James Cattell: Workplace Controversy and Objectivity

The Career Project is reader-supported. We may earn a commission on products purchased through links on this page. Learn more here.

James McKeen Cattell (1860-1944), the first professor of psychology in the United States, taught at the University of Pennsylvania. His experimental methods were famously objective and focused on data and statistics. In his spare time, he also wrote for and edited numerous scientific journals, including Popular Science and Psychological Review

Cattell is known for his work in the areas of mental testing, individual differences, and psychometrics, and he played a key role in establishing psychology as a distinct field of study in the United States. He founded the Vocational Bureau of Boston, which provided career guidance and counseling services to individuals seeking employment.

He was a prolific writer and researcher who authored numerous books and articles on psychology, and he founded several influential academic journals, including The Psychological Review and Science. Cattell was also a mentor to many aspiring psychologists and played a key role in training the next generation of researchers and practitioners.

A Brief History in James Cattell’s Work

In 1888, he administered “mental tests” to university students. As Cattell’s credibility grew, so did the legitimacy of psychology as a whole. Although some of his learning methods were deemed controversial and even counter-intuitive, his legacy and work lives on. When conflict with the state eventually hit, he was ready to stand his ground.

Most famously of all, in 1917, Cattell publically opposed the recruitment of young soldiers and involvement in World War I. In response to his statement, he was dismissed from Columbia University immediately. Following this, he wrote letters to Columbia’s administration and won a hefty lawsuit ($40,000) against the institution.

After his departure, he founded the Psychological Corporation as a means to standardize his psychometric tests to better understand job-person fit. Unfortunately, his company only accumulated approximately $50 during its first two years. Surprisingly, soon after Cattell decided to leave, the company began to flourish.

IO Psychology Contributions

Cattell was one of the pioneers of employee behavior prediction using traits. With applied psychology, he could scientifically measure behavior rather than use a more theoretical approach. He prioritized hard statistics and rigorous reserach to ensure the validity of his results. With respect to IO psychology, his contributions included:

  • Mental tests (short-term memory)
  • Whole word vs. syllable reading
  • Reaction time under various conditions
  • Scientific methods in personnel selection

He tested participants under various conditions and meticulously documented their reaction times. He found that it was notoriously difficult to come to an exact conclusion as factors such as stress or fatigue can alter results dramatically. Even with these roadblocks, he powered through his work and found surprising results.

Final Thoughts on James Cattell

Although Cattell had widely controversial ideas and theories, his work has significantly influenced the state of IO psychology today. He was also known to have a “self-righteous” attitude, which made him difficult to work with. However, his unwavering determination and perseverance led him to great progress within the field of IO psychology.

“I heard Professor Cannon lecture last night, going partly on your account. His subject was a physiological substitute for war—which is international sports, and I suppose motorcycle races to encourage the secretion of the adrenal glands!”

James Cattell became head of Science magazine in 1894 and contributed over 50 years of edits to ensure sleek, intriguing information. He launched one of the first IQ-like tests of his time which became more popular in the 1960s to measure intelligence. How did his work evolve over the years? Cattell’s objective psychological methods influences the fields of business, advertising, and education—even today.

Cattell’s work had a lasting impact on the field of psychology, particularly in the areas of intelligence testing and measurement. His research and theories paved the way for the development of modern psychometric methods, and his advocacy for empirical research and scientific rigor helped to establish psychology as a respected and influential discipline.


Cascio, Wayne. (2008). Research in Industrial and Organizational Psychology From 1963 to 2007: Changes, Choices, and Trends. The Journal of applied psychology. 93. 1062-81. https://doi.org/10.1037/0021-9010.93.5.1062.

Haynie, N. (2010). Cattell, James McKeen (1860–1944). https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0159.

Sokal, Michael. (2009). James McKeen Cattell, Nicholas Murray Butler, and academic freedom at Columbia University, 1902–1923. History of Psychology. 12. 87-122. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016143.

Sokal, Michael. (2010). Scientific Biography, Cognitive Deficits, and Laboratory Practice: James McKeen Cattell and Early American Experimental Psychology, 1880–1904. Isis; an international review devoted to the history of science and its cultural influences. 101. 531-54. https://doi.org/10.1086/655791.

Sokal, Michael. (2015). Cattell, James McKeen (1860–1944). https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118625392.wbecp343.

Takooshian, Harold. (2012). Industrial-Organizational Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-0463-8_68.

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

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

James Cattell

Table of Contents

Share this post: