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Alfred Binet and the Age of Intelligence Testing

“It seems to us that in intelligence there is a fundamental faculty, the alteration or the lack of which, is of the utmost importance for practical life. This faculty is judgment, otherwise called good sense, practical sense, initiative, the faculty of adapting one’s self to circumstances. A person may be a moron or an imbecile if he is lacking in judgment; but with good judgment he can never be either. Indeed the rest of the intellectual faculties seem of little importance in comparison with judgment”. This excerpt from Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon’s writings, sums up their experiments done in the early 20th century to test intelligence. With the help of Alfred Binet’s colleagues, he set the stage for the world’s earliest forms of IQ tests.

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Alfred Binet was bored in 1857 and was raised in Nice and Paris by his artistic mother. As a child he thought he was going to enter the world of medicine like his father; a well-known doctor in France. However, at a young age, to cure Binet’s timidity, his father made him touch a cadaver. This treatment only added to his anxieties and the memory haunted him. Instead Binet went to school and received a law degree, however he lost interest, and decided not to practice. Binet also tried medical school, however his early encounter with a cadaver haunted him when operating, and so he quit. After much searching for an occupation, Binet found himself at the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris’s greatest library. While doing research, Binet came across some books on psychology, and became fascinated. Within days, he had found his new vocation.

Binet became very intrigued with psychology, and interested when reading about all the famous psychologists and their experiments. The first study Binet read was on the “two point threshold”, which says, “When two points are simultaneously pressed against the skin, they must be separated by some minimum distance that varies both with the individuals and with the parts of the body stimulated if they are to be correctly perceived as 2, rather than 1.” In 1880, Binet wrote what he thought was a new theory which appeared as his first scientific publication. However, Joseph Delboeuf after reading Binet’s article, quickly published a critical reply saying that he had published the same theory, years before. Soon after, Binet published a second article that said, “The operations of the intelligence are nothing but diverse forms of the laws of association. All psychological phenomena revert to these forms, be they apparently simple, or recognized as complex.”

Binet’s big opportunity came a few years later when Jean Charcot accepted Binet as an unpaid assistant and trainee. Charcot, who had developed theories like grand hysterie and grand hypnotisme at Paris’s Salpetriere hospital, saw Binet’s enthusiasm, and decided to give him an opportunity. A temporary job turned into an eight-year stay for Binet, as he became one of the most prolific researchers the Salpetriere School had ever seen.

In 1891, Binet recognized he placed too much faith in Charcot’s reputation and his theories. He admitted publicly that his earlier hypnotic studies had many loopholes for error. From this mistake, he learned how psychological experiments should not be conducted. Afterwards, he began experiments at home with his daughters, Madeleine and Alice. These experiments were to test the individuality of all subjects in psychological study. Binet proved through these experiments that intelligence can be shown in different ways. After many experiments, Binet started to write observations of his daughters in a journal. These writings included:
Madeleine: “Proceeded cautiously and deliberately, held on to a chair for support when learning how to walk, and let go only when she saw another object to hold on to. She is the observer.”
Alice: “Great enthusiasm and imagination. Laughing and turbulent child, she advanced without hesitation. She cried out, gestured, she is very amusing to watch. She staggers like a drunk man, and falls all the time. She is the imaginer.”

Through these tests, Binet learned to respect the individuality and intelligence of every person. He believed that only by comprehensive examinations, involving tests of attention, comprehension, imagination, and memory could one begin to understand human beings. In 1891 when Binet was 34 years old, he became a true experimental psychologist. In late 1891, he met with Henri Beaunis in a railroad station. Beaunis was a physiologist and director of the Laboratory for Physiologic Psychology at the Sorbonne in Paris. Binet offered to work there without pay. Soon Binet gained recognition as France’s leading experimental psychologist.

