Some Practical Applications of Psychology in Government[1]

Harold F. Gosnell
Department of Political Science, University of Chicago


Psychological tests and methods have proved useful in solving some concrete problems arising in the courts, in the state institutions, in the army, in the civil service and in the schools. These governmental agencies can use to good effect the general intelligence tests in classifying persons brought to them, and they can use some of the specialized tests that have been worked out for particular purposes. The perfection of tests of emotional, volitional, and moral traits would be a great aid to public administration. Psychology might also be applied to the analysis of the election process and to the development of qualification tests for electors. Students of government should therefore endeavor to co-operate with the psychologists, the educators, the psychiatrists, and the personnel experts.

In discussing the material of political reasoning, Graham Wallas said: "We must aim at finding as many relevant and measurable facts about human nature as possible, and we must attempt to make them all serviceable in political reasoning. "[2] For more than thirty years the psychologists have been busy in their laboratories investigating human traits and measuring the variability of human behavior. They are by no means united in the interpretation of what they have done, but they have developed an attitude and a technique which has proved useful in solving certain concrete problems which have been brought to them by workers in other fields. Physicians, educators, employment managers, and others have found various phases of the work of the psychologists directly applicable in solving their special problems. In this paper an endeavor will be made to show some of the practical applications of psychology that have been made or can be made in connection with the following governmental agencies: (1) the courts of law; (2) charitable and correctional institutions; (3) the army and navy; (4) the civil service; (5) the schools; (6) the electorate.

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For some time recognition has been given to the psychological problems that arise in connection with the work of the courts. During the past one hundred years, lawyers, jurists, and psychologists have shown great interest in the psychology of testimony. Within recent years experimental psychologists like Stern, Muenster-berg, Binet, and others have shown that the testimony of witnesses who wish to be truthful is not necessarily reliable. It has also been demonstrated that a leading or suggestive question may be the cause of considerable error in testimony. In Europe Professor Hans Gross[3] and in this country Dean Wigmore[4] have done much to make the findings of the psychologists of direct value in under-standing and reconstructing legal procedure.

While the psychologists have made mainly negative contributions in the work of evaluating testimony, they have made some positive achievements in connection with the examination of accused persons. The practice of making mental examinations of defendants began in the juvenile Court of Chicago in 1909 under the direction of Dr. Healy, a physician in charge of a privately endowed psychopathic institute. When he started, the methods of testing mental traits were crude and he had to struggle against many prejudices. Nevertheless, his work became so widely recognized that it was taken over by the government and now no juvenile court of any importance is without its mental examiner.[5] While the methods employed by the various clinics and examiners differ widely, it is fairly well established that the standardized intelligence tests based upon the principles of the Binet scale can detect low grades of mental ability and that the methods employed by the psychiatrists can reveal abnormal mental conditions. In juvenile courts many of the technicalities of ordinary court procedure have been dispensed with and a general examination of the defendant, including a psychological examination, has been substituted.

Not only in the juvenile courts but also in the adult criminal and police courts, the value of a mental examination and a person-

( 737) -ality study has been recognized. It is true that the mass of adult cases show greater differentiation than do the juvenile cases and the Binet tests are not suited for the examination of adults, but in spite of these and other difficulties the mental testing of adult criminals has progressed.[6] In co-operation with the penologists, the psychologists are undermining some of the traditional theories of crime and punishment.

The work of the psychological clinics has been of sufficient value to convince judge Arnold of the Chicago juvenile Court that in cases of crime punishable by imprisonment, the question of responsibility should not be submitted to a jury but that the sentence imposed should be based upon a study of the offender by experts.[2] For all practical purposes, this is already the procedure in the juvenile courts. The psychologists have been working upon tests for deception, and if these tests are ever perfected so that they can be used upon witnesses and defendants, there may be ground for changes in all branches of the law. Up to the present time, however, the practical value of such tests has not been demonstrated.

