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The Woman Who Turned Psychological Testing Into a Science

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Illustration: Elena Scotti ((Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock) )

“I don’t have time for this,” psychologist Anne Anastasi reportedly said in 1987, before hanging up the phone on a call from Ronald Reagan’s White House. The call, according to Harold Takooshian, a psychology professor at Fordham University, was to inform her that she had won the first National Medal of Science for psychology. It took another phone call—which Anastasi again declined—and then a call to the Fordham University psychology department’s secretary to convince Anastasi that she had in fact received the honor.

“When I put her name in a program some years later, I said that she was the first woman to get the National Medal of Science in psychology, and she took the time to call me up and say ‘What is this woman?’” Takooshian, who worked with Anastasi at Fordham, told Gizmodo. “She said ‘I was the first person, not the first woman.’ … She was a scientist [and] didn’t like any inaccuracies. And of course, I changed the conference program.”

In addition to receiving the National Medal of Science, Anastasi, or “Annie,” as Takooshian said her students affectionately called her, also served as president of the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1972 and published three classic psychology textbooks, including seven editions of Psychological Testing, which established a comprehensive foundation of the methods and analysis of psychometric testing. It was one of the most important psychology texts of the 20th century, according to a centennial tribute to Anastasi that historian Wade Pickren wrote for the APA.


“In the late 40s, early 50s, the field [of psychological testing] was thriving,” Susana Urbina, professor of psychology at the University of North Florida and co-author of the seventh edition of Psychological Testing, told Gizmodo. “But it was not organized. What she really did was she took the field and organized it into categories of tests.”

As a researcher and professor for nearly 50 years, Anastasi shaped the practice and understanding of psychometric testing through her textbooks, criticism of biased test construction, and promotion of a nuanced understanding of the nature versus nurture debate that still shapes discussions today.

Anne Anastasi at Fordham University in 1988, describing the history of psychometrics to visiting academics from the Soviet Union.
Anne Anastasi at Fordham University in 1988, describing the history of psychometrics to visiting academics from the Soviet Union.
Photo: Harold Takooshian (Courtesy Harold Takooshian)

Born in New York City in 1908 to Italian immigrants , Anastasi lost her father to a “stomach ailment” when she was just 1 year old. She was raised by what she described in her autobiography as an aristocratic yet financially struggling family, which included her mother, grandmother, and uncle. Anastasi wrote that her mother, despite her lack of practical trade skills, worked hard to provide for the family through odd jobs, including a short-lived piano company, before settling into a role as the office manager of the Italian newspaper Il Progresso Italo-Americano. Left at home with her grandmother most of her childhood, Anastasi received an early education in language, history, and mathematics. However, her opportunities for socialization were slim to none.


“I had no playmates of my own age,” wrote Anastasi in her autobiography. “Not even an imaginary playmate—although I did have an imaginary staircase which I greatly enjoyed.”

Anastasi entered formal education for several years in elementary school, where she excelled and skipped several grades, but dropped out of high school after just two months due to overcrowded classrooms and a building that was, according to Anastasi, “unfit for human use.” But, not to be deterred, Anastasi was able to complete her college requirements through supplementary classes and enrolled as an undergraduate student at Barnard College at the age of 15, with the intent of majoring in mathematics.


However, this bend toward mathematics was soon overtaken by psychology when Anastasi encountered professor Harry Hollingworth, who would become her career mentor. In her autobiography, Anastasi said the freshness of Hollingworth’s lectures captured her attention and she was excited to marry her passion for math and her newfound interest in psychology. Anastasi completed an honors thesis in psychology at Barnard and was admitted to a PhD program at Columbia University immediately after, which she completed at only 21 years old.

One particular question Anastasi pursued during her time as a doctoral student was whether it was possible to design a test to determine a person’s innate abilities—such as intelligence—that was free from cultural bias. In her autobiography, Anastasi wrote that she and two other graduate students would meet for eight hours a day during the summer of 1929 to devise tests to determine “mental endowment” without the use of language, numbers, or even a pencil and paper. One of the test ideas that Anastasi dreamed up that summer involved swapping numbers for colors in a classic symbol substitution test construction. The team ended up sawing a broomstick into 59 small discs that could be used as testing materials to move across Anastasi’s colored board.


Anastasi wrote that the obstacles the group faced in trying to design completely culture-free tests helped shake the psychology community’s faith in the existence of innate abilities. The apparent entanglement of abilities and culture was a revelation that Anastasi would continue to shape in her discussion of nature versus nurture later in her career.

“She was really especially thoughtful about how she talked about the questions that we wanted to answer and how to really think about psychological data,” Nathan Kuncel, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota and a 2010 winner of APA’s Anastasi Early Career Award, told Gizmodo. “One of her more influential papers talked about how when we’re thinking about nature vs nurture we should really try to go beyond [simple answers] and really more try to understand the how these prophecies unfold.”


The prophecies in question are whether a person’s actions and behavior are determined by some innate quality they possess (their nature) or instead by the environment and influences they grow up around (how they’re nurtured). Instead of coming down hard on one side or the other, Kuncel said Anastasi took a hybrid approach and focused on how a person can be affected by many different factors in their life, instead of being the product of one single event in their timeline. In that way, a person’s abilities or characteristics are never finitely determined but can reflect the culminating influences they’ve experienced thus far.

Anastasi finished her education just as the Great Depression took hold of America. She held various teaching jobs before taking a position at Fordham University in 1947, where she remained for the rest of her career.


In the classroom, Anastasi was a commanding presence. Thomas Hogan, a former dissertation advisee of Anastasi and University of Scranton psychology professor, told Gizmodo that Anastasi was never one to miss a step, always dressed to the nines with elaborate bows and speaking in precise, 30-word sentences.

“As a classroom teacher she was highly organized and very methodical,” said Hogan. “She emphasized careful, even meticulous, coverage of the relevant content. Always up-to-date with the most recent research and careful integration of that research.”


Anastasi changed how we understand the limits of psychometric testing. Instead of interpreting test results as definitive parts of our identity, as many casual takers of pseudo-psychological tests are apt to do today, Anastasi pushed to view them as a snapshot of a person’s current state as affected by their environment.

Before her death in 2001, Anastasi created the Anne Anastasi Foundation to ensure funds from her estate would directly benefit students of psychology. Two awards are also given out in her name annually by the APA for early career and graduate student achievements.


Sarah Wells is a freelance writer based in Boston writing about the intersection of technology, science, and society. Follow her on Twitter: @saraheswells.