Cattell, James Mckeen

views updated May 23 2018


(b. Easton, Pennsylvania, 25 May 1860, d. Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 20 January 1944), psychology, scientific journal editing. For the original article on Cattell see DSB, vol. 3.

Cattell’s scientific work and programmatic statements—with their focus on quantification, potential applicability, and a concern for human behavior—helped shape the course of twentieth-century “scientific” psychology. His editorial and institutional activities, especially his fifty-year editorship of Science, provided an organizational infrastructure that supported the American scientific community through the same period.

Education and Early Scientific Successes . At Lafayette College (AB, 1880), Cattell studied Baconian ideas with philologist Francis Andrew March and, on his own, Comtean positivism. His later approach to science combined a Comtean emphasis on quantification with a Baconian appreciation for the hypothesis-free collection of empirical “facts” and the usefulness of science. His scientific work thus featured methods that produced quantitative data about (potentially applicable) psychological phenomena, even if he often could not explain them. At Lafayette (which his father, William C. Cattell, served as president, and of which his maternal grandfather, James McKeen, was the major benefactor) Cattell also developed a self-righteous expectation of deference from others, an attitude that often alienated his peers and colleagues.

Hoping to emulate March’s scholarly career, Cattell studied at the universities of Göttingen and Leipzig before assuming a fellowship at Johns Hopkins University in 1882. There he showed great experimental skill by timing individuals’ reading of letters and words and claiming that people naturally read whole words, rather than syllables. (This study later reinforced the “whole-word” approach to reading education.) In 1883, he lost his fellowship and returned to Leipzig. In 1886, he became the first American to earn a German PhD in experimental psychology with Wilhelm Wundt, who is often credited with establishing the new science. Cattell’s dissertation research measured reaction times under varying conditions more precisely than any previous study. As he worked, he soon found that Wundt’s preferred methods—which involved innere wahrnehmung (internal perception, or simply perceiving subjective events, a procedure often confused with the more rigorous selbstbeobachtung and mistranslated as

introspection)—gave inconsistent results. He thus abandoned these procedures to emphasize the behavior of his subjects—a term he apparently introduced in reports on psychological experiments—and set a precedent that many later psychologists followed.

In 1886, Cattell became a Fellow-Commoner at St. Johns College, Cambridge. Following visits to Francis Galton’s Anthropometric Laboratory in London, Cattell assimilated into his approach to science Galton’s interest in differences among individuals. Galton developed this interest into a program of positive eugenics, an idea that Cattell found congenial; Cattell and his wife—Josephine Owen, an Englishwoman who had studied music in Leipzig—had seven children.

Experimental Accomplishments and Disappointments . In 1889, Cattell assumed a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, where he performed two elaborate series of experiments. With biologist Charles S. Dolley, he continued his reaction-time studies in an attempt to measure the velocity of the nervous impulse. With philosopher George S. Fullerton, he extended traditional psychophysical techniques whose proponents claimed they measured the relation between (physical) stimulus and (mental) sensation, and used his results to argue against any mentalistic interpretation of his (or others’) experiments.

Cattell moved to Columbia University in 1891, where he developed an influential program of “mental tests.” He and his collaborators used standard laboratory procedures—measuring (among other traits) reaction times, short-term memory, and the sensitivity of the senses—to gather quantitative data on psychological differences. But the studies lacked a functional view of how these traits helped people live their lives, and because the tests produced no useful results, psychologists soon abandoned them. Cattell then left the laboratory, but in 1901 his earlier experimental achievement led to his election as the first psychologist in the National Academy of Sciences. Three years later, while addressing “The Conceptions and Methods of Psychology,” he urged his colleagues to apply their science to practical problems, and those who later developed an explicitly applied psychology often emphasized Cattell’s inspiration.

