Alfred Binet was a French pioneer of modern psychological testing who developed the prototype of many intelligence tests in use today, including the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. Binet was born in 1857, the only child of a physician father and artist mother. His independent wealth allowed him to pursue his interests and work without remuneration throughout his life. Binet earned a law degree and attended medical school, but he abandoned both fields and turned his attention to experimental psychology. This led him to volunteer to work for Charcot, the famous neurologist who directed the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Through his study of hypnosis during this period, Binet came to appreciate the value of the case study method and the role of suggestibility. In 1891, he went to work with Beaunis at the Sorbonne’s Physiological Psychology Laboratory; in 1894, Binet became director of that lab, where he remained for the rest of his life. Binet’s interest in psychology caused him to start the first French journal in the field, L’Année Psychologique, in 1895.
As an experimental child psychologist, Binet led a research program he called “individual psychology.” Binet believed that intelligence could never be isolated from the actual experiences of individuals or their environments. His use of case studies helped him to appreciate the fact that intelligence is complex and needs to be measured with multidimensional scales. He doubted the value of the sensorimotor tests for assessing mental abilities that predominated at the time. Binet believed testing should tap higher order mental abilities instead of elementary processes. His 1903 book, L’Étude expérimentale de l’intelligence, is a notable work that recounts Binet’s observations of many mental tests he tried on his two daughters.
In 1904, following the enactment of universal education laws in France, Binet was appointed to a commission formed by the government to investigate mental subnormality—as mental retardation was then known— in children. Realizing the need for a reliable diagnostic system to identify this condition, Binet and his collaborator Theodore Simon set out to develop a series of test tasks that would differentiate levels of retardation. Binet quickly came to see that the age at which children were able to accomplish certain tasks was a crucial factor in discriminating levels of mental acuity, with normal children able to pass the same tests at younger ages than those who were deficient. The Binet-Simon Intelligence Scales, published in 1905, used items of increasing difficulty that assessed a wide variety of mental functions and were tied together by the use of practical judgment. Revised scales incorporating standardization and a formula for calculating “intellectual level” were issued in 1908 and 1911. Nevertheless, Binet was hesitant to quantify intelligence because he believed that one could improve the intelligence levels of retarded children and that intelligence is a not fixed quantity. At the time of his death in 1911, Binet was working on a further revision of his scale.
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