Alfred Binet - Cognitive Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Alfred Binet
Cognitive Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1857, Nice, France


DIED 1911, Paris, France


Educated at the Sorbonne and at the Salpêtrière Hospital



Alfred Binet was a pioneer of intelligence testing, and some versions of intelligence tests used today—more than a century later—still bear his name. By most accounts, his interest in mental assessment and individual differences was sparked by the growth and development of his two daughters, who were two years apart.

At the time of Binet’s work, other individual intelligence tests existed; Francis Galton and James McKeen Cattell had developed their own measures. But with Binet’s research, intelligence testing moved ahead in leaps and bounds, as did the conceptualization of intelligence as a more general attribute that could be represented by performance across multiple spheres.

The need to perform large-scale assessments of intelligence became particularly pronounced with the advent of compulsory attendance within the French public school system. School officials wanted to identify children who could not keep up, to see if they should be sent to special schools or special programs. It was Binet who was selected to meet this challenge. In 1905, he presented his first test, consisting of 30 tasks across a wide range of difficulties. Behaviors to be measured included everything from the ability to follow a light with the eyes (on the easier end of the spectrum) to extremely difficult sentence-completion tasks. The goal was for this to be an objective and empirical way to identify children who were slower learners, and who perhaps even had significant intellectual deficits.

What began to set Binet’s tests apart over time was their usage of norms, or averages of wide ranges of data. The more people who were tested, the more data was collected. And with more data came a more solid foundation that would give any individual result greater context and meaning. Imagine that you and two of your coworkers have a competition to see who can remember the longest string of numbers. Whether you rank first, second, or third, you necessarily gain a particularly insightful assessment of where you stand in terms of memory. After all, what if your coworkers are geniuses—or amnesiacs? Now let’s imagine instead that the same memory assessment is standardized and administered to 10,000 people, a wide range of American adults. Now your ranking—which shows you where you stand in comparison to not just 2 but 9,999 others—seems much more useful, doesn’t it?

So Binet gradually extended the length of his tests, and he increasingly tweaked them to reflect the research he was doing. Over time, he amassed a set of norms for performance across a wide range of ages, and this allowed him to identify intelligence levels with much more precision than if someone just had particularly noticeable deficits and needed special schooling. Ultimately, Binet developed a way of comparing any individual child’s performance to that of an “average” child of that age group. Copying a drawing, recognizing coins and making change, noticing absurdities in language—Binet’s test assessed different areas of mental functioning, with the overall score thought to provide a meaningful big picture of a person’s general intelligence. Binet’s results were lent further validity when it was shown how closely they matched teachers’ own assessments of their students’ intellectual capacity.

The tasks within the test formed a ladder, with individual rungs for individual subtests. And how far a child could ascend on the ladder would theoretically be reflective of his intelligence level and would be considered to be his or her mental age. Intelligence, Binet believed, continued to develop with age until maturity was reached. Later, William Stern pioneered the idea of the intelligence quotient (IQ), which, in its most rudimentary form, was a comparison of a person’s mental age with his or her actual chronological age.

Binet felt that a child should be compared only to other children of similar background, as he recognized that both genetics and environment likely contributed to overall intelligence. Eventually his tests were extended to include adults, shaping the role of psychological measurement for a century and counting.


Binet’s original tests eventually morphed into the Binet-Simon Scale, as amended by his student Theodore Simon. They then made their way to the United States, where Lewis Terman incorporated them into the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales, a test that, in its fifth edition, is still given today. Binet’s focus on the quantitative measurement of intelligence, and on psychological assessment in general, opened up a new field of inquiry regarding the quantification of psychological characteristics. Binet’s findings within cognitive development also influenced notable developmental psychologists, including Jean Piaget. Binet’s contributions created a niche for psychological measurement to help solve real-world problems. And though he predated the behaviorists, Binet’s empirical approach foreshadowed their beliefs about the importance of precise quantification.


Perhaps you have truly known your relative intellectual strengths and weaknesses since you were a young child. But you might be surprised. What you think you’re good at may not necessarily be what you’re actually good at, or maybe you think you’re more or less intelligent than you really are. But what is intelligence, exactly? We tend to think of being smart as one characteristic rather than as a complicated collection of characteristics. Even if you are just talking about mental strength and abilities—ignoring all the other multiple types of intelligence that were conceptualized after Binet, like emotional intelligence, athletic intelligence, artistic intelligence, and so on—it may be surprising that there are still so many different ways to be intelligent. The person who won the spelling bee in middle school, the person who is a math whiz, the person who can solve the Rubik’s Cube without fail—are those people necessarily smart across the board?

If you have ever taken an intelligence test with subscales, like Binet’s, it can be fascinating to compare your relative strengths and weaknesses. How is your visual-spatial reasoning? Are you someone who can figure out immediately how to fit all your family’s different suitcases into the back of your SUV? Or are you someone who gets all the way to the end of the IKEA instructions without once realizing that the large piece off to the side should have been used in an earlier step in order for the dresser to fit together correctly?

What about your working memory, the brain’s clipboard function? Perhaps you just changed your password (for the nineteenth time) five minutes ago, but now, when you are trying to log in on a different device, you can’t remember it. Sound familiar? Good working memory allows us to calculate how much we’ve accrued on our bar tab, keep driving directions in mind as we proceed, or remember the names of the two new people we just met while we’re still in conversation with them. And these abilities vary vastly among people.

Let’s take quantitative reasoning. It involves math, of course, but it’s not necessarily synonymous with having memorized your multiplication tables up to 20, or knowing the exact formula for figuring out the cosine of a triangle. Instead, quantitative reasoning involves a natural aptitude for solving problems in numerical terms. Are you someone who automatically and intuitively understands that on your 30th birthday you’re not starting your 30th year but rather your 31st? (After all, in your first year, as a baby, you were not yet 1.) Were you always very good at those contests that asked you to name the number of gumballs in a gumball machine, and are you great at quickly comparing which football stadium will seat more people? If so, you may very well have good quantitative reasoning abilities, even if you never paid attention in math class.

Of course, when we are distracted, stressed, sleep-deprived, or depressed, our concentration and ability to think and remember can be significantly compromised. This can also be true during the actual taking of the intelligence test.

In some people, discrepancies in capabilities across the different intelligence subtypes are so pronounced as to constitute a learning disability in those domains where they perform especially poorly. Someone can be intellectually gifted in one area, but relative deficits in another area create a striking contrast. Such assessments are very commonly given to children whose parents or teachers have a concern. Identifying these relative differences early on can often help with the creation of a personalized plan for someone’s learning to be maximized. That really brings things full circle, back to Binet’s testing origins of more than a century ago, when testing was used to help figure out how to meet the needs of French schoolchildren.