Editorial Achievements . From 1894, when he founded The Psychological Review with Princeton colleague James Mark Baldwin, Cattell owned, edited, and eventually published many major scientific journals. In late 1894, he took control of the failing weekly Science, and in 1900 it became—even though privately owned—the official journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). This arrangement greatly increased AAAS membership, Science’s circulation, and Cattell’s advertising income. Before 1920, he used Science to initiate debates over major policy issues, including the work of federal scientific bureaus, plans for the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s $10 million endowment, and the governance of higher education. After 1915, Science emphasized discussions about support for scientific research and both the National Research Council and the AAAS’s own Committee of One Hundred on Scientific Research. These concerns attracted additional readers, and this growing readership (and its weekly publication schedule) in turn led many American scientists to publish their best work in Science.

Cattell took over another failing journal, The Popular Science Monthly, in 1900, and used his Science-based network to attract contributors. (In 1915, he sold the journal’s name, but continued it as The Scientific Monthly.) In 1903, Cattell began collecting data for what emerged in 1906 as the first edition of American Men of Science, a directory of the country’s scientific workers. He also used these data in his studies of scientific eminence, which he repeated, with modifications, for the six later American Men of Science editions he oversaw. In 1904, he sold his share of The Psychological Review and, in 1907, took over The American Naturalist. He initially hoped that the Naturalist would encourage positive eugenics, but he soon came to rely on the editorial guidance of Columbia colleague Thomas H. Morgan, and the journal instead promoted Mendelian genetics. In 1915, he founded School and Society to serve educators as Science served scientists. He edited these publications through the 1930s—and Science through the early 1940s—and they defined his position in the American scientific community.

Institutional Failures . Even as American scientists respected Cattell’s scientific and editorial achievements, they resented his self-righteous approach. This attitude at times emerged as a defense of academic freedom, and in 1913, he collected a series of Science articles in a volume, University Control. But his verbal and written statements often included public attacks on others, which cost him friends. When Columbia president Nicholas Murray Butler tried to force Cattell to retire in 1913, friends admitted Cattell’s personal shortcomings but rushed to his defense. Nevertheless, he gradually alienated most of them, including his long-time supporters at Columbia, anthropologist Franz Boas and philosopher John Dewey. In 1917, when the university finally fired Cattell, ostensibly for opposing U.S. conscription policy during World War I, he found few supporters. He sued Columbia for libel and, in 1922, won a monetary settlement. He used some of it to found the Psychological Corporation, which tried to implement his interest in applied psychology. Cattell, however, emphasized the firm’s organization and never could explain how psychologists actually applied their science. The corporation floundered until 1926, when psychologists with significant experience with “real world” problems assumed its control.

Through the 1920s and 1930s, Cattell continued to edit his journals and chair the AAAS Executive Committee, and he acted as psychology’s grand old man. His last years, however, proved disappointing. Science grew duller and attracted both growing criticism and fewer readers, younger scientists lost interest in his continued studies of scientific eminence, and he continued to alienate others. Under his leadership the AAAS hired and fired four permanent secretaries through the 1930s, and a public personal attack (as president of the 1929 International Congress of Psychology) on Duke University researcher William McDougall scandalized American psychologists. In 1941, the AAAS Executive Committee finally forced Cattell from its chair. Although he edited Science until his death, his continued relationships with AAAS officials were cool at best.


The Library of Congress holds an exceptionally valuable collection of Cattell papers. (It tripled in size in the early 1970s,after Nathan Reingold submitted his original DSB article on Cattell. The original article also could not benefit from the post-1970 spurt of research on psychology’s past and—led largely by Reingold—on the twentieth-century American scientific community.) Cattell’s papers are also held in Central Files, Columbia University, New York. Although Columbia University’s Manuscripts Library and the Columbiana Collection both also hold collections of Cattell material, the records of all Columbia faculty and administrative officers available in the university’s Central Files are much more valuable.


James McKeen Cattell: Man of Science, edited by A. T. Poffenberger. 2 vols. Lancaster, PA: The Science Press, 1947. Collects many of Cattell’s most important scientific and programmatic papers and includes an incomplete bibliography.

