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Study Notes

Gould (1982)

AS, A-Level, IB
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

A Nation of Morons (Bias in IQ Testing)

Background and aim: In 1905, the Simon-Binet test, the world’s first intelligence test was developed. 5 years later this was adapted for use in the USA and it became known as the Stanford-Binet test. In 1944 the most widely used test of adult intelligence, the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) was born. When America became involved in WW1, over a million recruits were required. So Colonel Yerkes combined his early ideas of inherited intelligence and the development of mental testing and developed the Army Alpha and Beta tests as a way of selecting recruits. The aim of this study is to examine the early history of intelligence testing. Gould aimed to identify the following problems in psychology: The problems with psychometric testing, specifically IQ tests. Bias in psychological theories on the inheritance of intelligence and the prejudice of a society which can remove the objectivity of intelligence testing. Political and ethical implications of research and using biased data to discriminate between people in suitability for occupation and even admission to a country.

Method: This study is not a piece of empirical research, but an extract from Gould’s (1981) book ‘The Mismeasure of Man’ where he discusses the history of the measuring of human intelligence. Therefore, this a review article that examines the history of Yerkes’ intelligence testing of recruits for the US army in WW1, and his attempt to establish psychology as a scientific discipline. The sample was 1.75 million US army recruits from different backgrounds during WW1. In 1917 Yerkes developed three types of intelligence test, two of which could be given to large groups and took less than an hour to complete.

The Army Alpha Test was an 8 part test designed for literate recruits and included questions about number sequences, analogies and other familiar IQ type questions. Yerkes believed the test measured native intellectual ability, which is not influenced by education or culture. However, the test was criticised for being very culturally biased and included questions such as Washington is to Adams as first is to …….; someone who was unfamiliar with American culture would perform poorly because of this. The second test was the Army Beta Test. This was designed for people who were illiterate or failed the Army Alpha Test. It had seven parts and consisted of picture completion tasks. The pictures used were culturally specific and if participants had no knowledge of the items, they would have been unable to the answer questions correctly. Furthermore, instructions were written in English and three parts of the test required written answers – hardly suitable for illiterate people! If recruits failed on the other two tests, they were required to take part in the spoken examination, but actually this rarely happened. After testing individuals were graded from A to E, which indicated suitability for the army; for example, a grade D indicated a person rarely suited for tasks requiring special skill, forethought, resourcefulness or sustained alertness.

Results: The data was analysed by E.G. Boring who was Yerkes’ lieutenant; the data was manipulated and converted to look for racial and national averages. The following ‘facts’ were reported: The average white American man had an average mental age of just 13, which is just above that of a ‘moron’. Eugenicists suggested this was due to how ‘the poor, Negroes and feeble-minded’ had interbred and lowered the overall intelligence of the population. European immigrants were graded by their country of origin with the darker people of Southern Europe and the Slavs of Eastern Europe being the least intelligent while Black men had an average mental age of 10.41! Nordic people from northern Europe were the most intelligent.

Two thirds of men who’d been promoted by the end of the war had achieved good test results. Yerkes also reported a ‘steady stream of requests’ from organisations and individuals to use these tests. Despite Yerkes later admitting the tests were difficult for those who weren’t familiar with English, it was concluded that these results proved that intelligence levels were inherited. Then in 1924 the Immigration Restriction Act was passed and Europeans who had scored very poorly on the tests were consequently no longer welcome in the country. It was also decided that the quota of immigrants allowed into America would be 2% of each recorded nation taken from the 1890 census figures, rather than the 1920 census which had higher numbers of immigrants. As a result the numbers of ‘the unwanted’ was very low.

Conclusions: A number of key conclusions can be made from this study: IQ tests are both culturally and historically biased; IQ tests do not measure innate intelligence; they are often unreliable and do not produce valid results. Inappropriate and poorly administered IQ tests have led to tragic consequences. Nations can be ranked by their intelligence and America is a nation of morons!


Validity and Reliability: Yerkes’ tests were not an accurate way of measuring intelligence, but were more to do with the amount of education the participants had received and their familiarity with US culture. One can say the tests were standardised and the different versions were of equivalent difficulty, but were suitable for different literacy levels and a result should yield consistent results. However, the issue with reliability came with the administration of the tests, which went against what Yerkes’ had designed. Illiterate people often sat only the Alpha Test and as expected scored very low. Literacy levels were lower than expected which led to large queues for the Beta Test. This led to an artificial lowering of standards by administrators in order to sit the Alpha Test. Further problems came to light, in that men, especially black men, who failed the Alpha Test were not allowed to take the Beta Test. Furthermore, only one fifth of those who failed the Beta Test were allowed to take the individual examinations

Sampling Bias and Ethnocentrism: 1.75 million men took part in the testing. This is clearly a huge sample; however, they were only young males. The sample was also made up of Native Americans and immigrants from a range of backgrounds; thus the research cannot be considered as ethnocentric. However, as we know, the tests themselves were culturally biased and disadvantaged those who were less familiar with American culture.

Ethical Issues: Despite the tests being poorly designed and administered, the results led to different ethnic groups being wrongly judged as of low intelligence, which led to the introduction of the Immigration Restriction Act. Consequences of these restrictions were grave - immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was stopped, which meant that Jews who were fleeing their homeland at the start of WW2 could not be admitted to America, it was thought as many as 6 million were denied entry into the USA between 1924 and the start of war in 1939.

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