The charitable and correctional institutions have just as much use as the courts for psychological clinics to diagnose the cases which are brought to them for treatment. Psychopathic laboratories established in connection with such institutions have demonstrated that there is a dose relation between vagrancy, non-support, prostitution, crimes of violence, and abnormal mental conditions. No state department of public welfare is now considered up to date if it does not have a bureau of mental hygiene.[8] Not only in classifying the unfortunates but in their training and education, the psychopathologists have made important advances.

Passing from the use of psychology in the penal, correctional, and charitable institutions, let us take up the uses of psychology in connection with problems of military organization. One of the most striking services rendered by the psychologists during the

( 738) late war was the development of a so-called general intelligence examination which furnished a rough basis for classifying all recruits. The nature of the army alpha group examination is now a matter of common notoriety.[9] Over one million seven hundred thousand officers and men were given intelligence ratings on the basis of this or one of the other psychological examinations. Never before had a mental examination been administered on so vast a scale. In actual practice, the tests were used to select the mentally inferior for special assignments in development battalions or for discharge and to discover men of superior intelligence to send to the officers' training schools or to other special schools. Considering the need for haste, the tests were of immediate and practical value.

It was never claimed by the psychologists that the general intelligence examination offered a complete analysis of the qualities needed in war. A method of analyzing the intangible qualities which count so highly in military service was devised by Dr. W. D. Scott in the form of an Officers' Rating Scale. This scale set out and described the following qualities as important in the selection and promotion of officers : physical qualities, intelligence, leadership, personal qualities, and general value to the service.[10] The essence of the system was the man-to-man comparison made by the rating officer. While this method of analyzing human traits does little more than systematize the subjective impressions of associates, the army officers generally agreed that it gave a more accurate and dependable index of efficiency than any other system they had examined or used.

Besides contributing to the solution of some of the general personnel problems of the army, the psychologists devised tests to detect ability for particular military tasks. Among these, the tests for aviators were noteworthy. Intelligence tests and psycho-physical tests were worked out which, taken as a whole, proved to be of considerable value in predicting flying ability.[11] In the navy, the Dodge test for the selection and training of gun pointers proved

( 739) to be a brilliant success.[12] Tests for prospective telegraphers, signalmen, and look-out men were also worked out and verified by the experimental method. Another important contribution was the development of the army trade tests. While the subject-matter which made up these tests was gathered from many occupations, the technique of standardizing the material and of applying the tests was supplied by the psychologists. The trade tests proved to be of great value in separating men claiming trade ability into four classes according to their proficiency.[13]

A different sort of psychological problem was tackled by the committee on problems of emotional stability, fear, and self control. The psychiatrists and the psychologists combined to suggest methods which would be useful in discovering psychopathic or neuropathic tendencies and such emotional instability as might result in a breakdown under the strain of war. The psychologists also co-operated in a general way with the morale branch of the army.

In addition to considering some of the problems of military efficiency, the psychologists took up some of the problems of incapacity, shell shock, and re-education. Following the medical officer's prescription for curative work, each patient was given a special interview and a psychological examination. Recommendations were then made as to the patient's future occupation and immediate training. During and since the war some wonderful advances have been made in occupational therapy.

The problems which confront a civil service commission are not widely different from those which confronted the personnel officer of the army. A civil service commission can therefore make good use of a general intelligence examination to eliminate at the outset candidates of low-grade mental ability and to mark those of superior ability. Already a few examples of such use of the tests have been reported. In 1916 a trial of the Stanford-Binet tests was made in selecting men for positions on the fire and police forces of San Jose, California.[14] Those who stood low upon the tests were rejected

( 740) without further consideration. In 1917 the candidates for the position of deputy sheriff in Los Angeles County, California, were examined in a similar fashion.[15] Since the war, the army alpha examination was given to the employees of the United States Civil Service Commission and the results were found to agree fairly closely with the civil service examination grades[16] The members of the police forces of Cleveland and Detroit were examined in the same way. In Detroit the police lieutenants stood lower in the intelligence examination than did the patrolmen, and length of service correlated negatively with intelligence ratings. Professor Thurstone explained this result by arguing that the brighter patrol-men go into other more attractive occupations rather than await promotion.[17] At any rate, the Police Department of Detroit, after further experimentation with more accurate service ratings, decided to submit all applicants for positions on the force to a complete psychiatric test by which it hoped to eliminate all unfit candidates and to have indicated all candidates of unusual ability.

