Alfred Binet

Alfred Binet (1857-1911) is best known for his development of the first widely used test of intelligence.

He believed that intelligence is a cluster of abilities and is greatly influenced by environment. Consequently, Binet argued that normal children could be trained to learn more and that even mentally “subnormal” children could increase their intelligence if given special attention. He devised a system of “mental orthopedics” to improve attention and increase intelligence.

Binet’s parents separated when he was young His father was a successful physician; his mother was an artist. His family was wealthy and Binet attended the finest schools in Nice and Paris, graduating from the Sorbonne with a degree in law, In addition to his formal education, Binet read the works Darwin, Galton and JS MIll. He was interested in a wide range of topics and had the time and money to pursue them all. Although financially secure, Binet was not an instant success. He worked with Jean-Martin Charcot and studied hypnosis. Charcot maintained that hypnosis was a physiological process but his opponents at the School at Nancy held that hypnosis was a matter of suggestion. Binet became a defender of Charcot’s position. 

In a related matter, Binet, under the auspices of Charcot, studied the healing powers of magnetism. Working with several clinical patients with symptoms of pain and distress, Binet found that by moving magnets over their bodies he could move the pain. When the magnets were moved to the end of body and then off, the pain followed and disappeared. The same procedure could be used to eliminate fears. Unfortunately, Binet’s findings couldn’t be replicated. Patients who knew what Binet expected to happen responded the magnet therapy. Patients who didn’t know what to expect showed no improvement nor could their pain be moved around in their bodies. In 1890, Binet had to admit that his results were due to suggestion and poor experimental design; he resigned in shame.

Using his time wisely, Binet read widely, began a longitudinal study of how well his two daughters remembered and learned (which he published in 1903), and joined (at his own expense) the physiological laboratory at the Sorbonne. He studied childhood fears, introspection, graphology, inkblots, eyewitness testimony, memory, and how to measure the unique individual differences in people. In 1895, he became director of the lab, founded the first psychology journal in France, and opened a clinic for discovering new techniques for teaching children. The following year, Binet and Victor Henri published “Individual Psychology,” which listed a number of variables and how to measure them. 

In 1899, three things happened: Theodore Simon (who worked with mentally retarded children) asked him to be his doctoral supervisor, a grad student at Cornell criticized the Binet-Henri tests for having low correlations between the tests, and Binet joined the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child. Binet and Simon began working on ways to measure intelligence and help children learn better. It was an area that had interested Binet for a long time. The tests and puzzles he had devised to study his own children had worked well for tracking mental development but would have to be bundled into a more cohesive collection to be of general use.

At the start of the 20th century, France passed a series of laws requiring all of its children be educated. In 1903, Binet was appointed to a commission charged with advising the government on what to do with “subnormal” children. Although Galton’s tests could be used to evaluate some children, those who were blind or deaf could falsely be labeled as retarded. The following year Binet and Simon created a series of tests designed to distinguish between normal and retarded children aged 2 to 12. They used a trial and error approach; Working with a sample of approximately 50 each category. the children were given many types of items.

In 1905, the Binet-Simon test of intelligence was published. It was normalized on a sample of subjects and was composed of a 30-step hierarchy of tests, ranging from visual coordination and grasping of a cube to more difficult items such as folding-cutting paper and distinguishing between abstract terms. Given in order of difficulty, the test items were used to distinguish between retarded and normal children, not between different levels of normal intelligence. Testing was done by a trained person and given to one student at a time.

The 1908 revision of the Binet-Simon scale, had almost twice as many tests (58) and was normalized on large samples. Based on the assumption that intelligence increases with age, each test level had a passing score of 75% or better. The 1908 Binet-Simon test was very popular and was translated into several languages. Henry Goddard (who coined the term “moron”) translated the test into English and brought it to America. When William Stern coined the terms “mental age” and “intelligence quotient,” Binet didn’t like them. He thought they were to restrictive but the names captured the public’s fancy and stuck. Consequently, those scoring low on the test were not “abnormal” but younger in mental age (retarded). In 1916 Lewis Terman refined the idea more and coined the term “IQ.” By the beginning of WWI, the Binet-Simon test of intelligence was a world-wide phenomena.

Binet’s concept of mental orthopedics never caught on as well as his test. He believed that everyone can learn and that intelligence can be increased by exercises in attention, will and discipline. Heredity may set the upper limit of intelligence but training can improve the scores for those at the lower levels.


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