Mental Testing and the Structure of Society

Lecture 20.  October 30 and November 3.

Afterthoughts.  We have looked at the small beginnings of mental testing in the work of Galton and Binet.  However, it would not be long before mental testing became involved in large scale projects to remake society in ways that would have been familiar to Plato: The building up of an intellectually meritocratic ruling elite.

Forethoughts.  The first use of intelligence tests to sort masses of people into ability groupings came in WW I.  Led by then President of the APA, Robert Yerkes (a distinguished comparative psychologist) psychologists developed the Army Alpha (for literate conscripts) and Beta (for illiterate conscripts) IQ tests.  These tests sorted men into A, B, C, D, and F categories.  The “A” men went to officer candidate school, “B” and “C” men into the regular army, and “D” and “F” men were washed out.  

This use of IQ testing to sort people by ability aided the development of Galton’s plans for what he dubbed eugenics, the controlled breeding of human beings along the lines of what was done with horses and agricultural products.  Galton hoped to use IQ tests to identify the brightest minds of each generation and encourage the smart to marry the smart with social recognition and government grants of money upon marriage.  This kind of eugenics is known as positive eugenics.  In the US in the early 20th century positive eugenics led to exhortations to “sow only fit seed” and holding Fitter Family contests at state fairs.  Negative eugenics involves attempting to prevent the “unfit” from having children, and in the same period IQ tests were often used as the basis for institutionalizing and/or sterilizing “unfit” men and women in the US and elsewhere, including most notoriously Nazi Germany, but several Scandinavian countries as well.  A useful resource for eugenics in the US is Also see D. Kevles, In the name of eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity, Harvard University Press, 1998.

The Army tests also led to the SAT, the Big Test (N. Lemann, The Big Test: The secret history of the American meritocracy, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999) most Americans take and fear, because it does seem to sort people into certain life tracks, exactly as in Plato’s Republic.  James Bryan Conant (1893-1978), scientist and president of Harvard University, set out to destroy what he called the “Episcopacy” and the SAT was his weapon.  The “Episcopacy” were a group of families, largely Episcopalian, who for generations led American business and government.  Conant saw this as undemocratic, and wanted America to be led not by a quasi-aristocratic inherited elite but an elite of merit, of intelligence.  He inspired and guided the construction of the SAT to be a socially usable measure of intelligence that could be used by elite universities to choose their students by merit rather than by family tree.  The troublesome possibility exists, however, that merit and breeding may merge.  If possessors of high IQ are thrown together in their 20s, they will tend to marry one another, and if IQ is heritable, then their children will do well on SATs and go to elite schools, as will their grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on.

On the other hand, research on successful entrepreneurs (e.g., T. Stanley, The millionaire mind, Andrews McMeel, 2001) suggests that the qualities making for business success are more personal than intellectual.  I once had an email exchange with a journalist who wrote about this topic for the Washington Post.  She said that her favorite license plate was one on an expensive sports-car that read “LOW SATS.”

The fact remains, however, that psychology and its tools have a great deal of power in the modern world.

Published in: on November 16, 2008 at 8:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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