The Use of Psychology as a Justification of Discrimination
The purpose of this essay is to explore the ways science was used in order to justify discrimination. An emphasis will be placed on psychology and Mexican-Americans living in the United States that were the targets of prejudices.
There were several areas of science that were used to discriminate individuals in the United States. The first one that will be explored is the intelligence test known as the Binet-Simon scales. It is important to note that a test bias is an error that can be found in the results of said tests in two ways. The first one is in the design of the test, such as the sample chosen or the operant definition of a variable. The second form of a test bias is seen socially. An example of the second form of bias is seen if a certain group, such as Chicanos or Mexicans living in the U. S., were not falling under the same regression line of the test.
There are four types of biases. The first one is called construct validity. This means that even though a test is supposed to measure a specific content, it is not accurately exploring it. In other words, a test is not investigating the same idea that is trying to measure. An example of this type of bias will be explored on the military test developed by American Psychological Association (APA) president Robert Yerkes.
The second type of bias is called content validity. This is when questions in the test are not fair for all participants. This can be caused by a lack of experience from a certain group. For example, Mexican Americans could be asked about food that is eaten traditionally in the south of America. But because they do not have the experience of eating that type of food within their culture, they should not be penalized or placed in a low category of mental intelligence. Another example of this type of bias can be seen in the wording or diction of tests. For example, if a question asks about instruments used for fishing, but Mexican Americans do not live, and thus have not experienced so far, in an environment surrounded of water bodies, the question would be considered to have a content validity bias.
The third bias is known as item selection. This refers to the notion, which is similar to content validity bias, that specific questions come from what the dominant group, in this case white Americans, are expected to know or perform. In other words, it is a narrowed type content validity bias, that ignores certain groups, such as Chicanos.
The last type of bias that will be explored is named criterion-related validity. This is the idea that the outcomes of a sample are not accurate in describing the population that is the target of the study. An example of this would be if Mexican Americans performed low in intelligence tests, would it mean that they would under-perform on job markets or would they not be successful employees because of their low intellect.
Before psychologist Ebbinghaus, who was known for his research in memory, explored a way to test intelligence, a measure known as the two-point threshold was correlated with academic performance. This measure explored how far two stimuli, such as the fingers of researchers placed on the backs of participants, had to be in order to be detected as two sources of physical stimulation instead of one.
What Ebbinghaus did was give students incomplete sentences so they could finish them in a complete manner. However, his test only divided students into strong and weak ones in terms of intelligence. Like Ebbinghaus, Binet thought that only cognitive processes such as memory tests and problem solving tasks, and not physical tests could determine intelligence.
Students who were not academically competent were placed into three categories: The idiots, who were the worst of the worst, the imbeciles, who were better than idiots, but still performed poorly, and the debiles, who were the ones who were just below the average student, but still could be helped. The third category did not have a name; it was Binet who named it.
The Binet-Simon scale was the result of the development of Binet's test that involved cognitive processes and the help of his research assistance Theodore Simon. Both of them categorized tasks that someone of a certain age could perform, if the individual could not perform it, then they would be considered subnormal. Tasks for a three-year-old included showing were their facial feature where, for a five-year-old a task was to repeat a ten syllable sentence, for a seven-year-old it was to copy written sentences. Children who were nine years old had to arrange five weight in order (Dennis, 1984).
There are three things that are important to mention about Binet's opinion of his test. First, he did not think that intelligence was a unique component, but rather different types of skills interacting with each other. The second notion was that intelligence was not fixed, but rather a component of our lives that is always changing. Because of this idea, he developed material to help children increase their intelligence. The third belief was that his test would only be beneficial and useful in the educational context (Goodwin, 2015).
The tests were used by other psychologists to classify undesired groups as mentally retarded people, especially in the 1900s. These groups included African Americans and Mexican American individuals. The discrimination occurred because there was a cultural bias in terms of the diction in the tests. This led intelligence to be challenged in the court. An example of this is the case of Larry P. v. Wilson Riles. The judge in the case ruled that the tests that were placing children on special education classes were biased. Nevertheless, the opposite happened in the case of Parents in Action in Special Education. The ruling in the latter found that tests were not used to discriminate and were not culturally biased.
