Chapter 17: Cattell: Scientific Approach to Trait Theory

Part 3: Stages of Development

Cattell described six principal life stages: infancy, childhood, adolescence, maturity, middle age, and old age.  Infancy, from birth to 6 years old, is the “great formative period for personality” (pg. 211; Cattell, 1950a).  In relation to its family members, the infant develops its basic social attitudes, sense of security or insecurity, the strength of various defense mechanisms (which determines whether the individual will be prone to neuroses), and the general strength of the ego and superego.

Childhood, the period from age six to fourteen years old, is, according to Cattell, a relatively easy period of consolidation.  The child grows toward independence, moving from its family to relationships with peers. Children are primarily realists, but they may have an active day dream life as they long for the status and privilege of adult life (Cattell, 1950a,b).

Adolescence is, of course, a period of psychological storm and stress, requiring many adjustments and readjustments in one’s life.  Covering the ages of approximately 14 to 23 years old, Cattell believed that the stress experienced by normal individuals could best be illustrated by its consequences in extreme personalities.  Adolescence is the time when some individuals become delinquents, whereas others show the initial signs of mental illness and neurotic behavior. While many of the changes occurring during adolescence are due to the physiological changes associated with puberty, external factors are also critical.  All cultures appear to have some ritual associated with the break between childhood and adulthood, and many arrange for an initiation or formal ritual to take place. Of course, there are also positive changes associated with adolescence, such as increased interest in the arts of emotionality and love: poetry, religion, and drama (Cattell, 1950a,b).

This is a picture of an adolescent girl dressed up for her quinceanera. She is wearing a long, pink gown and she is standing at the front of a church. An older woman is standing to her left, and there are several adolescent boys dressed in suits standing behind her.
Image Source: AlejandroLinaresGarcia. (2010, June 26). QuinceañeraSanFranValleBravo. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons at

Adulthood brings with it maturity and the pursuit of a career, a mate, a family, and a home.  From age 23 to 46 years old, personality becomes set, and the chosen habits of adolescence become settled.  Cattell considered it a busy and happy time for most people, but not for those few who failed to resolve their adolescence.  They become, in Cattell’s words, shipwrecked in physical disease, mental illness, and the persistent inability to solve the questions of work and wife (or husband, as the case may be; Cattell, 1950a).

Middle age is characterized by the beginning of certain physical and mental changes that begin the inevitable decline toward old age and death.  Thus, middle age demands a reevaluation of one’s life values, and often leads to the search for some philosophy to make sense of life. Positive changes include an increase in leisure.  First, the responsibilities for raising children lessen as the children move out on their own, and later, one approaches the age of retirement.

Old age requires further adjustment as one begins to question one’s place and value in society.  This can cause the frustration of ego needs and a sense of insecurity, which can lead to a restricted range of interests, “crabbiness,” and constant worry about one’s financial state and physical health.  However, many people retain their general intellectual capacity and positive attitude toward life unimpaired until death. Even in 1950, Cattell took note of the growing number of people who were living longer and doing so in better health, thus making our understanding of the psychology of old age an increasingly important issue (Cattell, 1950a,b).  That trend not only continues today, but may actually be increasing as our knowledge of medicine and interests in health psychology continue to grow.

This is a color photograph of an elderly couple walking hand in hand outside. They are walking down a dirt trail with their backs facing the camera. They are surrounded by bushes and trees.
Image Source: PICNIC_Fotografie. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

National Character and Intelligence

Cattell was interested in measuring intelligence throughout his career.  Just before coming to the United States, he published A Guide to Mental Testing (Cattell, 1936), which covered topics as diverse as the measurement of intelligence, aptitudes (mechanical, musical, artistic, etc.), scholastic attainment, temperament, interests, and character.  In the 1940s, Raymond Cattell proposed a theory of intelligence that divided general intelligence into two components: crystallized intelligence and fluid intelligence (Cattell, 1963). Crystallized intelligence is characterized as acquired knowledge and the ability to retrieve it. When you learn, remember, and recall information, you are using crystallized intelligence. You use crystallized intelligence all the time in your coursework by demonstrating that you have mastered the information covered in the course.

This is a color image of an adolescent girl sitting at desk completing her homework. She has a stack of books in front of her, as well as a coffee cup and a few pens and pencils. She is holding a pencil up to her chin as she looks up while pondering.
Image Source: nastya_gepp. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Fluid intelligence encompasses the ability to see complex relationships and solve problems. Navigating your way home after being detoured onto an unfamiliar route because of road construction would draw upon your fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence helps you tackle complex, abstract challenges in your daily life, whereas crystallized intelligence helps you overcome concrete, straightforward problems (Cattell, 1963; Introduction to Psychology, n.d.).

This is a color image of a detour. There are two yellow traffic cones and a white sign that reads "Road Closed to Thru Traffic."
Image Source: sranson. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Much later in his career, Cattell confirmed his controversial interest in the relationship between intelligence and national achievement (see Cattell, 1983).  What made this research controversial was the apparent racist overtones of the research. As noted above, Cattell claimed that his views were taken out of context, and that the most controversial claims were made in the 1930s, before he even came to the United States.  However, consider some of the following statements written by Cattell in 1983.

In the state of Hawaii, where I happen to be writing, there are at least a dozen ethnic groups of good sample size and differing in racial composition and lifestyle.  The lack of seriousness about education, and lack of concern with conversations on things of the mind, can be well brought into relief by comparing some low groups (which shall be nameless) with say, high groups such as the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Jews, whose literacy, school achievement, and employment rates are high. (pg. 12; Cattell, 1983)

…a 15 point difference in average tells us nothing immediately about an individual, White or Black.  It does tell us that there will be considerable overlap of the two groups…It also tells us, however, that if we look for persons with I.Q.s of above, say, 130…the chances of finding a Black among 1,000 or of a White among 1,000 to exceed 130 is far higher in the second group. (pg. 41; Cattell, 1983)

…regarding special educational expenditure.  Should it be on the top, say, 10% of highly gifted children or on the lagging 10% of dull and backward children?…A eugenist is compelled to argue that the social conscience should, in terms of family planning have shifted the higher birth rate in the first place from the I.Q. 70-80 range to the I.Q. 120-130 range. (pg. 59; Cattell, 1983)

Taken together, these suggestions lead to very clear impressions of Cattell’s opinions and goals: there are “low” groups and “high” groups of people, Blacks in America are a “low” group, special education spending should not be wasted on people of low intelligence, the families who produced those children should not have any more children, and “resourceful management” should be used to ensure that “high” groups have more children and “low” groups do not.  What makes these views most disturbing is not that one person has them, but rather, that Cattell has colleagues who agree with him. Most notorious, in recent times, was the publication of The Bell Curve by Herrnstein & Murray (1994; for a discussion of some of the problems associated with The Bell Curve see Belgrave & Allison, 2006).

The suggestion of people like Cattell, Herrnstein, & Murray, that society should discard whole groups of people is unconscionable to many people and should have no place in a psychology that emphasizes the improvement of the human condition.  Another somewhat controversial figure, Arthur Jensen, also argues that general intelligence, or g as it was first described by Spearman, is largely inherited, but at the same time, he acknowledges that there is an environmental component to even this most basic aspect of intelligence (Jensen, 1998).  Considering any role for environmental factors in intelligence, we must then take into serious consideration the discriminatory practices that denied adequate education to minorities throughout history, both in America and elsewhere.  When provided with good education, Blacks have demonstrated an equal ability to learn as compared to Whites (see Belgrave & Allison, 2006; Miller & Garran, 2008). Thus, rather than seeking to exclude people from opportunities to advance within our society, we should be encouraging, as much as possible, equal access to educational support systems.

In a somewhat related article, Robert McCrae and Antonio Terracciano examined whether or not there is a valid basis for determining national character based on personality traits.  People in all cultures have shared perceptions of what people are like in both their own culture and in other cultures, perceptions which form the basis of stereotypes. After examining data from nearly fifty different countries, McCrae & Terracciano concluded that national character stereotypes are unfounded, even when examining people’s impressions of their own country (McCrae & Terracciano, 2006).  Clearly, if stereotypes based on personality are not accurate reflections of personality, how can stereotypes based on measures of intelligence have a meaningful bearing on our decisions regarding social programs?

Cattell created a great deal of controversy with his views on nationality, race, intelligence, and achievement.  What effect, if any, do you think it has on the field of psychology when one of its leading scientists makes an issue of such controversy?  How much worse, if at all, did it make it when he claimed he was being persecuted for comments made in the 1930s as a young man, when in fact, he had continued to publish these ideas as late as 1983?

Supplemental Materials

Crystalized and Fluid Intelligence

This video [3:08] explains the differences between crystallized and fluid intelligence.



Text: Introduction to Psychology  (n.d.) What is intelligence?  Lumen Learning.  Retrieved from Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.   

Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Chegg.  (2016, February 22).  Crystalized intelligence | Psychology | Chegg tutors.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.