Army Alpha & Army Beta & Psychology: History, Theories & Results

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  • 0:00 Intelligence Testing…
  • 1:02 Alpha and Beta Tests
  • 2:26 Yerkes' Theories
  • 3:08 Lasting Impact of Alpha & Beta
  • 4:01 Alpha & Beta Tests Controversy
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joe Ricker
Army Alpha and Army Beta intelligence testing were crucial in assessing and classifying individual soldiers during World War I. This testing expanded beyond the military and has had a significant global impact.

Intelligence Testing Background

As the United States entered into World War I, they were faced with trying to develop a competent and efficient army out of draftees who were often uneducated. Army Alpha and Army Beta testing emerged in an effort to gauge the abilities of individual soldiers by measuring their intelligence. This testing was developed by psychologist Robert Yerkes, with the help of several colleagues.

The American Psychological Association volunteered to aid in the war effort, and Yerkes was appointed as part of a committee tasked with developing a mental test that could be given to a large number of military personnel. The test was necessary to determine in what capacity each person would most benefit the army and the war effort. The Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test proved impractical as a gauge for large numbers of soldiers in determining particular occupations. With the new method of intelligence testing, the military could determine whether or not a person was fit for military service and classify people according to their abilities.

Alpha and Beta Tests

With a staff of 40 psychologists, Yerkes was able to develop two different tests for intelligence. The first test, the Alpha, was a written test made up of true/false and multiple-choice questions that assessed things like the ability to follow directions, arithmetic, and analogies. The Army Alpha test was distributed to determine whether draftees could read English, but also to evaluate soldiers so that they could be assigned to tasks or training in alignment with their abilities.

The Army Beta test was developed for those men with limited literacy who were unable to respond to the written test. The instructions for the test were provided using pictures and other symbols, and it tested using things like mazes, identification of patterns, and picture completion.

Psychologists aimed to make the tests fairly comparable. Soldiers were given a letter grade and those who received the lowest grade were deemed unfit for service. The men who received a letter grade higher were given simple duties. The men who received scores in the middle of the distribution performed regular soldier duties. Those with higher scores were trained as officers.

The classification system provided by the test was considered very useful at the time because of its ability to make selection decisions for large numbers of men. By the end of World War I, 1.75 million men had been tested using the Army Alpha or Army Beta test. As a result of the testing, 8,000 men were discharged as unfit for service, and nearly two-thirds of the 200,000 commissioned officers were selected for their positions.

Yerkes' Theories

The tests were developed at a time when psychologists and educators were hoping that the proper distribution of manpower resources would result in a more efficient and organized society. When it came to the war, Yerkes and his colleagues were attempting to create a military machine where men were organized and stratified in such a way that they could be fully utilized. He even stated, 'the proper utilization of man power, and more particularly of mind and brain power, would assure ultimate victory.' Though the test was originally meant to single out those who were intellectually unfit to serve, it ended up becoming the mechanism by which men would fit into the military machine. 'Intelligence,' he said, 'is likely to prove the most important single factor in determining a man's value to the military service.'

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