A Comparative Study of the Intelligence of Delinquent Girls

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A Comparative Study of the Intelligence of Delinquent Girls

Book excerpt

By: Agusta F. Bronner

Date: 1914

Source: Bronner, Augusta F. A Comparative Study of the Intelligence of Delinquent Girls. New York: Columbia University Teacher's College, 1914.

About the Author: During the early part of the twentieth century, Dr. Augusta F. Bronner performed extensive research into the possible causes of criminal behavior, particularly in young women. She worked in conjunction with Dr. William Healy, and together they studied the circumstances in which people fell into delinquent or criminal behavior. Their studies included a series of tests to determine whether natural intelligence (or its lack) played a part in a person's moral development.


Scientists and sociologists have long studied the factors that determine a person's behavior, including genetics, environment, and the influence of others. In the early twentieth century, Dr. Augusta F. Bronner began to investigate the causes of delinquent behavior in young women. She acknowledged that it was unlikely that any one cause was solely responsible for girls becoming involved in criminal lifestyles, but she was particularly interested in whether a girl's intellectual abilities contributed to this type of behavior. Bronner questioned whether a girl with diminished mental faculties was more likely to become a delinquent because she was simply incapable of understanding that this behavior was wrong, or, alternatively, because her lower intelligence made it easier for other people to convince her to participate in criminal activities. She also wished to determine whether those girls falling into delinquent behavior were intellectually incapable of supporting themselves through honest means.




The question of the delinquent girl is one that has aroused much interest of late. Varied are the explanations that have been given as to the causes that have led to the beginning of her career. Vice Commissions have attempted to investigate the economic and social conditions that are involved. In several places, notably at the Laboratory for Social Hygiene, Bedford Hills, and in Chicago, under the direction of Dr. William Healy, the mental status is being delved into as well. In the latter instance, the delinquent is being studied from every possible viewpoint—mental and physical, as well as environmental and social. These latter investigations tend to show that the problem is no simple one; there is no one ever-present and only cause, but a number of interrelated factors whose relative importance varies with each individual case.

However, apart from those who are working experimentally and scientifically, we find many social workers and, indeed, many of the general public who have expressed their views on the subject. Very many of these have stated it as their opinion that delinquency is due very largely to the fact that the offenders are not sufficiently intelligent to care for themselves without running into difficulties, in fact that the large majority are subnormal or feeble minded.

Whether every feeble-minded girl is a potential offender, is easily led, the tool of a stronger-minded, more gifted person, is one question. But it is an entirely different question from the one we have in mind, namely, whether all social and moral offenders are mentally ill or mentally unfit.

Are these offenders so lacking in capacity that they are unable to earn a livelihood in legitimate vocations? Is it because they are "industrial inefficients" that they begin careers of wrong doing? Or is it because their lack of ability means lack of moral stamina as well that they are easily influenced, persuaded readily, to join the ranks of offenders?

How do they compare in general intelligence with their sisters who have never come in conflict with the law, with those who are leading lives where, at least, criminal tendencies, should they exist, are controlled?

Of course, one can not compare them with those offenders so much cleverer, or so much luckier, that they can offend without the offense being detected or known. For it must be remembered that in all studies of delinquents, it is only the caught delinquent that is discussed. Who knows aught of the many unknown law-breakers—perhaps equally or more culpable—who are clever enough to mingle with their fellows, unsuspected even of guilt. Because the feeble-minded girl is so much more readily—and therefore so much more often—detected and brought into court, is she the more likely to predominate in institutions where investigations are being carried on.

In this study that same selective factor is operative among the delinquents investigated. They form one of the four groups that are compared. The second group is made up of students in the Freshman and Sophomore classes of Teachers College and Barnard College of Columbia University. The third is composed of girls who are members of evening clubs at settlements and branches of the Y. W. C. A. in the same districts of New York City from which the delinquent girls here studied largely came.

The delinquent and college groups vary widely, of course, in many ways—probably in hereditary and environmental forces. It is conceivable that members of the two groups are equally well endowed intellectually; on the other hand, do certain tests differentiate the two groups, should this not be true?

In the third group, though the environmental factors, at least such as living conditions and educational opportunities, are more nearly the same as in the first group, there is another point to be considered. Those who compose this group are again selected after a fashion. For it is only the brighter, the more ambitious, probably, who join the classes that are available to all, and we have, therefore, subjects for testing who are not chosen at random from among the residents of these neighborhoods, but a group selected by certain ideals.

In order to compare the delinquents with a group not selected for intellectual attainments, it was desired to use as a fourth group, subjects who are doing work of a character where no intellectual standard obtains. It was believed that this requirement would best be found by using a group of those engaged in domestic service.

The problem, then, that is undertaken in this study, is to determine the intellectual status of a group of delinquent girls as compared with the intellectual status of several other groups that represent varying degrees of education and that are engaged in occupations requiring varied degrees of intelligence and ability.

If the delinquent is less capable than the college girl or even than the girl who, though working daily, yet desires to improve herself by study at night, how does she compare with those who, though pursuing a vocation that demands less skill and training, yet earn a livelihood and are economically independent?


As a result of these experiments, we may conclude that certain tests serve to define the intellectual status of various groups of individuals, so that they can be compared one with the other. The tests for general intelligence which have been found, in other studies, to throw light on the capacity of different individuals, prove of value when applied to a problem such as the one dealt with in this study. They enable one to form some judgment of the general ability of the members of the groups, and to compare groups as a whole with each other. If now we attempt to answer our original question, "Are these thirty delinquent girls so lacking in intellectual capacity that they are unable to earn a livelihood in legitimate vocations?" we must answer, in the light of our findings, "No more so than others who are succeeding in doing so."

