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James Mckeen Cattell

American pioneer in psychological research techniques and founder of a psychological testing company.

James McKeen Cattell developed an approach to psychological research that continues to dominate the field of psychology today. During psychology's early years, most research focused on the sensory responses of single individuals studied in depth because Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920), the first experimental psychologist, favored this approach. As Cattell's ideas developed, his perspective diverged greatly from Wundt's, and Cattell developed techniques that allowed him to study groups of people and the individual differences among them.

Cattell's career was quite varied. He traveled to the University of Göttingen to study with the philosopher Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817-1881) and later with Wundt at Leipzig. Following that, he returned home to the United States and worked with G. Stanley Hall (1844-1924), one of America's most famous psychologists. Apparently, Cattell's relationship with Hall was less than positive, and Cattell did not complete his doctoral work at that time. When he was with Hall, however, Cattell developed an interest in studying psychological processes.

Subsequently, he returned to Leipzig and earned his doctorate with Wundt, although his correspondence with his parents revealed that Cattell did not hold Wundt in high esteem as a scientist. According to some, those letters also depict Cattell as arrogant, self-confident, and disrespectful of others. While in Germany, Cattell improved on existing psychological instrumentation and invented new ways to study psychological processes.

After leaving Germany, Cattell taught briefly in the United States, then traveled to England and worked with Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). Cattell was highly impressed with Galton's use of statistics and quantification of research, and he also supported some of Galton's other ideas, such as the importance of individual differences and the application of scientific knowledge to create a eugenics movement.

Ultimately, Cattell adopted the practice of testing a large number of research subjects and using statistics to understand his results. Cattell coined the term "mental test" and devoted a significant amount of time trying to develop a useful intelligence test. He recorded the results of simple tasks (e.g., the speed of a person's response to a simple sound, the ability to detect slight differences in weights of stimuli, and simple memory for letters of the alphabet), hoping to find a correlation between sensory response and academic performance, or intelligence. He was disappointed to find that, not only did sensory performance fail to relate to academic success, the different sensory measures did not even correlate with one another. As a result, he abandoned such an approach to mental testing.

Even though Cattell's research on intelligence was unsuccessful, he nonetheless exerted a dramatic influence on other American psychologists. During his career at Columbia University, more students earned doctorates in psychology with him than with any other psychologist. Cattell also affected psychology in the United States in other ways. For example, he founded the journal Psychological Review with another prominent psychologist, J. Mark Baldwin (1861-1934), then resurrected the financially troubled journal Science, which he acquired from Alexander Graham Bell. Cattell also helped start the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the premier scientific organizations in America today. He also published Scientific Monthly and School and Society. Not surprisingly, as his editing and publishing increased, his research diminished.

Cattell left the academic world in 1917 when Columbia University dismissed him because of his unpopular opposition to sending draftees into battle in the first World War. He sued the University for libel and won $40,000 in court, but he did not return to the institution. Instead, he attempted further application of psychological testing when he founded the Psychological Corporation, a company organized to promote commercial psychological tests. His entrepreneurial abilities failed him in this endeavor, however; the company earned only about $50 during its first two years. After he left, the organization began to prosper, and today, the Psychological Corporation is a flourishing business. Cattell continued his work as a spokesperson for applied psychology until his death.

Further Reading

Benjamin, L. T., Jr. A History of Psychology: Original Sources and Contemporary Research. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1988.

Schultz, D. P., and S.E. Schultz. A History of Modern Psychology. 6th ed. Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists