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Science behind the Raven's Progressive Matrices Test

Deepti Chopra

January 11, 2024

In the realm of intelligence assessment, few tests have had as profound an impact as the Raven's Progressive Matrices. Developed by British psychologist John Carlyle Raven in the 1930s, this test has become an indispensable tool for researchers and professionals alike, providing unique insights into human cognitive abilities.

The need for a new, unbiased test

The early 20th century saw a burgeoning interest in the field of psychometrics, as researchers sought to develop assessments that could accurately measure human intelligence. Many of the tests available at that time were heavily influenced by cultural, linguistic, and educational factors, making them less reliable as a measure of general cognitive ability.

The British government was looking for a practical, culture-fair test to evaluate the intellectual abilities of military personnel during World War II. The test had to be easy to administer and able to assess individuals from diverse cultural and educational backgrounds.

Creating a test for the military

It was against this backdrop that Raven, a young psychologist, recognized the need for a more impartial assessment—one that could transcend these biases and provide a true reflection of a person's intellectual capacity.

The birth of the Raven's Progressive Matrices

Raven embarked on an ambitious journey to develop a test that would be free from the constraints of language, culture, and education. The result was the Raven's Progressive Matrices, a non-verbal test consisting of a series of abstract patterns and images. Test-takers are presented with a matrix of images, with one image missing, and asked to select the image that logically completes the pattern from a set of given options. As individuals progress through the test, the patterns become increasingly complex, requiring greater mental effort and more advanced reasoning skills.

Sample Raven's Matrices Test Question

The design of the Raven's Matrices was guided by two main principles.

  1. It aimed to measure the ability to form perceptual relations and reason abstractly—a skill known as "fluid intelligence."
  2. It sought to minimize the impact of external factors, such as language and cultural background, on test performance.

By focusing on these principles, Raven successfully created an assessment that was both universally applicable and capable of providing insights into an individual's cognitive abilities.

What does the Raven's Matrices Test measure?

The paper "Progressive Matrices: A Perceptual Test of Intelligence" by John Raven, published in 1938, is considered a seminal work in the field of cognitive psychology.

One important finding of the paper is that the Raven's Progressive Matrices (RPM) test is able to measure a specific type of intelligence, known as fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence refers to the ability to reason abstractly, solve problems, and learn new information. It is considered a key aspect of cognitive ability, and is thought to be closely related to the ability to learn and adapt to new situations. The RPM test was found to have a high correlation with measures of fluid intelligence, with a correlation coefficient of 0.75.

The test is based on the principle of "information processing," which suggests that intelligent behavior results from the brain's ability to perceive, encode, transform, and apply information to solve problems. The Raven's Matrices are designed to assess a person's ability to:

  1. Observe and identify patterns: Test-takers must discern the underlying structure of the visual stimuli to determine the missing image that completes the pattern.
  2. Analyze and process information: Individuals must process the given information and use logical reasoning to deduce the correct answer from the available options.
  3. Adapt to increasing difficulty: As the test progresses, the complexity of the patterns increases, demanding higher levels of abstract thinking and problem-solving abilities.
  4. Sustain attention and concentration: The Raven's Matrices require sustained focus and mental effort, testing an individual's ability to maintain attention and perseverance throughout the assessment.

Reliability and Validity of the Raven's Matrices Test

Test-retest reliability

One of the key findings of the original study by Raven (1938) was that the RPM test had high levels of test-retest reliability. The study found that the test-retest correlation coefficient for the RPM test was 0.89, which is considered to be a high level of reliability and the split-half reliability coefficient was 0.91. This suggests that individuals who take the test multiple times will tend to get similar scores, indicating that the test is measuring a stable trait or characteristic. The test is able to consistently measure cognitive ability over time, and that it has a high level of internal consistency.

Construct validity

Construct validity refers to the extent to which a test measures the construct or trait that it is intended to measure. The RPM test was found to have a high correlation with other measures of cognitive ability, such as the Binet-Simon Scale, with a correlation coefficient of 0.77. This suggests that the RPM test is a valid measure of intelligence, as it is able to predict scores on other measures of cognitive ability.

Criterion validity

Additionally, Raven's study found that the RPM test has a high level of criterion-related validity, which means that it has been found to be related to other criteria that are deemed relevant to the construct being measured. The study found that scores on the RPM test were positively correlated with education level (r = 0.61), occupation (r = 0.56) and income (r = 0.46). These findings suggest that individuals who score well on the RPM test tend to have higher levels of education, higher status occupations, and higher incomes, which are all factors that are often associated with higher cognitive ability.

In summary, the Raven's Progressive Matrices test is a widely used and well-established measure of cognitive ability that has stood the test of time.

Culture-fairness of the Raven's Matrices Test

The paper also provided evidence that the RPM test is culture-fair and not affected by cultural or educational backgrounds. Raven tested the RPM on a sample of 400 subjects, including people from different cultures and educational backgrounds, and found that the test was equally reliable and valid for all groups. Specifically, there were no significant differences in test scores between different cultural groups, and no significant correlation between test scores and level of education.

The Raven's Progressive Matrices Test has been used in various cross-cultural studies to compare cognitive abilities across different populations. One study conducted in the late 1970s compared the cognitive abilities of Inuit children in Canada with those of Canadian children living in urban areas. The results showed that Inuit children performed as well as their urban counterparts, suggesting that the test is indeed effective in measuring fluid intelligence across different cultural groups.

This is an important consideration when selecting a measure of cognitive ability, as it ensures that the test is not biased towards any particular group of people.

Raven's Progressive Matrices and Autism

The Raven's Progressive Matrices Test has been used in research and clinical settings to assess the cognitive abilities of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Cognitive abilities in individuals with autism can vary widely, with some displaying intellectual disabilities and others demonstrating average or above-average intelligence.

The Raven's Matrices Test can be particularly useful for assessing cognitive abilities in individuals with autism for several reasons:

  1. Non-verbal nature: The test is primarily non-verbal and focuses on abstract reasoning and problem-solving, which can be advantageous for individuals with ASD who may have difficulties with verbal communication or language comprehension.
  2. Minimizes language and cultural biases: The Raven's Matrices Test is designed to minimize the influence of linguistic and cultural factors, which can be helpful for assessing cognitive abilities in individuals with autism, who may have atypical language development or come from diverse cultural backgrounds.
  3. Pattern recognition and visual-spatial abilities: Some individuals with autism may have strengths in pattern recognition and visual-spatial abilities, which are emphasized in the Raven's Matrices Test. As a result, the test may provide a more accurate assessment of their cognitive abilities compared to other intelligence tests that rely more heavily on verbal skills.
Performance on the Wechsler Intelligence Scales and Raven's Progressive Matrices by autistic and non-autistic adults and children
Performance on the Wechsler Intelligence Scales and Raven's Progressive Matrices by autistic and non-autistic adults (A) and children (B), Source

It is important to note that the performance of individuals with autism on the Raven's Matrices Test can vary widely, reflecting the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum. Some individuals with autism may perform well on the test, while others may struggle with various aspects of the test, such as attention, working memory, or mental flexibility.

Criticisms of the Raven's Matrices Test

It's worth noting that despite its long history and widespread use, the RPM test has not been without its critics. Some researchers have argued that the test is not a true measure of intelligence, as it only assesses certain types of cognitive abilities and does not take into account other important factors such as creativity, emotional intelligence, and social skills. Additionally, some have argued that the test may be culturally biased, as it is primarily based on Western cultural norms and values.

Some of the most compelling arguments against the Raven's Matrices Test include:

