Alfred Binet: How Is Intelligence Measured?

Alfred Binet played a pivotal role in the development of French experimental psychology, contributing extensively to the question of measuring intelligence. Do you know how the intelligence tests still used today were born?
Alfred Binet: How is intelligence measured?

Alfred Binet was a French psychologist famous for developing the first intelligence test, which is still widely used today. The test was designed following a request from the French government, which commissioned Binet to create a tool that could identify students in need of remedial lessons.

Together with his collaborator Theodore Simon, Binet devised the Stanford-Binet Scale. A system of measuring intelligence that, in the following years, was reformulated and standardized by the American Lewis Terman, who used it with US citizens.

In this article we present the life of Alfred Binet deepening, in detail, his contribution on the measurement of intelligence.

Childhood and youth

Binet was born in Nice to a doctor and an artist. In his youth, he was neither an excellent nor a particularly promising pupil, although he showed a certain talent and a great desire to work. After graduating from high school Louis-le-Grand he studied and graduated in law.

The wealth of the family made the exercise of the title of lawyer superfluous, allowing him to devote his time to reading psychology texts at the National Library of France. In 1880 Binet published an article on psychology, although he was accused of plagiarism.

The subject of animal magnetism, also known as mesmerism, captured his interest prompting him to publish several articles on the subject. In his writings he set out to explain in detail how magnets can influence emotions and perceptions.

To his deep embarrassment, it was proved that the theory of animal magnetism was groundless and fraudulent, without any medical-scientific value.

Brain represented by cubes, Binet's theories.

Binet, career after graduation

Two years later he began working at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, where his scientific methods gradually took shape.

Binet became a student of Jean Martin Charcot, with whom he will study until 1891, accepting without reserve and vehemently defending his methods and doctrines on hypnosis and polarization.

Subsequently he suffered the counterattack of Delboeuf, of the school of Nancy, which caused a division between the pupil and the teacher Charcot. Acceptance of his mistakes, however, helped Binet refine the development of his methods.

Among the Binet masters in those years we also find Hippolyte Taine, Théodule Armand Ribot and John Stuart Mill. In 1884 he married Laure Balbiani, daughter of Edouard-Gérard Balbiani, embryologist doctor at the Collège de France. With his wife he will have two daughters.

In 1887 he was awarded by the French Academy of Moral and Political Science, worked with his father-in-law (who lectured on inheritance), wrote on free will and determinism, and studied the psychology of the courts of justice.

In 1890 Binet broke off relations with the Salpêtrière Hospital. Subsequently, she began to study cognitive processes using her own daughters as an object of study.

Curiously, although the age difference between the two daughters made the different stage of cognitive development quite evident, Binet did not delve into this aspect. We will have to wait for Jean Piaget to revise his theory.

Collaborations with Beaunis and the Sorbonne

In 1891 Binet met Dr. Henri Beaunis and asked him to be hired at the Sorbonne. Despite the thesis reports two years earlier about hypnosis, Beanuis accepted perhaps also motivated by the fact that the rich Binet did not need to receive a salary.

In 1892 Binet was appointed assistant director of the Sorbonne physiological psychology laboratory, directed by Henri Beaunis. In the same year he obtained his doctorate in natural sciences, with a dissertation on the correlation between physiology and behavior of insects.

In 1895 Binet and Beaunis founded the first French psychology magazine, L’Année psychologique , which is still active today. In the same year he succeeded Beaunis in the management of the laboratory, today connected to the École Pratique des Hautes Études, where he worked until his death in 1911.

Representation of the human brain.

Alfred Binet’s intelligence test

Binet was impressed by the intent of the English psychologist Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) to record individual differences through the use of standardized evidence.

He decided to adopt Galton’s method to study writers, artists, mathematicians and chess players. He supplemented the evidence with observations on the physique, writing and other characteristics of the people involved.

In 1903 he completed a remarkable work: the experimental study of intelligence, a survey in which he describes the mental characteristics of his daughters. As a subsequent study, he worked on the systematic analysis of two contrasting personality types.

His works demonstrate the impossibility of translating reasoning into sensory terms, as well as proving how unity and thought activity are independent of image processing. Scientists such as RS Woodworth and K. Bühler, in 1907, will arrive at similar results.

Regarding the evolution of intelligence, Binet recognized that intelligence tests can only evaluate a portion of all intelligent behaviors of an individual. In short, according to the psychologist, a test cannot be considered a definitive proof of intelligence.

Binet further states that the goal of an IQ test is to rank a person, not to rate them. The notion of “intelligence quotient” is proposed by the German psychologist William Stern and violently rejected by Binet.

Underlying his opposition is the idea that the naturalness of intelligence is too complex to be enclosed in a number.

Alfred Binet’s contribution to psychology

Today, Alfred Binet is often cited as one of the most influential psychologists in history. While his intelligence scale served as the basis for modern intelligence tests, Binet himself was not convinced that his yardstick was capable of measuring a permanent or innate degree of intelligence.

According to Binet, the results that an individual obtains if subjected to an intelligence test several times can vary over time. In addition to this consideration, factors such as motivation and other similar variables can play a fundamental role in the results of these tests.

There is no doubt that Binet’s studies greatly influenced his subsequent thinking, broadening the perspectives of psychology.

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