“APA’s First Publication: Proceedings of the American Psychological Association, 1892–1893.” American Psychologist28 (1973): 277–292. A facsimile reprint of a major report that Cattell edited for publication in 1894.

An Education in Psychology: James McKeen Cattell’s Journal and Letters from Germany and England, 1880–1888, edited by Michael M. Sokal. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1981.


Pillsbury, Walter B. “Biographical Memoir of James McKeen Cattell, 1860–1944.” National Academy of Science Biographical Memoirs 25 (1949): 1–16. Includes an incomplete bibliography.

The Psychological Researchers of James McKeen Cattell: A Review by Some of His Students. New York: The Science Press, 1914.

Sokal, Michael M. “The Unpublished Autobiography of James McKeen Cattell.” American Psychologist 26 (1971):626–635.

———. “Science and James McKeen Cattell, 1894–1945.”Science 209 (1980): 43–52.

———. “The Origins of the Psychological Corporation.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 17 (1981): 54–67.

———. “James McKeen Cattell and the Failure of Anthropometric Mental Testing, 1890–1901.” In The Problematic Science: Psychology in Nineteenth-Century Thought, edited by William R. Woodward and Mitchell G. Ash. New York: Praeger, 1982.

———. “James McKeen Cattell and American Psychology in the 1920s.” In Explorations in the History of Psychology in the United States, edited by Josef Bro ek. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 1984.

———. “Life-Span Developmental Psychology and the History of Science.” In Beyond History of Science: Essays in Honor of Robert E. Schofield, edited by Elizabeth W. Garber. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1990. Provides an interpretive overview of Cattell’s life and career.

———. “James McKeen Cattell, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the American Psychological Association, 1891–1902.” In Aspects of the History of Psychology in America: 1892–1992, edited by Helmut E. Adler and Robert W. Rieber (Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 727, 1994), pp. 13–35.

———. “Stargazing: James McKeen Cattell, American Men of Science, and the Reward Structure of the American Scientific Community, 1906–44.” In Psychology, Science, and Human Affairs: Essays in Honor of William Bevan, edited by Frank Kessel. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995.

———. “Baldwin, Cattell, and the Psychological Review: A Collaboration and Its Discontents.” History of the Human Sciences 10 (1997): 57–89.

———. “Promoting Science in a New Century: The Middle Years of the AAAS.” In The Establishment of Science in America: 150 Years of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Michael M. Sokal, and Bruce V. Lewenstein. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1999.

———, and Patrice A. Rafail, eds. A Guide to Manuscript Collections in the History of Psychology and Related Areas. Millwood, NY: Kraus, 1982. Describes collections in which much of Cattell’s correspondence with his psychological contemporaries may be found.

Michael M. Sokal

Cattell, James Mckeen

views updated Jun 11 2018

Cattell, James Mckeen


James McKeen Cattell (1860–1944), although primarily a psychologist, probably did more than anyone else of his generation to foster the development in the United States of the sciences, especially the behavioral and biological sciences. He was one of the founders of the American Psychological Association and of several other scientific societies. He established the Science Press for the purpose of fostering the publication of both technical and popular scientific materials. He launched and published such scientific journals as the Psychological Review, Science, Scientific Monthly, School and Society, and The American Naturalist. He prepared and published the first and subsequent editions of American Men of Science and Leaders in Education, and during his entire professional life he was the most vigorous promoter of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He became a member of many scientific societies and was honored by most of them. He was one of the first psychologists to be elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Cattell graduated in 1880 from Lafayette College, of which his father was president. As an undergraduate he majored in English, but in graduate study he shifted to philosophy and psychology, mainly under Lotze in Göttingen and Wundt in Leipzig. During three years of study with Wundt, Cattell invented some extraordinary and ingenious laboratory apparatus and improved many older devices. He undertook investigations that led to a quite new “objective approach” in psychological study. His purpose was to develop “psychology into a science rivaling in activity and fruitfulness the other great sciences” ([1888–1943] 1947, vol. 1, p. 9). He saw the values of the “introspective” methods of studying consciousness which then prevailed but declared that “psychology cannot attain the certainty and exactness of the physical sciences unless it rests on a foundation of experiment and measurement” (ibid., vol. 1, p. 3). He became the champion of the idea that rigid, objective scientific work could be carried on in all the behavioral, biological, and social sciences. Thus he hastened the breakaway of psychology and other behavioral sciences from philosophy and promoted their comradeship with the physical and older biological sciences.