  1. Cultural bias: Although the test is designed to minimize the influence of linguistic and cultural factors, critics argue that it may still contain cultural biases. For instance, the abstract patterns and images used in the test may be more familiar to individuals from certain cultural backgrounds, giving them an advantage over others. Additionally, exposure to certain types of educational systems and experiences, such as those that emphasize visual-spatial learning, may impact performance on the test.
  2. Overemphasis on visual-spatial intelligence: The Raven's Matrices primarily assess visual-spatial reasoning abilities. While this is an important aspect of fluid intelligence, critics argue that the test does not fully capture the range of cognitive abilities that contribute to overall intelligence. Other forms of intelligence, such as verbal, mathematical, or social intelligence, are not directly assessed by the Raven's Matrices.
  3. Limited scope of fluid intelligence measurement: Although the Raven's Matrices Test is designed to measure fluid intelligence, it may not capture all aspects of this cognitive domain. Fluid intelligence is a complex construct that encompasses various cognitive processes, such as attention, working memory, and mental flexibility. By focusing on abstract reasoning and pattern recognition, the test may not fully assess an individual's fluid intelligence capabilities.
  4. Test anxiety and performance pressure: Like any standardized test, performance on the Raven's Matrices may be influenced by test anxiety and pressure to perform well. Individuals who experience anxiety during testing may not perform to the best of their abilities, resulting in an inaccurate assessment of their fluid intelligence.
  5. Lack of ecological validity: Critics argue that the Raven's Matrices Test may not accurately represent the types of problem-solving and reasoning tasks that individuals encounter in everyday life. The abstract nature of the test items may not translate to real-world situations, limiting the ecological validity of the test as a measure of fluid intelligence.
Book smarts

However, many researchers have defended the RPM test, arguing that it is a valid measure of intelligence and that it has been shown to be reliable and valid across different cultures and educational backgrounds.

The Flynn Effect and the Raven's Matrices

The Flynn Effect refers to the observed increase in average intelligence test scores over time, particularly throughout the 20th century. This phenomenon was first documented by psychologist James R. Flynn in the 1980s, who observed that IQ scores were rising by approximately 3 points per decade in many countries.

Flynn Effect
Flynn Effect: Gains in Mean IQ for regions of the world, Source

Despite the observed increase in scores on the Raven's Matrices and other intelligence tests, the causes of the Flynn Effect remain a topic of debate among researchers. Some argue that the gains in fluid intelligence represent genuine improvements in cognitive abilities, while others contend that the increases are due to factors unrelated to intelligence, such as test familiarity or changes in test-taking motivation.

The test's cross-cultural applicability and suitability for longitudinal studies have made it a valuable tool for documenting the Flynn Effect and investigating its underlying causes.

The evolution and legacy of the Raven's Progressive Matrices

Since its inception, the Raven's Progressive Matrices has undergone numerous revisions and adaptations to accommodate various age groups, cultures, and specific research needs.

The Standard Progressive Matrices (SPM) were the original version, followed by the Colored Progressive Matrices (CPM) in the 1940s, designed for younger children, older individuals, or those with cognitive or developmental impairments. The Advanced Progressive Matrices (APM) was introduced in 1962 for individuals with above-average cognitive abilities.

The Raven's Progressive Matrices has gained widespread recognition for its utility in diverse settings, such as educational and clinical environments, as well as in research on intelligence and cognitive abilities. Moreover, its ability to measure fluid intelligence has made it particularly valuable for studying cognitive development, aging, and neurological disorders.


In conclusion, the Raven's Progressive Matrices test is a widely used and well-established measure of cognitive ability that has stood the test of time. The test has been shown to be reliable, valid and culture-fair, and has been used in numerous studies to assess cognitive abilities. While it's not without its critics, it remains a valuable tool in the assessment of cognitive abilities. It should be noted that RPM test is only one measure of cognitive ability and should be used in conjunction with other measures to get a more comprehensive view of a person's cognitive abilities.

The Raven's Matrices Test is one of the most culture-fair intelligence tests, which is one of the reasons it is widely used as a pre-employment test.

Abstract Reasoning Test

30 mins | 15 MCQs
The pre-employment abstract reasoning test is a non-verbal ability test used to measure fluid intelligence.
Abstract Reasoning Test


1. What are Raven's Progressives Matrices?

The Raven's Progressive Matrices test, is a non-verbal intelligence test designed to measure abstract reasoning and problem-solving skills, which are key components of fluid intelligence.

2. Is the Raven's Progressives Matrices Test valid?

The scientific validity of the Raven's Progressive Matrices Test has been extensively studied and supported by empirical research.

Deepti Chopra

Deepti is a co-founder at Adaface. Her online persona is extroverted, but in real life she is terribly introverted and you can startle her just by calling out her name.

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