In 1892 Binet founded the L’Annee Psychologeique, France’s 1st journal devoted to experimental psychology. Binet remained at the Sorbonne for the rest of his life without pay. He did many tests concerning intelligence and individuality. He worked with some adults, and many children throughout his lifetime. In one experiment, he tested the memory of schoolchildren. He showed his subjects a single straight line and asked them to remember its length before being asked to choose its match from a pair of unequal lines. Afterwards, he tried to manipulate responses by establishing “preconceived ideas” by making the top or bottom line of the pair correct for several consecutive trials and then deliberately switching them. Binet got “leaders” to publicly announce their choices first. He would try to manipulate the experiment by asking the children questions such as “are you sure?” These manipulations worked better on younger subjects, since Binet found that children are the likeliest of people to doubt themselves, or to go along with the majority. The results raised serious doubts about the veracity of children’s testimonies in judicial proceedings. Especially when asked “leading questions” from lawyers. Binet even looked for signs of doubt in himself, found evidence, and wrote it down in his journal.

In the late 1890’s Binet did an experiment that involved over several hundred people, and whose purpose was to show the relationship between head circumfrence and mental ability. He went about this experiment by interviewing unusually talented people he had found. He found that different people used different intellectual strategies to arrive at similar extraordinary results.

Binet and Henri Beaunis launched a program called “Individual Psychology” in 1985. It was a series of short tests. The tests were designed to test their memory, judgement, imagonation, and general personality. In addition, Binet continued tests with his daughters. He summarized the results of the tests in his 1903 book L’Etude Experimentale de L’intelligence. He regarded this as his most creative work. It was 400 pages of his daughters answers to various questions. Binet also measured reaction times and sensory acuity reaction time. His daughters responded as quickly as normal adults, however had slower average reaction times than adults. Binet through this meant a difference in attention span, not in neurological reactivity or sensitivity.

The greatness in Binet’s work lies in the fact that his heart was set out to help children with disabilities. Lewis Terman, another psychologist in the early 20th century did similar testing to Binet’s; however, his goals were different. Terman tried to find out which children were learning disabled, and then proceeded to separate them from the rest of the “normal” children. Binet’s goals were different. He wanted to find out what problems these children had, so that he could help them. His ultimate goal was to try to bring these kids back into a normal classroom setting.

However, in 1904, Binet concluded that the program as a whole had failed. He joined a government project, set to investigate the state of the mentally subnormal in France. He also joined with Theodore Simon, a young psychologist who worked with retarded children. Together, they developed tests to identify children whose mental handicap enabled them from benefiting from ordinary education. Binet and Simon studied children from hospitals, schools, orphanages and asylums in order to gain a wide spectrum of environmental influence. Together, they modified older French intelligence tests, and also came up with a scale, consisting of 30 tests that determined a child’s present mental state. This was in order to decide what type of education would be most appropriate for the child.

In the midst of Binet’s studies, tragedy struck. His wife suffered from an unknown illness that inhibited her social life. Before she died, she co-wrote many plays with Andrew de Lorde. The three most famous ones were about a released psychiatric patient who kills his brother, a deranged father who kills his infant son after being denied admission to an asylum, and another father who performs horrifying experiments trying to restore his dead daughter to life. Before his death in 1911, Binet published three books and more than 20 papers on topics of mental imagery to “sexual fetishism” a term he originated that referred to his patients that gave inappropriate objects a sexual significance.

Binet had astonishing results in deeply hypnotized subjects by simply reversing the polarity of a horseshoe magnet in front of them. His real achievement lies in the fact that because of his experiments, he showed people that because they had different mental processes didn’t necessarily mean that they had some sort of illness. There are many different ways to solve problems, and through Binet’s research of children and adults, he found that the basis of intelligence is different for every individual. His meetings with the government lead to having the government approve testing in schools in order to be aware of children’s mental weaknesses. By being able to identify children’s specific problems, treatment, and education would become more specific to their needs.

Alfred Binet died in 1911 of a stroke at the young age of 54. He died only five years after his intelligence tests starting showing up in schools. The fine-tuning of these tests was left up to other scientists and psychologists. Binet died without getting to see all the remarkable results his tests achieved, we are thankful for his leaving behind the basic format for modern intelligence testing.

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