After his studies with Wundt and others on the Continent, Cattell moved to England for several years of work with Sir Francis Galton, whom he later rated as “the greatest man I have known” and who profoundly influenced his social and political as well as his psychological outlook. Galton’s ideas about individual differences in human and animal equipment, about the possibilities of measuring all abilities and capacities, and about the use of the new statistical as well as experimental devices for determining the possible roles of heredity and environment fired Cattell with a new zeal for cultivating the behavioral sciences.

Cattell’s vigor and enthusiasm were apparent in his early work at the University of Pennsylvania in 1888, when he developed a series of “mental tests” for college students. In 1891 he was called to Columbia and there first administered his “mental tests.” Thus he introduced basic ideas that later, in the hands of his students, especially E. L. Thorndike, grew into the “testing movement” with its array of new statistical and psychophysical methods. Cattell foresaw the important contribution the sciences could make not only to education but to philosophy and public affairs in general, as exemplified by the work of William James, whom he admired enormously, and of John Dewey, whom he called “John the Baptist of Democracy.” Cattell demonstrated the possibilities of fruitful cooperation among these disciplines during his years at Columbia, where he served at various times as head of the departments of anthropology, philosophy, and psychology.

After his retirement from Columbia in 1917, Cattell’s Science Press published works in many fields of applied science. Among these publications was the journal School and Society, in which, as editor, he encouraged experimentation and innovations in education and social life. He tried out with his own children an intriguing form of tutorial and independent study that replaced attendance at school until the children were ready for college.

Cattell’s purpose was to cultivate scientific methods for a wide range of subject matter. Although he favored “objective” methods, he recognized the value of other approaches, such as the introspective work of Edward B. Titchener and the observational methods of psychologist G. Stanley Hall and anthropologist Franz Boas. Cattell wrote no general text of psychology and developed no “system,” but he held theoretical psychology in high regard and at Teachers College, Columbia, supported such theorists as Thorndike, Robert S. Woodworth, and Harry L. Hollingworth. He regarded theoretical work as indispensable and thought that the use of psychological methods in many practical fields was equally vital. He became a vigorous promoter of “applied psychology” as well as laboratory study. Thus, in his own institution he encouraged Thorndike and Hollingworth not only in their theoretical work but also in the former’s application of psychology to education and the latter’s to business and industry. Also at Teachers College Albert T. Poffenberger was applying psychology to advertising and selling; Leta S. Hollingworth was working in clinical and abnormal psychology; and others were involved in animal, social, and other areas of psychology. In 1921 Cattell established the Psychological Corporation to make the findings of applied psychology available to business and industry. It became a flourishing institution in the applied field.

Cattell’s own shrewd contributions to psychophysical methods, such as the “order of merit” or “ranking” methods, led to the development of devices for measuring aesthetic and other intangible qualities. He demonstrated the fact that many words can be learned and later recognized more easily and accurately than most letters and that both are typically perceived on the basis of reduced or fragmentary cues. He showed that during reading, the eyes move along the line in a series of grasshopperlike jumps and that the words are perceived only when the eyes are at a standstill. He demonstrated that words and phrases can be read in a small fraction of a second. These and other of his earliest studies at Leipzig on reaction time, and his experimental analyses of his subjects’ symbolic material, led to the revolution of many educational practices, such as methods of teaching reading and spelling [seeReading Disabilities; Vision, article oneye movements].