Psychologist Henry Goddard was the one who brought Binet’s test to the United States. He tried to use the leave the Binet scale and its techniques intact. However, he made the modification of renaming the category of debiles to morons. He used the Greek word moronia, which means foolish, as an inspiration to labeling the third category. This last category boosted the discrimination towards undesired groups of people in the U. S.
This happened because groups that contained minorities, such as Chicanos, were said to be morons, and thus the cause of a lot of problems in their contemporary society. This meant, for eugenicists (the concept will be explained down below), that the answer would be to remove the undesired groups from the United States.
However, the current IQ test is no longer culturally biased. The National Academy of Science created two panels and the American Psychological Association assembled a task force that found that neither the IQ nor other standardize tests under predict how Mexican American and other groups that are usually targets of discrimination would perform.
The emphasis on the biological aspects of human beings was a result of the theory of Charles Darwin. He asserted that organisms changed throughout time by a process called evolution. This refers to the aided survival by mutations in the DNA that either helped living organisms avoid dying or helped them reproduce. The mutations could be beneficial or harmful. Francis Galton took the theory of Charles Darwin and explained that those mutations happened in individuals’ intelligence. Thus, there were groups, such as immigrants, that would never reach the intelligence of other groups.
Galton, who was the cousin of Charles Darwin, introduced the concept and eugenics. This is the notion that human beings with desired attributes should be supported, encouraged, and protected, and the ones without those characteristics should not be allowed to live. This idea was central in the political system at the time. In fact, Hitler based his actions on the notion of eugenics. He described Eugenics as the “study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally” (1).
An argument created against Galton was that the tests were limiting the resources of Chicanos because they were being penalized for having low scores on biased tests. Other arguments included that the tests’ language. For example, there are words that were commonly used by Americans in the north of the U. S., but unknown to the average Mexican American. Additionally, the tests were created using a normal distribution. Thus, if American students were used to generalize the intelligence test, the Mexican Americans would normally fall under the distribution. This means that the tests were not valid or reliable. According to the American Psychological Association and the American Educational Research Association, test should be fair and have as a purpose to help individuals, but as was seen before the Binet-Simon scales were not fair.
Another form of intelligence tests that were target of controversy that revolved around Mexican American discrimination were those developed by President of the Psychological Association of America Robert Yerkes. He developed two types of tests: Alpha and Beta tests that were given to the military to test whether they were fit for combat. One of tests was given to literate individuals, which usually encompassed Americans. They had to read and answer questions related to word problem solving. The other test was given to illiterate people, which was usually groups of Mexican Americans. Participants had to finish incomplete picture and questions that revolved around completing patterns. This was biased and was not an efficient way to measure intelligence because the second test does not measure the same elements of the first test. This resulted in the bias known as construct validity.
The tests created by Yerkes were used to discriminate immigrants coming from Europe during the first World War. People who followed the notion of eugenics did not wanted immigrants in the United States because they would alter the biological nature of intelligence in Americans. Therefore, the tests were used as evidence to support the desire of eugenicists to keep out the maximum number of immigrants coming to America. Nevertheless, it was not only used for European immigrants, but for Mexicans that were moving to the U. S. too.
In conclusion, intelligence test developed by psychologists such as the Yerkes military alpha and beta tests and the Binet-Simon scale were used as a way to justify discrimination towards Chicanos. The tests were culturally and technically unfair and contained four types of biases that created a negative impact in the Mexican-American culture. Nevertheless, the tests have been revised and carefully crafted in order to avoid the prejudices that once existed in America.
Dennis, P. M. (1984). The Edison questionnaire. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 20, 23-37.
Goodwin, C. J. (2015). A history of modern psychology. New York: J. Wiley.