The general intelligence examinations, however, furnish only a rough basis for classification, and the civil service administrators, like the army personnel officers and the employment managers, can profitably urge the development of specialized vocational tests. Considering the large number of clerical workers in the government service, the aptitude and proficiency tests for clerical workers that have been worked out by employment psychologists like Link should be found immediately useful. An experiment with 150 Hollerith card-punchers in a New York post-office showed that a specially devised psychological examination was far more accurate in predicting ability to do this particular kind of work than the ordinary civil service examination that had been in use.[18] The Bureau of Public Personnel Administration of the Institute for Government Research began in 1922 to study the positions of patrolman, fireman, postal clerk-carrier, and junior clerk with a

( 741) view to working out special vocational tests. The bureau is also attempting to determine the "equivalent" of high school and college education in terms of mental maturity, a matter with which civil service commissions have been struggling for some years. The program of the bureau is in accord with the prevailing view that the qualities needed in the lower grades of the civil service can be objectively measured in some of their features although the psychologists have not as yet worked out tests of general executive ability which give satisfactory results.

While the applications of psychology in the civil service are for the most part yet to be made, psychology as applied in the field of education has a long and interesting past. Only one phase of the vast field of educational psychology can be touched upon here. The success of the army intelligence tests in picking out the men who were better able than their fellows to learn new duties quickly has led some educators to propose that the intelligence tests be applied in selecting at an early age those who are to be the later leaders of the nation. This proposal assumes that the influence of education is narrowly circumscribed by inherited capacities and that the intelligence tests are a good measure of this native ability. If these assumptions are correct, then, as Professor Bagley points out,[19] the ideals of democracy are wrong and there is little use in trying to raise the general intelligence of the great mass of citizens by a system of compulsory education, furnishing equal opportunities for all. At the present time, the psychologists are divided upon this issue. In a learned symposium on the subject, seventeen psychologists gave seventeen different views.[20] Some held that the abilities measured by the tests were for the most part acquired, while others held that they were largely native. The opponents of the determinist view have pointed out that leadership depends upon many qualities besides those which are measured by the general intelligence tests. Attempts have been made to measure some of the elementary volitional, emotional, and moral traits, but this work is as yet in its early experimental stages. The teachers have, however, systematized to some extent the estimates which they make of their pupils. In Teachers College,

( 742) Columbia University, a rating scale for measuring the importance of habits of good citizenship in the elementary school lists a number of suggestive criteria.[21] The results of an ingenious experiment carried on with a limited number of boy scouts seems to show that ideals and attitudes have an important function in the control of human conduct and that direct training may have some effect in raising standards[22]

Educational psychology throws some light upon the psychological factors involved in the election process. Assuming that the soldiers who were given the army intelligence examination are a fair sample of the electorate, it is dear that there is a tremendous amount of variability in the mental make-up of the voting population. Thirty per cent of the drafted men were illiterate. These statistics have confirmed the misgivings of some people regarding democracy. The statement is often paraded that the average American has a mental age of about fourteen years. Such a statement is inaccurate and misleading. Mental age is simply the average performance of some California school children of given ages with the Stanford-Binet tests. It was assumed that "intelligence" or the capacities measured by the tests matured at the age of sixteen. On the other hand, it has not been established that intelligence stops maturing at any given age, nor is it clear that the concept of mental age can be usefully applied when speaking of adults. If the number of voters is going to be limited by a literacy test, then something can be said for calling in the psychologists to help devise ways and means. An intelligence test may be no better than a literacy test in picking out good citizens, but if the political scientists can ever work out the qualities of good citizenship then some psychological examination might be devised which would be more useful than a literacy test in weeding out undesirable voters. In 1920 an examination was worked out by a psychologist to measure the results of a citizenship training course in the army.[23] This examination was made up of a series of questions raising some of the fundamental problems of democratic government. In 1922 another psychologist devised a

( 743) test of information and judgement on international affairs.[24] It may be that the information and the kind of reasoning measured by these tests are not important in the election process. Graham Wallas and Walter Lippmann have pointed out that suggestion plays a more important part in deciding elections than does argument. The psychologists may measure the various kinds of suggestive influences. Already one has investigated the relative influence of majority and expert opinion.[25] He came to the conclusion that on some questions the suggestive power of majority opinion was greater than that of expert opinion. In studying the technique of voting the psychologists might also be of aid.[26] The schools and universities could be used as experimental ground for this work.

