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James Cattell (1860-1944)

psychology psychological university columbia

Born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in 1860, J. McKeen Cattell was the fourth president of the American Psychological Association (1896) and the first psychologist elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1901. He was the founder of the related areas of differential psychology and psychometrics.

Cattell was the son of the president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. As a young man he was educated at home, and then in the college classroom by the faculty members of that university, eventually receiving his undergraduate degree in 1880. In 1881 he traveled to Germany to pursue a degree in philosophy with Rudolph Lotze. Lotze died shortly after Cattell's arrival so he completed the year with Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig. Cattell returned to the United States for a year at Johns Hopkins University, then continued with his work in Wundt's laboratory, receiving his Ph.D. with Wundt in 1886. Cattell then traveled to Cambridge University in England to pursue a degree in medicine (a pursuit which he shortly abandoned). While studying in England, he became acquainted with Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton was gathering anthropometric data (measurements of the human body) in an attempt to verify Darwin's evolutionary propositions. Since Cattell was known for his methods of measuring "psychological" attributes, Galton felt that such measures would be a valuable addition to his arsenal of human attributes and persuaded Cattell to develop some psychological "tests." These tests included most of the standard assessments of Wundt's lab, including reaction time and various sensory tasks. Early in his development, Cattell became fascinated with the differences between and among individuals in psychological traits, including intelligence. He devoted his life to measuring those differences. It is fair to say that Cattell founded the fields of differential psychology and psychometrics.

Cattell returned to the United States in 1889 and took a position with the University of Pennsylvania as its first professor of psychology, moving to a similar position at Columbia University in 1891. At Columbia he began a program of testing directed toward more effective placement of incoming students into curricula. He was convinced that by measuring various mental and physical attributes of these students, an analysis might be done that would reveal the nature and structure of intelligence. In 1892 he joined with other prominent philosopher/psychologists (e.g., William James, Hugo Munsterberg, and G. Stanley Hall) to found the American Psychological Association, becoming its fourth president in 1896. He continued his student-testing project at Columbia but when the results were finally analyzed, the disappointing conclusion was that none of his "mental tests" showed any relationship to measures of student success.

From a period beginning in 1900 until he left Columbia in 1917, he devoted most of his scientific efforts to the ranking of scientists, including psychologists, according to their judged "eminence" by their colleagues. While at Columbia he was a vocal James Cattell's contribution to the discipline of child development can be seen through his early appreciation of individual differences and their measurement. (Psychology Archives, University of Akron) critic of university governance and individual university administrators. Cattell was a pacifist and vigorously opposed the entry of the United States into World War I (this made him even more unpopular). As a result of accumulated tensions, he was dismissed from Columbia in 1917. Four years later he founded the Psychological Corporation, which was intended to be a nonprofit psychological consulting firm that would provide testing services to clients through the cooperative efforts of applied psychologists throughout the country. Virtually every big name in applied psychology at the time bought "shares" in the Psychological Corporation or agreed to join the external consulting staff of the corporation. The "profits" from the endeavor were to be returned to psychology in the form of research support. Cattell believed firmly that research support should be centered in scientific organizations and not in government agencies or universities. Until his death in 1944, Cattell remained active in applied psychology both in the United States and abroad.

Cattell's contribution to the discipline of child development can be seen through his early appreciation of individual differences (differential psychology) and the measurement of those differences (psychometrics).



Landy, Frank. "Development of I/O Psychology." In Thomas K. Fagan and Gary R. Vanden Bos eds., Exploring Applied Psychology: Origins and Critical Analyses. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1993.

Landy, Frank. "Early Influences on the Development of Industrial and Organizational Psychology." Journal of Applied Psychology 82 (1997):467-477.

Sokal, Michael M. "James McKeen Cattell and the Failure of Anthropometric Mental Testing, 1890-1901." In William R. Woodward and M. G. Ash eds., The Problematic Science: Psychology in Nineteenth Century Thought. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982.

Publications by Cattell

"Mental Measurement." Philosophical Review 2, no. 3 (1893):316-332.

"On Errors of Observation."American Journal of Psychology 5(1893):285-293.

"A Statistical Study of Eminent Men." Popular Science Monthly 53(1903):357.

Cattell, James McKeen, and L. Farrand. "Physical and Mental Measurements of Students at Columbia University."Psychological Review 3 (1896):618-648.

Frank J. Landy

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