Last Updated 26 Jan 2021

Alfred Binet and His Life

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Binet attended law school in Paris, and received his degree in 1878. He also studied Natural Sciences at the Sorbonne. His first formal job was as a researcher at a neurological clinic, Salpetriere Hospital, in Paris from 1883 – 1889. From there, Binet went on to being a researcher and associate director of the Laboratory of Experimental Psychology at the Sorbonne from 1891 – 1894. In 1894, he was promoted to being the director of the laboratory until 1911 (his death). After receiving his law degree in 1878, Alfred Binet began to study science at the Sorbonne.However, he was not overly interested in his formal schooling, and started educating himself by reading psychology texts at the National Library in Paris. He soon became fascinated with the ideas of John Stuart Mill, who believed that the operations of intelligence could be explained by the laws of associationism. Binet eventually realized the limitations of this theory, but Mill's ideas continued to influence his work. In 1883, years of unaccompanied study ended when Binet was introduced to Charles Fere, who introduced him to Jean Charcot, the director of a clinic called La Salpetriere.

Charcot became his mentor and in turn, Binet accepted a job offer at the clinic. During his seven years there, any and every of Charcot's views were accepted unconditionally by Binet. This of course, was where he could have used the interactions with others and training in critical thinking that a University education provided. In 1883, Binet began to work in Jean-Martin Charcot's neurological laboratory at the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris. At the time of Binet's tenure, Charcot was experimenting with hypnotism. Binet was strongly influenced by this great man, and published four articles about his work in this area.

Unfortunately, Charcot's conclusions did not hold up under professional scrutiny, and Binet was forced to make an embarrassing public admission that he had been wrong in supporting his teacher. When his intrigue with hypnosis waned as a result of failure to establish professional acceptance, he turned to the study of development spurred on by the birth of his two daughters, Madeleine and Alice (born in 1885 and 1887, respectively). In the 21 year period following his shift in career interests, Binet "published more than 200 books, articles, and reviews in what now would be called experimental, developmental, educational, social, nd differential psychology" (Siegler, 1992).

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Bergin and Cizek (2001) suggest that this work may have influenced Jean Piaget, who later studied with Binet's collaborator Theodore Simon in 1920. Binet's research with his daughters helped him to further refine his developing conception of intelligence, especially the importance of attention p and suggestibility in intellectual development. Despite Binet's extensive research interests and wide breadth of publications, today he is most widely known for his contributions to intelligence.

Wolf (1973) postulates that this is the result of his not being affiliation with a major university. Because Binet did not have any formalized graduate study in psychology, he did not hold a professorship with a prestigious institution where students and funds would be sure to perpetuate his work (Siegler, 1992). Additionally, his more progressive theories did not provide the practical utility that his intelligence scale would evoke. Binet and his coworker Fere discovered what they called transfer and they also recognized perceptual and emotional polarization.

Binet and Fere thought their findings were a phenomenon and of utmost importance. After investigations by many, the two men were forced to admit that they were wrong about their concepts of transfer and polarization. Basically, their patients had known what was expected, what was supposed to happen, and so they simply assented. Binet had risked everything on his experiment and its results, and this failure took a toll on him. In 1890, Binet resigned from La Salpetriere and never mentioned the place or its director again. His interests then turned toward the development of his children, Madeleine and Alice, who were two years apart.

This research corresponds with that done by Jean Piaget just a short time later, regarding the development of cognition in children. A job presented itself for Binet in 1891 at the Laboratory of Physiological Psychology at the Sorbonne. He worked for a year without pay and by 1894, he took over as the director. This was a position that Binet held until his death, and it enabled him to pursue his studies on mental processes. While directing the Laboratory, Theodore Simon applied to do doctoral research under Binet's supervision. This was the beginning of their long, fruitful collaboration.

During this time he also co-founded the French journal of psychology, L'Annee psychologique, serving as the director and editor-in-chief. n 1899, Binet was asked to be a member of the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child. French education changed profusely during the end of the nineteenth century, because of a law that passed which made it mandatory for children ages six to fourteen to attend school. This group to which Binet became a member hoped to begin studying children in a scientific manner. Binet and many other members of the society were appointed to the Commission for the Retarded.

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? " Binet made it his problem to establish the differences that separate the normal child from the abnormal, and to measure such differences. L'Etude experimentale de l'intelligence (Experimental Studies of Intelligence) was the book he used to describe his methods and it was published in 1903. Development of more tests and investigations began soon after the book, with the help of a young medical student named Theodore Simon.

Simon had nominated himself a few years before as Binet's research assistant and worked with him on the intelligence tests that Binet is known for, which share Simon's name as well. In 1905, a new test for measuring intelligence was introduced and simply called the Binet–Simon scale. In 1908, they revised the scale, dropping, modifying, and adding tests and also arranging them according to age levels from three to thirteen. In 1904 a French professional group for child psychology, La Societe Libre pour l'Etude Psychologique de l'Enfant, was called upon by the French government to appoint a commission on the education of retarded children.

