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Alfred Binet

Born 1857
Died 1911

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French psychologist, born July 8, 1857, Nice; died October 18, 1911, Paris.

Biography of Alfred Binet

Alfred Binet played an important role in the development of experimental psychology in France and made fundamental contributions to the measurement of intelligence. If he had known what accusations would later be used against him and other psychometricians for their alleged "mismeasurement of man", for instance the row over The Bell Curve, he might as well have let it be.

Binet was born in Nice an only child. His mother was an artist, his father a physician, and Alfred was probably intended to follow in his footstep. As a youth he was not extraordinarily promising, although he showed talent and a willingness to work. After graduating from the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, he studied law, becoming a licentiate in jurisprudence. It is possible that his father's attempts to bully young Alfred into the medical profession by showing him a cadaver back-fired, to the extent that Binet found himself unable to consider the profession.

A lawyer by age 21, his family's wealth made it unnecessary for him to practice law. Instead, he spent much of his time reading psychology, among other things, at the French National Library – apparently a very formal establishment, as he needed a letter of introduction to be let in. Although he read English almost as fluently as he his native French, he apparently didn't read German.

In 1880, Binet published a psychology-related article, though it was subsequently criticized as having been plagiarized. Binet’s interest was caught for a while by the subject of "animal magnetism" – "hypnosis" – and he published numerous papers detailing with how magnets could change emotions, influence perceptions, and accomplish all sorts of other things – "things that hypnosis is known to be able to accomplish." To Binet’s embarrassment, his findings would be shown to have been an artifact of poor experimental methodology.

Two years later he began working in the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where his training methods of science began in earnest. Fascinated by the work of Jean Martin Charcot (1825-1893) on hypnosis at the Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris, Binet, became a student of Charcot's, remaining until 1891. He uncritically accepted, and vehemently defended Charcot's methods and his doctrines on hypnotic transfer and polarisation - until he was forced to accept the counterattacks of Delboeuf of the Nancy School. This eventually caused a split between student and teacher. The realisation of his errors, and his admission of them tempered his later methods considerably. In this early period Binet also studied Hippolyte Taine, Théodule Armand Ribot (1839-1916) and John Stuart Mill.

In 1884 Binet married Laure Balbiani, the daughter of Edouard-Gérard Balbiani (1823-1899), an embryologist at the Collège de France. They had two daughters. In 1887 he was honoured by the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences as lauréat, with a prize of 1,000 francs, a large sum of money in those days. In all of this time he was active, writing articles and papers on his experiments at the Salpêtrière, as well as on his private ideas and musings. He worked with his father-in-law who lectured on heredity, he wrote on free will versus determinism, and he studied the psychology of courts of law.

By 1890 Binet had broken off his connection with the Salpêtrière, and was embarking on a study of cognitive processes, using his daughters as subjects. Curiously enough, although the age difference between them made developmental differences quite clear, Binet never thought to take that observation further. That would have to wait for Jean Piaget (1896-1980).

In 1891 Binet accidentally met Dr. Henri Beaunis on a railway platform, and asked him for a job at the Sorbonne. In spite of the heated arguments that had been carried on between them in the name of hypnosis, Beaunis agreed, possibly because the well-to-do Binet didn't require a salary.

In 1892 he was named assistant director of the laboratory of Physiological Psychology created at the Sorbonne in 1889 and directed by Henri Beaunis. That same year he was conferred Dr ès science - doctor of natural sciences - with a dissertation concerning the correlation between insects' physiology and behaviour.

In 1895 Binet and Beaunis founded the first French journal of psychology, L’Année psychologique, which remains in press today. In the same year he succeeded Beaunis at the Laboratory, now connected with the École Pratique des Hautes Études, where he worked until his death in 1911.

Binet never attained a professorship in his own country, and did no teaching, with the exception of a spring course in psychology at the University of Bucharest in 1895. Here his knowledge in experimental psychology was fully appreciated as he taught to auditoriums filled to capacity, and was thus offered a chair in psychophysiology.

Binet recognized the close relationship between biology and psychology, and published articles and reviews to keep readers abreast of developments. In 1895 the French Biological Society recognized his work by electing him to membership.

About 1900 Binet’s experiments began to go beyond the somewhat narrow framework of the laboratory. Seeing little value in German laboratory research of sensation. Although he worked on esthesiometric thresholds, tactile sensibility, and optic illusions, he preferred to proceed by means of questionnaires, investigations, and personal interviews rather than the complicated apparatus and artificial techniques of the laboratory.

In 1900 (1898?), with Ferdinand Buisson and Mme Kergomard, he established the Société libre pour l'étude psychologique de l'enfant, which after his death became the Société Alfred Binet, and in 1905 he opened a Paris laboratory for child study and experimental teaching, Laboratoire-école de pédagogie normal.

Binet had early been impressed by the attempt of the English psychologist, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) to record individual differences by means of standardized tests. He adapted Galton's method to studies of eminent writers, artists, mathematicians, and chess players, often supplementing the more formal tests with observations on body type, handwriting, and other characteristics. He published on this in 1895.

A notable work was L`Étude expérimentale de l'intelligence (1903), an investigation of the mental characteristics of his two daughters, which he developed into a systematic study of two contrasted types of personalities. These experiments demonstrated the impossibility of translating reasoning in sensory terms and proved the unity and activity of thought and its independence with respect to images. R. S. Woodworth and K. Bühler were to arrive at analogous results in 1907.

Concerning the assessment of intelligence, Binet acknowledged that an intelligence test could provide only a sample of all of an individual’s intelligent behaviours. Further, Binet wrote that the purpose of an intelligence test was to classify, not to measure:

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 a 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. (Binet, quoted in Varon, 1936, p. 41)

In the fall of 1904 Binet was appointed to a ministerial commission to study the plight of retarded school children in France. The minister of public instruction in Paris wanted tests that would insure that mentally retarded children received an adequate education. The minister was also concerned that certain children were being placed in classes for the retarded not because they were retarded but because they had behaviour problems, and teachers did not want them in their classrooms.

In 1905 Binet drew up a whole series of tests: a large number of short, varied problems related to daily situations, bringing into play «superior processes» such as memory and ratiocination. The series was arranged according to mental levels, and the measure of intelligence was established by comparison of the results and their classification. Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon's first intelligence test and related research were presented to the International Congress of Psychology in Rome. Their paper, read by Henri-Étienne Beaunis, was titled New Methods for Diagnosing Idiocy, Imbecility, and Moron Status.

A revision of the scale in 1908 resulted in an important innovation: assuming that intelligence increases with age, Binet ranked the tests in accordance with age levels corresponding to performances by the average child. The mental age (the age the child attains on the scale) was distinguished from chronological age. This latter work of Binet, in collaboration with Théodore Simon, enjoyed wide popularity. It was translated, adapted, imitated, and administered on a large scale. It was the beginning of a new era of testing.

Abroad his tests were hailed as the work of a genius, but in France alone his work was largely ignored. At the same time Binet found to his consternation that his intelligence tests were misunderstood and misused even when they were accepted.

The notion of an intelligence quotient was proposed by the German psychologist William Stern (1871-1938) and vehemently rejected by Binet. He argued that the nature of intelligence is too complex to be captured in a single number.

In 1911 Binet and Simon published their last revision of the tests. It was warmly received from all quarters, except in France, where the tests were misunderstood or ignored altogether. At the time of his death Binet was working on a revision of his scales.

Besides scientific works spanning a wide field, Binet also published works of fiction.

We thank John D. Hogan for information submitted.

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