The History of Psychometrics: The Study of the Human Mind

History of psychometrics

In psychology history (psychology is, of course, the study of the human mind) there hasn’t always been an emphasis on rigorous assessment and evaluation. After all, psychology is, typically, about the inner workings of the mind of the individual and how it impacts life and behavior. The desire to not just study the inner working of the mind, but to actually measure things like function and intelligence gave rise to the branch of psychology known as psychometrics.

Psychometrics is a popular psychology specialty, and has become a popular focus for psychology students at the graduate level. Psychometricians are in high demand, are needed in both the public and private sectors.

History of Psychometrics.

In 1879, Sir Francis Galton published an article in which he described an experiment in “mental operations.” The experiment he conducted would later be called “free association,” where he assessed reaction to a list of 75 words. According to a paper by Larry Ludlow of Boston College,

He threw his resulting thoughts into a “common statistical hotch-pot” and determined (a) the rate at which ideas were formed (50 per minute), (b) the frequency of recurrent associations (about one half), (c) the frequency within periods of his life that associations could be attributed (showing “in a measurable degree, the large effect of early education in fixing our associations”), and (d) the character of associations that occurred (verbal, sensory, “histrionic”).”

The impact of this first venture into psychometrics is still relevant today.

Thirty years later, Charles Spearman took Galton’s idea to the next level. He developed the idea of measuring human intelligence while studying with Wilhelm Wundt, the founding father of a different branch of psychology known as psychophysics. L. L. Thurstone, a contemporary of Charles Spearman, developed the idea of comparative judgment (a theoretical approach to measurement). Alfred Binet of France became the first psychologist to apply psychometrics when he was asked to create an intelligence test that would evaluate children. (This led to the Binet Scale.)

The work of all of these men contributed to the emerging field of psychometrics and planted the seeds that would eventually grow into more specific intelligence testing, personality testing, and vocational testing as well as many other areas of psychological measurement. There you have it: a brief history of psychometrics.

Psychometricians: Who They Are, and Where They Work

Psychologists who specialize in psychometrics are called psychometricians. Career psychologists, these scientists design tests that make an attempt to measure human characteristics. The field has enjoyed rapid growth since its early days. Psychometric testing is employed now in schools, organizations, businesses, government, the military, and of course in many clinical settings and hospitals.

In recent years, psychometricians are in such high demand they can be found working in industrial and organizational settings performing job analyses and consumer surveys, making hiring determinations, and conducting market research. Psychometricians are highly valued and found in every sector from business to health care to education.

Education, Salary, and Job Outlook

All psychometricians hold at least a Master’s degree, and most have a doctoral degree. Because psychometrics is considered a branch of psychology, a bachelor’s degree in psychology is not an uncommon first step. Graduate work is in the psychology department, although you will find that many psychometricians also study statistics.

According to a recent article in Washington Monthly Magazine, psychometricians (often called “test makers”) are in even higher demand of late, thanks to legislative changes such as the No Child Left Behind Act, which has had a huge impact on education in the United States. More testing is required, and there are not enough career psychometricians to fulfill demand. Any psychologist specializing in psychometrics should have no difficulty finding employment.

Salary varies greatly. Because of the substantial educational investment, many psychometricians prefer to work in the commercial world where pay is much higher than in government or education. Psychometricians working in market research, for instance, can earn upwards of $200,000 a year, while those in education may make half that. But as demand continues to rise, so will salaries.

Psychometrics is a fast-developing and in-demand field of psychology; if you are interested in learning more about the study of the human mind, perhaps this field is the right one for you.