How can social prejudice impact psychological measurements?

History and Pioneers Read more from
Chapter Introducing the Basics

The early history of psychological and the social sciences in general is littered with examples of gross social prejudice. In the early nineteenth century, Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828) introduced the study of phrenology, which mapped various personality traits onto different parts of the brain. Although Gall tried to ground his theories in the scientific measurement of skulls, he let his preconceptions shape his collection and analysis of the data.

Later proponents of phrenology tried to use it to justify ethnic and class discrimination. Likewise, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), a proponent of Social Darwinism, interpreted Darwin’s theory of natural selection as a justification for social inequality. The studies of Francis Galton (1822–1911) on the heritability of intellectual giftedness led to the theory of eugenics, which promoted selective breeding of the social elite and discouraged childbearing within socially disadvantaged groups.

Not surprisingly, when psychological tests were first developed, they also fell prey to the confusion between scientific objectivity and social prejudice. The first intelligence tests were full of socially biased items that unfairly favored affluent, American-born English speakers over poor, uneducated immigrants and non-white minorities. While psychological science has developed more sophisticated methodology to minimize the effect of experimenter bias of any kind, it is important to realize that as long as science is conducted by human beings, it is subject to human error. The beauty of science, however, lies in its ability to correct its own mistakes through further research.


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