Cattell’s constant encouragement of his students to devise objective procedures, rather than to use conventional anecdotal and observational methods, for studying the behavior of animals and infants led to conspicuously new movements in animal and child psychology. These ventures laid a foundation for several forms, or schools, of behaviorism, which appeared later. Thus, although Cattell did not try to develop a system of his own, his works produced important data for theoretical and systematic formulations of psychology. “Psychology is,” he frequently reminded his students, “what good psychologists do.” This conviction revealed his belief that psychologists should venture in many directions and pursue various types of study that could not be anticipated even by him.

Cattell invaded several practical areas with ideas and procedures developed in psychology. He was sarcastically critical of typical university teaching methods. Spoon-feeding by lectures and elaborate demonstrations he deplored. He did not “teach” in the ordinary sense. He left his students to their own resources and conducted most of his classes in the manner of the severe ph.d. oral. The student was expected to come up with new ideas and defend them against all present, including Cattell, who often appeared to be merciless but was in fact trying to challenge his students to think courageously and independently. He scorched many of his students but inspired all of them.

Cattell found college administration a field that gave full play to his penetrating insight and to what some persons, especially college presidents, might call his diabolic wit. In his address “Academic Slavery,” he remarked: “The disease which is endemic in the university is subordination of the teacher to the academic machine, a kind of hook-worm disease which leaves the entire institution anaemic” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 350). Irascible college presidents were advised not to listen to or read any of Cattell’s comments on this topic. The head of his own university disregarded this advice and, after several years of poorly concealed combustion, took action to remove Cattell from his university post. But, as Cattell later noted, this appeared to have been an illegal action, for the university, on the advice of frightened trustees, paid heavy damages.

Cattell launched a typical attack on the U.S. political leaders who led the nation into World War I. Although he was himself “ever a fighter,” he was a pacifist as far as international conflict was concerned. His stinging barbs were brilliant and devastating but not the kind to win popular political approval. They got him into much trouble, but in the course of time the university public, at least, arose to defend and applaud him.

Cattell died in 1944, in his 84th year. Shortly thereafter his colleagues and students published two commemorative volumes, which provide a most convenient and complete report of his life and work. Both carried the general title James McKeen Cattell, Man of Science, and were published in 1947 by his own Science Press, which one of his sons had taken over. Volume 1 contains his own reports of his researches, and Volume 2 his addresses and formal papers. Both contain expert appraisals of his characteristics and accomplishments. I have found no better brief characterization than the last paragraph of “An Appreciation” of Cattell by one of his students, Frederick Lyman Wells: “Agreeable associations await him on the Houseboat. Francis Galton and William Morton Wheeler will have arranged his introduction. With Plato, Freud and St. Paul he will have less in common; but Aristotle, Galileo, Francis Bacon and Voltaire—especially Voltaire—should find him highly congenial” (ibid., vol. 2, p. 6).

Arthur I. Gates

[For the historical context of Cattell’s work, see the biographies ofGalton; Lotze; Wundt.For discussion of the subsequent development of his ideas, seeAchievement testing; Aptitude testing; Intelligence and intelligence testing; Personality measurement; and the biographies ofThorndike; Woodworth.]


Cattell, James M. (1888–1943) 1947 James McKeen Cattell; 1860–1944: Man of Science. 2 vols. Edited by A. T. Poffenberger. Lancaster, Pa.: Science Press. → Volume 1: Psychological Research. Volume 2: Addresses and Formal Papers.

Cattell, James McKeen

views updated May 29 2018

Cattell, James McKeen

(b. Easton, Pennsylvania, 25 May 1860; d. Lancaster, Pennsylvania,20 January 1944),

psychology, scientific publishing.

Cattell was the first person in the world to have the title “professor of psychology” (University of Pennsylvania, 1888). After being asked to leave Johns Hopkins University in 1883 (his colleagues regarded him as a nuisance), he went to Leipzig, where he studied with Wilhelm Wundt, whose first laboratory assistanthe was. He received his doctorate in 1886. Part of the next two years was spent studying at Gallon’s anthropometric laboratory in London. In 1891 Cattell left Pennsylvania for Columbia University, where he remained until 1917, when his pacifist views resulted in his expulsion—one of the more spectacular academic freedom cases of the period.

