Character  &  Context

Psychologists Go to War

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One hundred years ago, on April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I by declaring war on Germany. When American psychologists heard the news, they dispatched Robert M. Yerkes, then president of the American Psychological Association, to Canada to confer with Carl C. Brigham of the Canadian Hospitals Commission to learn about the contributions that Canadian psychologists were already making to the war effortYerkes was a comparative psychologist at Harvard University, with a joint appointment as consulting psychologist at Boston State Psychiatric Hospital, where he helped develop a scale of intelligence.

He was also a born organizer. On his return to the United States, he set up a dozen committees to explore the useful roles that psychologists might play in the war. While most of these committees led nowhere, Yerkes successfully established the Committee on Methods of Psychological Examination for Recruits, which included Henry Goddard and Lewis Terman, two pioneers of intelligence testing in the United States (who had translated the Binet-Simon scale of intelligence into English). The committee had originally planned to implement a variety of tests for recruits, but they eventually restricted themselves to intelligence testing, with the aim of “segregating and eliminating the mentally incompetent”—or, to use the parlance of the day, the “feebleminded.” Their work initiated the largest program of psychological testing that had been attempted to that date, but also provided powerful impetus for two movements that had been developing since the turn of the century: the call for immigration quotas and the sterilization of the feebleminded.

Intelligence testing in the Army

In May 1917, realizing that it would be impractical to test intelligence individually, Yerkes’ committee spent two weeks developing tests that could be administered in groups and conducting trials of these tests at educational institutions and Army bases. Working through the National Research Council, Yerkes proposed group intelligence testing to the Army, which created the Division of Psychology under the Surgeon General. When Yerkes’ plan for the mass intelligence testing of Army recruits—the Army Testing Project—was approved, he commissioned a team of 400 Army personnel to administer group intelligence tests to all Army recruits. This included the Alpha written test for literate soldiers and the Beta pictorial test for those who could not read English. By the end of the war, close to 2 million soldiers had been tested.

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This article originally appeared on the Behavioral Scientist, a non-profit online magazine that offers readers original, thought-provoking reports from the front lines of behavioral science.
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