Alfred Binet was one of the great contributors to Psychology in the twentieth century. Along with Theodore Simon he developed the first Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test. The Binet-Simon Scale was honored, in 1984 by the journal Science 84, as one of twenty of the twentieth century’s most significant developments and discoveries. That is not to say that he was successful from the beginning of his career. As I will show throughout this paper, Binet was off to a shaky start.
Alfred Binet was born on July 11, 1857 in Nice, France. The only child of a physician, it can be concluded that he was meant to follow his father’s lead and also become a physician. Unfortunately, his parents separated when he was very young leaving him to be raised by his artist mother. Binet was never an exceptional student, but he went on to earn his degree in law in 1878 (Enersen, ¶ 2).
Upon receiving his degree in law, Binet decided to follow the family tradition of studying medicine. His interest in medicine, lead to Binet’s interest in psychology. He started reading books by Charles Darwin, Bain, John Stuart Mill, etc, at the French National Library. This sparked his interest in psychology. Binet never received formalized education in psychology; all of the knowledge that he obtained was self-taught (Imhoff, ¶ 2).
Due to family wealth Binet was never required to work to maintain his welfare. This allowed him to concentrate his time on his newfound passion for psychology and the human mind. Unlike others in the field of psychology, Binet took an interest in the normal functioning brain. The fad at this time was to focus on the mentally deficient mind as opposed to the healthy mind. Mill played a considerable role in Binet’s interest in psychology. Mill’s beliefs in associationism (which dealt with the operations of intelligence as forms of associations) were essential to Binet’s growing appreciation for psychology. Though Binet did understand the limits of Mill’s theory, it inspired him to eventually pursue intelligence further (Plucker, ¶ 1).
In 1880, Binet published his first work. It was a psychology-related article, but to his embarrassment it was disparaged as plagiarism. Binet’s focus was on animal magnetism and hypnosis. It was at this time (1883) that Binet accepted a position at SalpˆtriŜre Hospital in Paris working in Jean-Martin Charcot’s neurological laboratory. During this time Binet was able to work with Charcot and his experimentations with hypnosis (Plucker, ¶2).
Binet put a lot of faith into his mentor, Charcot. He trusted everything that he was taught, as well as everything that he saw while under his supervision. Binet published four articles while working under Charcot. Along with a coworker, Charles Fere, they discovered what they termed transfer as well as emotional and perceptual polarization.
Transfer was defined as a process whereby a patient could shift a movement, such as lifting an arm, to the other side of the body using magnets. Perceptual polarization was an existing perception that could be changed to the polar opposite with the use of a magnet. Emotional polarization was essentially the same concept as perceptual polarization except that it was not a perception that could shift, but rather an emotion (Imhoff, Therapy, ¶ 1). After careful examinations by other experts, Binet and Fere had to publicly denounce their findings. The subjects used to run their testing had known what was expected of them, and had therefore simply assented to what was asked of them. This was a terrible blow for Binet. This failure on Binet’s behalf can be attributed to his lack of formal psychological training. Unfortunately, sometimes knowledge is best acquired through failure (Plucker, ¶2).
In 1884, Binet was married to Laure Balbiani, the daughter of Edouard-Gérard Balbiani, an embryologist at the Collége de France. Binet had two daughters, Madeleine and Alice (whom were two years apart). His daughters would prove to be a tremendous asset and would launch his career. Binet was able to use his daughters to begin his study of cognitive processes. This laid the groundwork for his future work with intelligence. The work that he did with this daughter would help to prepare him to understand the concepts of attention span and suggestibility in cognitive development (Plucker, Ideas and Interests ¶2). During this time the French Academy Of Moral and Political Sciences honored him as laureate. He spent most of his time writing papers regarding his work at SalpˆtriŜre and also on his own thoughts. He wrote on freewill versus determinism, and studied the psychology of the courts of law (Enersen, ¶ 6).
In 1891, Binet met Dr. Henri Beaunis and ask him for a job at the Laboratory of Physiological Psychology at the Sorbonne. Even though the two had previously had many disagreements concerning hypnosis, Beaunis agreed to take Binet on at the Sorbonne. Fortunately, Binet was an affordable addition to the Sorbonne. He was so well off that he did not require compensation in exchange for his work. Binet was appointed director at the Sorbonne in 1894. While there he studied memory, thinking, hypnosis, handwriting, and perception (The McGraw-Hill Company, ¶ 3).
While directing the Sorbonne, Theodore Simon applied to do doctoral research under the supervision of Binet. In 1892, Binet was awarded his doctorate in natural sciences (by his dissertation correlating insects’ physiology and behavior) (Enersen, ¶ 9). In 1985, Binet and Beaunis founded the first French journal of psychology (which is still in press today).