Cattell’s psychological work shows the influence of his two masters. Like Wundt he was interested in experimental studies of human behavior; like Galton he was interested in statistical studies, of scientists in Cattell’s case. Cattell and his students (e.g., E. L. Thorndike, R. S. Woodworth) greatly influenced American psychology in its bias toward experimentation and quantification.

Cattell’s principal importance, however, is as a great scientific publisher and editor and as a powerful force in the development of the scientific and intellectual community. From 1895 until his death Cattell owned and edited Science. With J. M. Baldwin he founded Psychological Review in 1894 and continued as coeditor until 1903. Cattell took over Popular Science Monthly in 1900, relinquishing his editorship in 1915; he was not able to arrest the periodical’s decline, however. To supplant Popular Science Monthly, in 1915 he founded Scientific Monthly, which he edited until his death. In the same year he founded another journal, School and Society, which remained under his aegis for the rest of his life. With the initial support of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Cattell produced the first edition of American Men of Science in 1906 and edited all editions through the sixth (1938). Two editions of a related directory, Leaders in Education, appeared in 1932 and 1940. To handle all these publications he founded the Science Press of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1923. At a time when founding and maintaining scientific journals was quite risky, Cattell’s successful entrepreneurship earned him much gratitude from the scientific community.

Related to Cattell’s editorial work was his role as a would-be reformer of the American intellectual scene. In both his writings and his conduct Cattell upheld the rights of professors against deans and university presidents; he was instrumental in the founding of the American Association of University Professors in 1915. Selecting the American Association for the Advancement of Science as his chosen instrument for the reorganization of the scientific community, Cattell made Science its official organ in 1900 and later arranged for title to the periodical to pass to the Association on his death. In his scheme of things, the Association was to be the “House of Commons” of science, with representatives of each professional society and other organizations. The National Academy was to be an increasingly powerless “House of Lords.” His statistical analyses in American Men of Science and his attempt to “star” the leading scientists in the directory were used to buttress his position.

These compilations of statistical data on scientists are often all that later scholars have to fall back on. His attempts to determine scholarly productivity by having panels of scientists vote on comparative merits of investigators in particular fields are summed up by Stephen Visher in Scientists Starred (Baltimore, 1947). In general Cattell was somewhat more cautious than Visher in using the starred scientists, but both display a fair degree of gullibility. Cattell’s findings (and those of Visher) generated a good many myths that required correction in the development of national science policy after World War II —for example, small colleges are more productive of scientists than universities.

Cattell was a conscious opponent of George Ellery Hale’s program for revitalizing the National Academy of Sciences and making it the leader of the scientific community. After World War I, when Hale’s views prevailed, Cattell’s influence waned outside the A. A. A.S. In 1921 he founded the Psychological Corporation and Science Service, the former to gives cientists an opportunity to reap the benefits of their discoveries, the latter to communicate news of science to the lay public.


Cattel’s personal papers are in the Library of Congress. The collection is discussed in Grover C. Batts, “The James McKeen Cattell Papers,” in Library of Congress, Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions, 17 (1960), 170–174, and is described in greater detail in the published register of the collection, James Mc Keen Cattell, a Register of His Papers in the Library of Congress (Washington, D.C., 1962).

No good bibliography of Cattell’s writings exists, but the most useful is the one appended to Pillsbury’s memoir (see below). Although admittedly selective, it is reasonably good for his psychological research but rather skimpy for Cattell as a man of scientific affairs. After Cattell’s death, A. T. Poffenberger edited a splendid collection of Cattelliana, James McKeen Cattell, Man of Science, 1860–1944, 2 vols.(Lancaster, Pa., 1947), which contains much useful bibliographic information. The Cattell papers in the Library of Congress have files of his papers and speeches, including unpublished items. Simply by browsing through Science and other publications associated with Cattell one can turn up other writings, some quite consequential.

