James McKeen Cattell

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

James McKeen Cattell developed an approach to psychological research that continued, as of 2015, to dominate the field of psychology. 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 those of Wundt, and Cattell developed techniques that allowed him to study groups of people, while still examining, comparing, and contrasting individual differences.

Cattell's career was quite varied. He traveled to the University of Gottingen 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 famed American psychologist G. Stanley Hall (1844–1924). Cattell's relationship with Hall was conflicted, and Cattell did not complete his doctoral work at that time. While he was with Hall, however, Cattell developed an interest in studying psychological processes.

Subsequently, Cattell returned to Leipzig and earned his doctorate with Wundt, although correspondence with his parents revealed that Cattell did not hold Wundt in high esteem as a scientist. According to some, those letters 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 he 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 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 large groups of research subjects, using statistics to understand and interpret 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 surprised to discover that sensory performance did not relate to academic success, and the different sensory measures did not correlate with one another. As a result, he abandoned this approach to mental testing.

Although Cattell's specific paradigm for research on intelligence was unsuccessful, he exerted a significant influence on other American psychologists. During his career at Columbia University, more students earned doctorates in psychology with him than with any other contemporary psychologist. Cattell affected psychology in the United States in other ways: He founded the journal Psychological Review with another prominent psychologist, J. Mark Baldwin (1861–1934), then Cattell overhauled and relaunched the financially troubled journal Science, which he acquired from Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922). Cattell helped start the American Association for the Advancement of Science, one of the premier scientific organizations in the United States. He also published Scientific Monthly and School and Society. As his interest and commitment to editing and publishing burgeoned, his commitment to psychological research waned.

See also Applied psychology ; Assessment, psychological ; Eugenics ; Mental age ; Psychometrics .



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