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Alfred Binet

(1857 - 1911)

Compiled by Trisha Imhoff (May, 2000)



Time Line


Alfred Binet was born on July 11, 1857 in Nice, France. He was the only child of a physician father and an artist mother. His parents separated when he was very young and he was raised by his mother who went with him to Paris when he was 15, so he could attend a famous law school there. Binet received his license to practice law in 1878 and then decided to follow the family tradition of medicine. Nevertheless, his interest in psychology became more important than finishing his medical studies.

Reading books by Charles Darwin, Alexander Bain and others, turned Binet into somewhat of a self-taught psychologist. Introverted and a loner, this self-educating suited him. What he did not realize was that he would later pay, because of what he was deprived of by not attending a University and formally studying psychology.

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.

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 phenomena 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. During this time he also served as the director and editor-in-chief of the number one French journal of psychology, L'Annee psychologique.

In 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.

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.


After working with many prominent psychologists, Binet and Fere finally discovered something on their own; transfer and perceptual and emotional polarization. Transfer was a concept where it was reported that hypnotized patients could transfer a movement such as lifting an arm, to the other side of the body by the use of a magnet. Perceptual polarization meant that an existing perception could be changed to the polar opposite by a magnet and a magnet produced and

opposite emotion in emotional polarization. They thought these findings were extremely important, but they were eventually forced to admit that they were wrong.

After Binet resigned from La Salpetriere he was without a job and spent time writing and producing dramatic plays, four of which were set to stage in Paris. He soon turned to his two girls for study. What fascinated Binet were the differences between the two girls. He concocted a number of tests for the girls and found that Madeleine, the older girl, learned and responded differently than Alice.

When Binet became a member of the Commission for the Retarded he made it his mission to define the differences between children of different mental capacities. He developed tests with the help of Theodore Simon and together they introduced the Binet-Simon scale. The two men were very specific regarding where and how the tests should be given. For example, it was to be given under controlled conditions, it consisted of thirty tests arranged in order of difficulty, and each child was to pass as many as possible. For three years, Binet and Simon gave the tests to as many Parisian schoolchildren as they could. Revising the scale in 1908 introduced the point that children at, say, age eight should test to a mental level of eight. Mental level was a better term than mental age for Binet and Simon because it meant that there could be a change in the test results. The third version of the scale was left unfinished around 1911 and this time Binet arranged the tests according to mental levels from age three fifteen, and he even included five tests for adults.

Time Line


Born in Nice, France on July 11


Went to Paris with his mother and attended law school


Accepted a position at the clinic La Salpetriere


Forced to admit that his experiment done with Fere at La Salpetriere was wrong


Resigned from the Salpetriere clinic


Published three papers describing his observations of his daughters


Joined the Laboratory of Physiological Psychology at the Sorbonne


Became the director at the Sorbonne


Invited to become a member of the newly founded Societe Libre pour l'Etude

Psychologique de l'Enfant (the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child)


Appointed to the Commission for the Retarded


Developed the first intelligence tests with the help of Simon


Published his methods in the book L'Etude experimentale de l'intelligence


Published a number of papers in L'Annee psychologique describing a new scale for

measurement of intelligence in children, the Binet-Simon scale


Binet-Simon scale is revised, second version


Binet dies just after the third version of Binet-Simon test is published


Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child voted to change their name to La

Societe Alfred Binet

1984 Binet's development of the intelligence test is named one of twenty of this century's most

significant developments or discoveries in the journal Science 84

Bibliography Hothersall, David. (1995). History of Psychology. McGraw-Hill, Inc. Pollack, Robert H. and Margaret W. Brenner. (1969). The Experimental Psychology of Alfred Binet: Selected Papers. New York, Springer Publishing Company, Inc. Terman, Lewis M. and Maud A. Merrill. (1960). Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. Boston, Massachusetts, Houghton Mifflin Company.