DANGERS IN "TENDENCIES" TESTS
By: Judith Randal
Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker President Nixon's physician while he lived in New
York, is not a psychiatrist and is well past middle age, so he may perhaps
be forgiven for not being abreast of modern behavioral research.
The unfortunate thing is that his proposal to have the Government test all
6- to 8-year-olds for their "delinquent tendencies" was taken sufficiently
seriously to be sent by John D.Ehrlichman, Nixon's chief domestic policy
adviser, to the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare for further
The fortunate thing is that HEW opposed the idea and the White House
indicated that would end any further consideration.
Hutschnecker seemingly is no Fascist-despite that fact that this is
suggested by his recommendation of special camps for incorrigible teenagers
and the general tenor of "strength through joy" that runs just under the
surface of his memorandum, sent to HEW in December.
The text suggests quite sensibly that "many intellectually superior young
people with ideals and enthusiasms...would be eager to serve a great cause
and heir country" as counselors in remedial programs. What Hutschnecker
apparently is unaware of is that this sort of domestic Peace Corps activity
already exists under the aegis of the VISTA volunteers fielded by the Office
of Economic Opportunity, and merely needs expansion.
Less benign is his suggestion that tendencies can be spotted in 6- to 8-
year-olds that will reliably predict their behavior as teenagers or adults
and his assumption that manipulating people without altering their
circumstances-the filth, the hunger, the underemployment, the illness and
degradation that typify our crime-breeding slums-will bring law and order in
Who knows what will be criminal behavior a decade hence? Some things, to be
sure, are always crimes-theft, for example. But the criminal status of
others comes and goes. The group practice of medicine is regarded as the
coming thing for example, but it still is illegal in 22 States. Abortion
has been regarded as murder since the 19th century; that judgment is
With the preponderance of blacks in our inner-city slums, furthermore,
Hutschnecker's thinking, as a psychiatrist has pointed out, is racist in
consequence, if not in intention. The failure to recognize that criminal
behavior is an interaction between the individual's idiosyncrasies and the
particular of his environment is incredibly naïve.
Hutschnecker implies that his plan is a "direct, immediate and ***
effective" alternative to "urban reconstruction." Given what is known about
This just isn't so.
Which brings us to the predictive value of psychological tests. In the
1800's an Italian physician, Dr. Cesare Lombroso, after a survey of
prisoners, listed physical traits which he considered stigmata of
degeneration and therefore conducive to criminal behavior.
He did not, however, look at the population at large for the frequency of
such traits and then follow through to learn what percentage of them became
Although Hutschnecker would focus more on psychological than physical
variables, the same fallacy can be detected in the mass-screening measures
The Sheldon-Glueck test he refers to, for example, which was devised in the
late 1940's and early 1950's and is Lombroso brought up to date, has proved
to be predictive no more than 50 percent of the time.
Much the same is true of the Rorschach test, which, in any case, was
designed to be diagnostic rather than prognostic. It depends for its
interpretation on what the subject sees in a standardized set of inkblot
In the absence of continued observation of a child's actual behavior, such
one-shot examinations deal with probabilities rather than certainties. To
label a youngster as having criminal tendencies on this basis is to expose
him to the risk of reactions form others that will make his test scores a
self-fulfilling prophecy. Many children who are low achievers at school,
for example, remain so because they sense that is what is expected of them.
In his first public statement of the decade, President Nixon proclaimed the
1970's as the "now or never" years for recouping the quality of the
Certainly, no one can quarrel with this aim. But if we fail to recognize
that an insistence on conformity is every bit as much a threat to the
ecology-to use that suddenly fashionable term-as pollution and
overpopulation. We shall be, if anything, worse off in 1980 then we are
today. On era's deviant is often the social visionary of the next.