Compared with the group of college students, we find the delinquents much less capable; compared with members of evening classes as represented by our group, we find the delinquents still the less capable of the two. Undoubtedly the delinquent group, as a whole, is poor in ability, yet it is composed of girls who vary greatly among themselves, for the best in the group is six times as successful as the poorest in the group, averaging the results on the six general intelligence tests. The poorest members of the group are very poor indeed.

But the results attained by Group S show that this lack of capacity, in and of itself, does not explain the fact of delinquency, for Group S, though no more gifted, yet contains only members who are not and have not been delinquent as far as known.

Since Groups D and S, when compared, prove to be quite on a par as far as general intelligence is concerned, we must conclude that the explanation of the delinquent tendencies shown by members of Group D is something other than the intellectual status alone. This does not mean, of course, that the mentality may not be one factor; but, at least, there must be other factors as well which cause these individuals to engage in careers that lead them into conflict with the law, while others of like mentality experience no such difficulties.

Just what these other factors may be requires much more elaborate study. One does not know what part is played by home conditions, nor what has been the influence and example of parents and associates; one can not tell without special investigation how much or how little the environment has sheltered the individual girl; nor does one know the shocks and temptations to which each has been subjected. Education, companionship, wholesome interests and recreations—all these and many other forces combine to make each person what he is. Perhaps physical factors are involved as well; perhaps, too, the emotional make-up of different individuals varies so that what is temptation for one is not equally so for another.

At any rate, the results of these experiments tend to show that in a study of the causative factors involved in the beginnings of careers such as our delinquent group represents, it is not sufficient to give mental tests alone, essential as these are; nor can one lay all the blame for delinquencies in behavior at the door of poor mental gifts.


In setting up her study, Dr. Bronner could not take all factors into account. She noted that she had no way of determining whether there was a portion of the delinquent population that was highly intelligent and, because of this, had been able to elude detection as they engaged in criminal activities. The group of delinquents she studied, therefore, might simply have been the least intelligent portion of this demographic, and, as a result, they had been unable to escape arrest and/or prosecution. However, she proceeded with the experiment, comparing the group of delinquent girls to a group that attended college, another group that came from a similar background to the delinquents and yet used their evenings to attend classes at the Y.W.C.A., and another group from the same background who, rather than falling into criminal behavior, worked in domestic positions.

As Bronner anticipated, the intelligence test scores of the college students were far higher than the scores of the girls in the delinquent group, a result she believed was due both to a difference in family and in the environments in which they were raised. But comparing the other groups proved difficult once Bronner started examining other differences in circumstance. Those girls taking evening classes were the most ambitious in their groups, and therefore exhibited an ability to choose to improve their situations, which seemed to indicate that they already had superior intellect.

Bronner determined that the comparison between the delinquent girls and those girls working in domestic service—and therefore not pursuing an intellectual path—proved to be the most fair. Ultimately, however, she found that while it was possible to determine the intellectual abilities of individuals and then to compare them based on these tests, there was nothing to prove that intellectual abilities were an underlying factor in the delinquent behavior of the girls being tested. Within the delinquent group itself, intelligence varied greatly, and while some proved to be less intelligent than those girls with similar backgrounds who were successfully supporting themselves in domestic service, others were of equal or greater intelligence. When compared to the group of college students, the delinquents proved to be less intelligent overall. However, Bronner was forced to acknowledge that there was no way to be certain that there were not other delinquent girls who had evaded capture through the very intelligence that would have allowed them to score on par with the college students. At the end of her experiments, Bronner concluded that intelligence tests alone were not sufficient to determine what caused girls to enter into delinquent behavior. In all likelihood, factors such as environment, family background, circumstance, and outside influences also contributed to whether or not a girl became a delinquent.

The question as to how and why girls become delinquents has prompted further research in the decades that followed, including studies as to why girls appear to be less likely to participate in criminal activities than boys, and how classic theories in criminology relate differently to women. Key influences have been determined to include early delinquency, at a time when a child is unaware that their behavior is unacceptable; reaction to conflict, such as falling into patterns of self-defense in violent situations that eventually become the normal means of behavior; learned behavior, where a person is taught to participate in delinquent behavior early in life and that behavior is reinforced through a reward system; and social reinforcement, where a person is encouraged by peers to participate in behavior they might otherwise consider to be wrong. In the case of women, self-defense against sexist mores or sexual aggression can also play a role in developing delinquent behavior. The variety of potential influences makes it difficult to prevent the development of such behavior. Since there are so many factors to take into consideration, it is nearly impossible to determine what combination of circumstances will trigger the development of delinquent behavior.



Knupfer, Anne Meis. Reform and Resistance: Gender, Delinquency, and America's First Juvenile Court. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Sutherland, E. H. Social Attitudes: Mental Deficiency and Crime. New York: Henry Holt, 1931.

Web sites

Juvenile Forensic Evaluation Resource Center. "Female Juvenile Delinquency: Risk Factors and Promising Interventions." 〈http://www.ilppp.virginia.edu/Juvenile_Forensic_Fact_Sheets/FemJuv.html〉 (accessed January 12, 2006).

Juvenile Justice. "Contemporary Theories Explaining Deviancy." 〈http://husky1.stmarys.ca/∼evanderveen/wvdv/Juvenile_justice/contemporary_theories_deviancy.htm〉 (accessed January 12, 2006).

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A Comparative Study of the Intelligence of Delinquent Girls

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