Major Movements in Psychology

Intelligence Testing

What were the Alpha and Beta Tests developed by the U.S. Army?

In 1917, immediately after the United States entered World War I, the American Psychological Association (APA) convened a committee to consider how best to contribute to the war effort. The committee concluded that the development of an intelligence test that could be administered to large groups would be most useful. Potential soldiers falling below a cut-off point would be excluded from the military, while high scorers could be selected for elite positions.

Under the guidance of Robert Yerkes, a Harvard psychologist and army major, the Army Alpha, a written test, and the Army Beta, a pictorial version for the 40 percent of soldiers unable to read the written test, were developed. These tests had broad impact on the discharge and promotion of soldiers. The use of such tests in WWI spawned an explosion of intelligence and aptitude tests after the war to be used in schools, the military, and other institutions.

Criticism of cultural bias soon followed, with complaints that the content of the Army tests favored affluent native-born Americans over less privileged immigrants, who could not be expected to know, for example, the engines of different luxury cars or the layout of a tennis court. Further, many questions were moralistic, as if disagreement with Anglo-American values reflected lower intelligence. Despite these very legitimate complaints, it must be kept in mind that intelligence tests aimed for a merit-based approach to job placement. In this way, the army at least tried to be more democratic than the explicitly prejudiced, family- and class-based approaches to employment that were typically used before. Today’s intelligence and aptitude tests aim for much greater cultural sensitivity. Nonetheless, it is arguably impossible to develop a test that is completely culture-neutral.


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