Binet was greatly influenced by Sir Francis Galton’s recording of individual differences using standardized tests. He began to assess anyone from chess player to mathematician and artist using formal tests such as observing body type and handwriting. Binet published one of his works in 1903 entitled L ̀ Étude expérimentale de l ̀intelligence. This was an investigation of the mental characteristics of his two daughters. He developed this into a systematic study of two different personality types (Enersen, ¶ 16). Thus he was able to determine the importance of attention span on the development of intelligence (RIN, ¶ 7).
1904 was the year that started it all for Binet. Binet was very involved as a member of a major French professional group for child psychology (Enersen, ¶ 10). It was during this time that Binet was able to begin to develop what is known today as the Binet-Simon Scale. A few members of this society for child psychology were appointed to a government commission on the education of retarded children. This was what Binet had been waiting for. It was his opportunity to define the differences between children of different mental capacities. The question became “What should be the test given to children thought to possibly have learning disabilities, that might place them in a special classroom?” (Imhoff, ¶ 7). The minister of public instruction was worried that certain children were being placed in special classrooms not because they were retarded, but because they had behavior problems and their teachers did not want to have them in their classrooms (Enersen, ¶ 19).
It is very important to understand that Binet did not intend his intelligence test to measure intelligence, but rather to classify individuals. Therefore, Binet concluded that an intelligence test could only provide a sample of all of an individual’s intelligent behaviors (The McGraw-Hills Companies, ¶ 2). A direct quote is the best way to describe the purpose behind Binet’s intelligence test:
“I have not sought in the above lines to sketch a method of measuring, in the physical sense of the word, but only a method of classification of individuals. The procedures which I have indicated will, if perfected, come to classify a person before or after such another person or such another series of persons; but I do not believe that one may measure one of the intellectual aptitudes in the sense that one measures length or a capacity. Thus, when a person studied can retain seven figures after a single audition, one can class him, from the point of his memory for figures, after the individual who retains eight figures under the same conditions, and before those who retain six. It is a classification, not a measurement…we do not measure, we classify.” (Varon, 41).
Binet developed a series of tests in 1905. It included a series of short problems relating to daily situations that included processes such as memory and ratiocination (Enersen, ¶ 20). The tests were arranged according to mental levels and comparing the results and their classifications created measures of intelligence. Binet and Simon’s first test was entitled New Methods for Diagnosing Idiocy, Imbecility, and Moron Status (Enersen, ¶ 20).
In 1908, Binet and Simon revised their intelligence scale to include age. They assumed that intelligence increase with age. It included mental age (the age the child attains on the scale) as distinguished from chronological age. This revision is what led Binet to become wildly successful. It was translated, adapted, and administered widely abroad, but unfortunately in France it was seldom used. When it was used in France it was used incorrectly.
Another important aside is to mention William Wundt (1832-1920). He was a German psychologist that proposed the notion of the intelligence quotient. Binet strongly rejected the notion of IQ reasoning that intelligence was too complex to be represented in a single number alone (Enersen, ¶ 23). This is an interesting twist to the ideas that I have previously held about IQ tests and Binet. I was always under the assumption that Binet intended his test to measure IQ.
Binet and Simon made two more revisions to their intelligence test, the final revision being prepared in 1911. Unfortunately, Binet did not get to complete his third revision by the time of his death in 1911. It can be concluded that if allowed, Binet would have made many other revisions to refine his intelligence test. That aside, the Binet-Simon test is still a widely popular test that is given today.
Looking at Binet’s life and accomplishments would not be complete without examining his contributions to psychology and what exactly a good intelligence test is comprised of. To begin with the later, a good intelligence test must include validity, reliability, standardization, objectivity, and practicality. Validity is the extent to which a test measures what it is supposed to. Reliability is the degree to which a test score is repeatable. Standardization is the ability of a test to obtain a norm of the population. Without standardization it would be impossible to interpret a single individual’s score. Objectivity helps to ensure that the examiner’s personal feelings and biases do not affect the test results. Practicality ensures a quick and easy test.
Looking at the former question regarding Binet’s impact on psychology today, it is hard to deviate from his impact. One of the largest contributions that Binet made in the field of psychology is related to his early interest in the normal mind. Binet was ahead of his time in regards to his curiosity with the human mind. All of the great minds of his time were consumed with understanding mentally disturbed minds, but this posed problems. It is very difficult to assess the disturbed mind if one does not understand the functioning of the healthy mind.
Binet was also open to situations around him. Evidence of this includes how he observed his two daughters frequently to understand cognition and intelligence. He noticed how different they were and this led him to ascertain that there were different categories of intelligence. This would eventually lead to understanding the need for different learning techniques and styles. The Binet-Simon Scale shows that something abstract, such as intelligence, can be measured.
Alfred Binet. (2002). Retrieved February 20, 2004, from http://psy.rin.ru/eng/article/49- 101.html
Plucker, Jonathan. (2003, December 11). Alfred Binet: French Psychologist. Retrieved February 19, 2004, from http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/binet.shtml
The McGraw-Hill Companies. (2004). Alfred Binet. Retrieved February 18, 2004, from