Up to the present time the main contributions of psychology to government work have been made in the fields of law, penology, public health, military science, and education. Some applications of the psychological technique can be made at once by civil service administrators, and a useful test of citizenship may possibly be worked out along psychological lines. The tendency at present is to take extreme views regarding the practical uses of psychology. Some are over-enthusiastic and others are unduly skeptical. With-out becoming a psychologist, the student of government can profit from the advances which have been made and are being made in the knowledge of how people act, of how human nature may be judged, and, of how others may be influenced. The psychologists cannot hope to become specialists in the field of government any more than they can hope to become specialists in the various other fields where they have been called in to do consulting work. The political scientist must formulate the problems in his field and then endeavor to secure the co-operation of the psychologists, the educators, the psychopathologists, and the personnel experts. The combined efforts of the workers in these various fields may at some future time produce a science of politics.


  1. This paper was read at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association, December, 1922. No attempt is here made to give a full citation of authorities.
  2. Human Nature and Politics, p, 121.

  3. Kriminal Psychologie (1905).
  4. Principles of Judicial Proof as Given by Logic, Psychology and General Experience and Illustrated in Judicial Trials (1913).
  5. Evelina Belden, "Courts in the United States Hearing Children's Cases," Children's Bureau Publication, No. 65, 1920.
  6. H. M. Adler, "Medical Science and Criminal justice," Criminal Justice in Cleveland, P.447.
  7. "Insanity and Criminal Responsibility," Journal of American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology, X (1919), 184.
  8. P. Bailey, "State Care, Training and Education of Mental Defectives," Mongol Hygiene, VI, 57.
  9. R. M. Yerkes (ed.), "Psychological Examining in the United States Army," Nat. Acad. of Sciences Memoirs, Vol. XV.
  10. Adjutant General's Department, The Personnel System of the United States Army, p. 260.
  11. Stratton, McComas, Coover, and Bagby, "Psychological Tests for Selecting Aviators," Jour. of Exper. Psychol., III, 405.
  12. R. M. Yerkes, "Report of the Psychology Committee of the National Research Council," Psychol. Rev., XXVI (1919), 83-144.
  13. J- C. Chapman, Trade Tests.
  14. L. M. Terman, "Trial of Mental and Pedagogical Tests in a Civil Service Examination for Policemen and Firemen," Jour. of Appl. Psych., I, 17.
  15. F. E. Doty, "Psychological Tests in Civil Service Examinations," Proceedings of National Association of Civil Service Commissions, XI (1918), 41-47.
  16. Report of the Chief Examiner, XXXVI (1919), 32.
  17. L. L. Thurstone, "The Intelligence of Policemen," Journal of Personnel Research, I (1922), 64.

  18. L. Marcus, "Vocational Selection for Specialized Tasks," .Jour. of Appl. Psychol., IV (1920), 186.

  19. W. C. Bagley, "Educational Determinism," School and Society, XV, 373. See articles by W. Lippmann, New Republic, XXXIII (1922), passim.
  20. Jour. of Educat. Psychol., XII (1921), passim.
  21. Upton and Chassell, "A Scale for Measuring the Importance of Habits of Good Citizenship," Teachers College Record, XX (1919), 36.
  22. P. P. Voelker, The Function of Ideals and Attitudes in Social Education.
  23. A. S. Otis, a letter to the writer.

  24. H. M. Manry.
  25. H. T. Moore, "Comparative Influence of Majority and Expert Opinion," Amer. .Jour. of Psychol., XXXII (1921), 16.
  26. Wembridge and Means, "Obscurities in Voting upon Measures Due to the Double-Negative," Jour. of Appl. Psychol., II (1918), 156.

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