaguesketches of early developments in mental testing.As a result, students of psychology often concludeincorrectly that historical issues are boring andirrelevant.

    In reality, the history of psychological testing isa captivating story that has substantial relevance topresent-day practices. Historical developments arepertinent to contemporary testing for the followingreasons:

    1. A review of the origins of psychological testinghelps explain current practices that might other-


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  • wise seem arbitrary or even peculiar. For exam-ple, why do many current intelligence tests in-corporate a seemingly nonintellective capacity,namely, short-term memory for digits? The an-swer is, in part, historical inertiaintelligencetests have always included a measure of digitspan.

    2. The strengths and limitations of testing also standout better when tests are viewed in historical con-text. The reader will discover, for example, that

    modern intelligence tests are exceptionally goodat predicting school failureprecisely becausethis was the original and sole purpose of the firstsuch instrument developed in Paris, France, atthe turn of the twentieth century.

    3. Finally, the history of psychological testing con-tains some sad and regrettable episodes thathelp remind us not to be overly zealous in ourmodern-day applications of testing. For exam-ple, based on the misguided and prejudicial



    The importance of psychological testing is best illustrated by example. Con-sider these brief vignettes:

    A shy, withdrawn 7-year-old girl is administered an IQ test by a school psy-chologist. Her score is phenomenally higher than the teacher expected. Thestudent is admitted to a gifted and talented program where she blossoms intoa self-confident and gregarious scholar.

    Three children in a family living near a lead smelter are exposed to the toxiceffects of lead dust and suffer neurological damage. Based in part on psy-chological test results that demonstrate impaired intelligence and shortenedattention span in the children, the family receives an $8 million settlementfrom the company that owns the smelter.

    A candidate for a position as police officer is administered a personality in-ventory as part of the selection process. The test indicates that the candidatetends to act before thinking and resists supervision from authority figures.Even though he has excellent training and impresses the interviewers, thecandidate does not receive a job offer.

    A student, unsure of what career to pursue, takes a vocational interest in-ventory. The test indicates that she would like the work of a pharmacist. Shesigns up for a prepharmacy curriculum but finds the classes to be both diffi-cult and boring. After three years, she abandons pharmacy for a major in dance, frustrated that she still faces three more years of college to earn adegree.

    An applicant to graduate school in clinical psychology takes the MinnesotaMultiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). His recommendations and gradepoint average are superlative, yet he must clear the final hurdle posed by theMMPI. His results are reasonably normal but slightly defensive; by a narrowvote, the admissions committee extends him an invitation. Ironically, this isthe only graduate school to admit himnineteen others turn him down. Heaccepts the invitation and becomes enchanted with the study of psychologi-cal assessment. Many years later, he writes this book.


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  • application of intelligence test results, severalprominent psychologists helped ensure passageof the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924.

    In later chapters, we examine the principles ofpsychological testing, investigate applications inspecific fields (e.g., personality, intelligence,neuropsychology), and reflect on the social andlegal consequences of testing. However, the readerwill find these topics more comprehensible whenviewed in historical context. So, for now, we beginat the beginning by reviewing rudimentary formsof testing that existed over four thousand years agoin imperial China.


    Although the widespread use of psychological test-ing is largely a phenomenon of the twentieth cen-tury, historians note that rudimentary forms oftesting date back to at least 2200 B.C. when the Chi-nese emperor had his officials examined every thirdyear to determine their fitness for office (Bowman,1989; Chaffee, 1985; DuBois, 1970; Franke, 1963;Lai, 1970; Teng, 194243). Such testing was modi-fied and refined over the centuries until writtenexams were introduced in the Han dynasty (202B.C.A.D. 200). Five topics were tested: civil law,military affairs, agriculture, revenue, and geography.

    The Chinese examination system took its finalform about 1370 when proficiency in the Confucianclassics was emphasized. In the preliminary exam-ination, candidates were required to spend a dayand a night in a small isolated booth, composing es-says on assigned topics and writing a poem. The 1to 7 percent who passed moved up to the districtexaminations, which required three separate ses-sions of three days and three nights.

    The district examinations were obviously gruel-ing and rigorous, but this was not the final level. The1 to 10 percent who passed were allowed the privi-lege of going to Peking for the final round of exam-inations. Perhaps 3 percent of this final group passedand became mandarins, eligible for public office.

    Although the Chinese developed the externaltrappings of a comprehensive civil service exami-

    nation program, the similarities between their tra-ditions and current testing practices are, in themain, superficial. Not only were their testing prac-tices unnecessarily grueling, the Chinese also failedto validate their selection procedures. Nonetheless,it does appear that the examination program incor-porated relevant selection criteria. For example, inthe written exams beauty of penmanship wasweighted very heavily. Given the highly stylisticfeatures of Chinese written forms, good penman-ship was no doubt essential for clear, exact com-munication. Thus, penmanship was probably arelevant predictor of suitability for civil service em-ployment. In response to widespread discontent,the examination system was abolished by royal de-cree in 1906 (Franke, 1963).


    Most historians trace the beginnings of psycholog-ical testing to the experimental investigation of in-dividual differences that flourished in Germany andGreat Britain in the late 1800s. There is no doubtthat early experimentalists such as Wilhelm Wundt,Francis Galton, and James McKeen Cattell laid thefoundations for modern-day testing, and we will re-view their contributions in detail. But psychologi-cal testing owes as much to early psychiatry as itdoes to the laboratories of experimental psychol-ogy. In fact, the examination of the mentally illaround the middle of the nineteenth century re-sulted in the development of numerous early tests(Bondy, 1974). These early tests featured the ab-sence of standardization and were consequentlyrelegated to oblivion. They were nonetheless influ-ential in determining the course of psychologicaltesting, so it is important to mention a few typicaldevelopments from this era.

    In 1885, the German physician Hubert vonGrashey developed the antecedent of the memorydrum as a means of testing brain-injured patients.His subjects were shown words, symbols, or pic-tures through a slot in a sheet of paper that wasmoving slowly over the stimuli. Grashey found thatmany patients could recognize stimuli in their to-tality but could not identify them when shown


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  • through the moving slot. Shortly thereafter, theGerman psychiatrist Conrad Rieger developed anexcessively ambitious test battery for brain dam-age. His battery took over 100 hours to administerand soon fell out of favor.

    In summary, early psychiatry contributed to themental test movement by showing that standard-ized procedures could help reveal the nature andextent of symptoms in the mentally ill and brain-injured patients. Most of the early tests developedby psychiatrists faded into oblivion, but a few pro-cedures were standardized and perpetuate them-selves in modern variations (Bondy, 1974).


    Experimental psychology flourished in the late1800s in continental Europe and Great Britain. Forthe first time in history, psychologists departedfrom the wholly subjective and introspective meth-ods that had been so fruitlessly pursued in the pre-ceding centuries. Human abilities were insteadtested in laboratories. Researchers used objectiveprocedures that were capable of replication. Gonewere the days when rival laboratories would haveraging arguments about imageless thought, onegroup saying it existed, another group saying thatsuch a mental event was impossible.

    Even though the new emphasis on objectivemethods and measurable quantities was a vast im-provement over the largely sterile mentalism thatpreceded it, the new experimental psychology wasitself a dead end, at least as far as psychologicaltesting was concerned. The problem was that theearly experimental psychologists mistook simplesensory processes for intelligence. They used as-s...


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