The best brief biographical account is W. B. Pillsbury, “Biographical Memoir of James McKeen Cattell, 1860–1944” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 25 (1949), 1–16. More ambitious but less reliable on some details is R. S. Woodworth, “James McKeen Cattell, 1860–1944,” in Psychological Review, 51 (1944), 201–209, repr. in Poffenberger, op. cit., I, 1–12. A memorial issue of Science contains interesting reminiscences and appreciations: 99 (1944), 151–165. For contemporary stimates of Cattell as a psychologist, see The Psychological Researchesof James McKeen Cattell: A Review by Some of His Students, no. 30 of Archives of Psychology (New York, 1914); and E. G. Boring, A History of Experimental Psychology (New York, 1929), pp. 519–528. A discussion of the Cattell-Hale relationship is in Nathan Reingold, “National Aspirations and Local Purposes,” in Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 71 (1969), 235–246.

Nathan Reingold

Cattell, James McKeen

views updated May 23 2018

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.

James McKeen Cattell

views updated May 29 2018

James McKeen Cattell

The American psychologist and editor James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944) was a pioneer in American psychology who influenced the profession to use objective methods of study and to apply psychology to practical aspects of life.

James McKeen Cattell was born on May 20, 1860, in Easton, Pennsylvania. His father was president of Lafayette College in Easton, and his family supported Cattell's education and his early desire to travel and work abroad.

During the eight years following acquisition of a B.A. degree from Lafayette College in 1880 Cattell studied in Europe at Leipzig and at Göttingen under the famed European psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. Moving to England, Cattell worked with Sir Francis Galton, who strongly influenced him. Cattell also admired the American psychologist and philosopher William James. Returning to the United States Cattell worked at Johns Hopkins University.

From 1888 to 1891 Cattell held the first professorship in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia. He made his greatest personal contributions to the field of psychology during 1891-1917 when he was professor at Columbia University. He died in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, on January 20, 1944.

Cattell had a strong and lasting impact on psychology in at least three ways. First, he began his career at a time when psychology and other behavioral sciences were allied with philosophy. Cattell championed the notion that psychology and other behavioral, biological, and social sciences could carry on rigorous, objective, scientific research. His impetus hastened a turning point in methodological practices in these disciplines. Some say Cattell probably did more than anyone else of his time to foster the development of the behavioral and biological sciences in the United States.

In his own work, Cattell demonstrated the rigor of a scientific approach as he researched reading and perception, psychophysics, individual differences, and individuals' reaction times to various stimuli. Examples of findings from his research still cited today are that eyes jump during reading, that words in print are only perceived when the eyes are at a standstill, that many words can be learned and remembered more easily and accurately than most letters, and that words and phrases can be read in a small fraction of a second.

Second, Cattell advocated that scientific findings could and should be utilized in practical ways. His conclusions from his study of reading, for example, along with others on reaction time revolutionized some educational practices such as methods of teaching reading and spelling. In 1921 Cattell founded, and for many years served as president of, the Psychological Corporation, the first of many groups applying psychological techniques to practice. Psychological Corporation became and remained a leader in the development of tests for use in education and industry.

Third, Cattell made a mark in history through his service to professional organizations and journals. He was one of the founders of the American Psychological Association and of several other scientific societies. He launched and published several scientific journals, including Psychological Review, Science, Scientific Monthly, School and Society, and The American Naturalist. He also prepared and published the first and subsequent editions of American Men of Science and Leaders in Education.

Further Reading

Complete reports of Cattell's life and work are in James McKeen Cattell; 1860-1944: Man of Science. Volume one, Psychological Research, contains Cattell's own reports of his research and volume two, Addresses and Formal Papers, consists of Cattell's own presentations.

An Education in Psychology: James McKeen Cattell's Journals and Letters from Germany and England, edited by Michael M. Sokal (1981), gives an interesting personal accounting of the beginnings of Cattell's career. The book also contains brief sections on Cattell at Columbia, Cattell as psychologist, Cattell as editor, and the Cattell family. □

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James McKeen Cattell

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