Binet, Alfred (1857-1911) French Psychologist (Scientist)

Alfred Binet instituted the first intelligence tests, though his original conception differs radically from how his ideas were applied by others. Binet considered intelligence too complex to be captured by a single number, as it would be impossible to take into account many unquantifiable factors. Binet, in collaboration with Theodore Simon, devised the Binet-Simon Intelligence Test specifically to identify students who developed en retard, or "late," which translated as "retarded," a term that has taken on a negative connotation absent from the original French word. This kind of bas-tardization exemplifies the misapplication of Binet’s work, which survives now in the Stan-ford-Binet Intelligence Test. Binet specifically opposed Wilhelm Wundt’s notion of an intelligence quotient, though Binet’s name is associated with IQ. More correctly, Binet can be seen as a precursor to jean piaget’s developmental psychology.

Binet was born on July 11, 1857, in Nice, France. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother, who was an artist, raised her only child. After he graduated from the Lycee Louis-le-Grand in Paris, his father tried to persuade him to follow in the family tradition by becoming a physician, so Binet studied medicine briefly before switching to law for his degree.

However, law did not hold Binet’s interest either, and he began independently studying the psychological works of Bain, Sully, and especially John Stuart Mill’s theory of associa-tionism (or environmentalism—the belief that environment dictates psychology) at the Bib-liotheque Nationale. In 1880, he started publishing papers in his adopted field, bringing him to the attention of the neurologist Jean Martin Charcot, director of the Salpetriere Hospital in Paris, who met Binet in 1883 and invited him to work at the hospital. There, Binet investigated hypnosis, hysteria, and abnormal psychology, as well as the more dubious fields of phrenology (the study of skulls to discern character traits) and physiognomy (the belief in a direct correlation between animal-appearance and psychology). However, Binet soon became disillusioned with Charcot’s lack of scientific integrity.

In 1884, Binet married Laure Balbiani, daughter of the embryologist E. G. Balbiani, who invited his new son-in-law to work in his laboratory at the College de France. There, Binet conducted research for his doctoral dissertation, which he wrote on various aspects of insects, such as their behavior, physiology, histology, and anatomy. Also important to Binet’s later research was the birth of his two daughters, Madeline and Alice, as he later based his psychological theories on his play with them.

Recognition of the significance of Binet’s research came early in his career, as the French Academy of Moral and Political Sciences named him a laureat, granting him a 1,000-franc prize in 1887 (a significant sum at that time). In 1891, he met Dr. Henri Beaunis, who offered him a position at the Sorbonne’s laboratory of physiological psychology despite their disagreement over the validity hypnosis—per-haps because the independently wealthy Binet did not require a salary. By 1894, Binet became codirector of the lab, ascending to the director’s position in 1895. That year, he and Beau-nis cofounded L’Annee Psychologique, the first French psychological journal, which he edited from 1897 until his death. He also sat on the board of the American journal, Psychological Review.

Binet’s most significant research commenced when he took on Theodore Simon as a doctoral student. In the fall of 1904, the French government appointed Binet to a ministerial commission in conjunction with a new law requiring universal education for all French children, a regulation that raised the question of how to identify students who developed en retard, or later than most students. While conducting casual "research" on his two daughters, he realized the correlation between attention span and the progression of intellectual stages, and he devised sets of tasks appropriate to progressive developmental stages that could predict slow intellectual maturation.

In 1905, Binet and Simon established a pedagogical laboratory, testing about 50 "normal" children of different ages, as well as about 45 "subnormal" children. He gave each group about 30 simple tasks to perform: if three-quarters of the children of the same age successfully completed a task, it was considered age-appropriate. Binet and Simon developed a "Test of Intelligence," whereby they would introduce students to tasks appropriate to one year younger than their age. If the students passed this test, Binet and Simon would administer the tasks appropriate to their own age to see if their intellectual development was on par with their peers’ age. If students could not perform the tasks appropriate to two years younger than their own age, they were considered en retard, in need of further surveillance and evaluation.

Binet and Simon first published what became known as the Binet-Simon Intelligence Test in 1905 and followed up with revisions in 1908 and 1911. Their test was adopted almost universally, except, interestingly enough, in France, where Binet’s work was largely ignored. Unfortunately, the Binet-Simon test was also almost universally misapplied, as many failed to heed Binet’s caveats: that test scores were to be used in practical matters only; that there was no proposed theory of intellect underlying the test; and that the test was meant to discover mild retardation in children, not rate differences in "normal" children. The validity of the test became bastardized when evaluators disregarded these distinctions.

Binet published prolifically throughout his career, and wrote several important books in his later period: L etude experimentale de l’intelligence (The Experimental Study of Intelligence), published in 1903; Les enfants anormaux (Abnormal Children), published in 1907; and Les idees sur les enfants (Modern Ideas about Children), published in 1909. Binet died relatively young, on October 18, 1911, in Paris. In 1916, the Stan-ford-Binet Intelligence Test was instituted, and it has become a standard test. However, the fact that Binet was not alive to oversee the application of his ideas to practice resulted in their gross misinterpretation.

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