The commission was asked to create a mechanism for identifying students in need of alternative education. Binet, being an active member of this group, found the impetus for the development of his mental scale. Binet and Simon, in creating what historically is known as the Binet-Simon Scale, comprised a variety of tasks they thought were representative of typical children's abilities at various ages. This task-selection process was based on their many years of observing children in natural settings. They then tested their measurement on a sample of fifty children, ten children per five age groups.

The children selected for their study were identified by their school teachers as being average for their age. The purpose of this scale of normal functioning, which would later be revised twice using more stringent standards, was to compare children's mental abilities relative to those of their normal peers (Siegler, 1992). The scale consisted of thirty tasks of increasing complexity. The easiest of these could be accomplished by all children, even those who were severely retarded. Some of the simplest test items assessed whether or not a child could follow a lighted match with his eyes or shake hands with the examiner.

Slightly harder tasks required children to point to various named body parts, repeat back a series of 3 digits, repeat simple sentences, and to define words like house, fork or mama. More difficult test items required children to state the difference between pairs of things, reproduce drawings from memory or to construct sentences from three given words such as "Paris, river and fortune. " The hardest test items included asking children to repeat back 7 random digits, find three rhymes for the French word obeisance and to answer questions such as "My neighbor has been receiving strange visitors.

He has received in turn a doctor, a lawyer, and then a priest. What is taking place? " (Fancher, 1985). For the practical use of determining educational placement, the score on the Binet-Simon scale would reveal the child's mental age. For example, a 6 year-old child who passed all the tasks usually passed by 6 year-olds--but nothing beyond--would have a mental age that exactly matched his chronological age, 6. 0. (Fancher, 1985). Binet was forthright about the limitations of his scale. He stressed the remarkable diversity of intelligence and the subsequent need to study it using qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, measures.

Binet also stressed that intellectual development progressed at variable rates and could be influenced by the environment; therefore, intelligence was not based solely on genetics, was malleable rather than fixed, and could only be found in children with comparable backgrounds (Siegler, 1992). Given Binet's stance that intelligence testing was subject to variability and was not generalizable, it is important to look at the metamorphosis that mental testing took on as it made its way to the U. S. While Binet was developing his mental scale, the business, civic, and educational leaders in the U. S. were facing issues of how to accommodate the needs of a diversifying population, while continuing to meet the demands of society.

There arose the call to form a society based on meritocracy (Siegler,1992) while continuing to underline the ideals of the upper class. In 1908, H. H. Goddard, a champion of the eugenics movement, found utility in mental testing as a way to evidence the superiority of the white race. After studying abroad, Goddard brought the Binet-Simon Scale to the United States and translated it into English. Following Goddard in the U. S. ental testing movement was Lewis Terman who took the Simon-Binet Scale and standardized it using a large American sample.

The new Standford-Binet scale was no longer used solely for advocating education for all children, as was Binet's objective. A new objective of intelligence testing was illustrated in the Stanford-Binet manual with testing ultimately resulting in "curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency (p. 7)" Terman, L. , Lyman, G. , Ordahl, G. , Ordahl, L. , Galbreath, N. ; Talbert, W. (1916).

The Stanford Revision and Extension of the Binet-Simon Scale for Measuring Intelligence. Baltimore: Warwick ; York. (White, 2000). It follows that we should question why Binet did not speak out concerning the newfound uses of his measure. Siegler (1992) pointed out that Binet was somewhat of an isolationist in that he never traveled outside of France and he barely participated in professional organizations. Additionally, his mental scale was not adopted in his own country during his lifetime and therefore was not subjected to the same fate.

Finally, when Binet did become aware of the "foreign ideas being grafted on his instrument" he condemned those who with 'brutal pessimism' and 'deplorable verdicts' were promoting the concept of intelligence as a single, unitary construct (White, 2000). From 1905 to 1908, Binet and Simon developed a test primarily for kids ages 3 to 15 that would compare their intellectual capabilities to other children of the same age. He did a lot of trial and error testing with students from his area.

Binet studied groups of “normal” children, and also children who were mentally challenged. He had to figure out which tasks each group of students was able to complete, and what would be considered standard in the groups. The tests were held between one interviewer and one student, and determined what level of intellectual thinking the student had achieved. The invention of the intelligence test was extremely important to the field of education. Binet published the third version of the Binet-Simon scale right before he died in 1911, but it was still unfinished.

If it were not for his early death, Binet surely would have continued to revise the scale. Still, the Binet-Simon scale was and is hugely popular around the world, mainly because it is easy to give and fairly brief. Since his death, many people in many ways have honored Binet, but two of these stand out. In 1917, the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child, to whom Binet became a member in 1899 and which prompted his development of the intelligence tests, changed their name to La Societe Alfred Binet, in memory of the renowned psychologist.

The second honor was not until 1984, when the journal Science 84 picked the Binet-Simon scale, as one of twenty of this century's most significant developments or discoveries. He studied sexual behavior, coining the term erotic fetishism to describe individuals whose sexual interests in nonhuman objects, such as articles of clothing. He also studied abilities of Valentine Dencausse, the most famous chiromancer in Paris in those days.


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