Tag Archives: Serge Nicholas

Magic, Wonder, and the History of Psychology

Alfred Binet

Two recent articles explore the intersecting histories of magic and psychology. A piece in The American Journal of Psychology describes Alfred Binet’s scientific studies of magic, while a forthcoming article in the Review of General Psychology explores the psychological experience of wonder in relation to magic tricks. Full details below.

“Scientific Study of Magic: Binet’s Pioneering Approach Based on Observations and Chronophotography,” Cyril Thomas, André Didierjean and Serge Nicolas. The abstract reads

In 1894, French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857–1911) published an article titled “The Psychology of Prestidigitation” that reported the results of a study conducted in collaboration with two of the best magicians of that period. By using a new method and new observation techniques, Binet was able to reveal some of the psychological mechanisms involved in magic tricks. Our article begins by presenting Binet’s method and the principal professional magicians who participated in his studies. Next, we present the main psychological tools of magicians described by Binet and look at some recent studies dealing with those mechanisms. Finally, we take a look at the innovative technique used by Binet for his study on magic: the chronophotograph.

“A Particular Kind of Wonder: The Experience of Magic Past and Present,” Peter Lamont. The abstract reads,

Wonder may be an important emotion, but the term wonder is remarkably ambiguous. For centuries, in psychological discourse, it has been defined as a variety of things. In an attempt to be more focused, and given the growing scientific interest in magic, this article describes a particular kind of wonder: the response to a magic trick. It first provides a historical perspective by considering continuity and change over time in this experience, and argues that, in certain respects, this particular kind of wonder has changed. It then describes in detail the experience of magic, considers the extent to which it might be considered acquired rather than innate, and how it relates to other emotions, such as surprise. In the process, it discusses the role of belief and offers some suggestions for future research. It concludes by noting the importance of context and meaning in shaping the nature of the experience, and argues for the value of both experimental and historical research in the attempt to understand such experiences.

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Sick? Or Slow? A History of Early Intelligence Testing in Intelligence

In a recently released, open access article in Intelligence Serge Nicolas, Bernard Andrieu, Jean-Claude Croizet, Rasyid B. Sanitioso, and Jeremy Trevelyan Burman discuss the early history of intelligence testing as it developed in France. In “Sick? Or slow? On the Origins of Intelligence as a Psychological Object” Nicolas and colleagues describe how psychologist Alfred Binet (left) fought to establish authority in the realm of children’s educational assessment. Binet challenged psychiatrists, including rival Désiré-Magloire Bourneville (top), for primacy in this field, arguing that children who fell behind in school should be kept within the school rather than removed to “asylums.” For Binet, such children were slow, but not sick. To identify these children, Binet and his collaborators developed the Binet-Simon test, the direct precursor of the extremely successful American Stanford-Binet test. The article’s abstract reads,

This paper examines the first moments of the emergence of “psychometrics” as a discipline, using a history of the Binet–Simon test (precursor to the Stanford–Binet) to engage the question of how intelligence became a “psychological object.” To begin to answer this, we used a previously-unexamined set of French texts to highlight the negotiations and collaborations that led Alfred Binet (1857–1911) to identify “mental testing” as a research area worth pursuing. This included a long-standing rivalry with Désiré-Magloire Bourneville (1840–1909), who argued for decades that psychiatrists ought to be the professional arbiters of which children would be removed from the standard curriculum and referred to special education classes in asylums. In contrast, Binet sought to keep children in schools and conceived of a way for psychologists to do this. Supported by the Société libre de l’étude psychologique de l’enfant [Free society for the psychological study of the child], and by a number of collaborators and friends, he thus undertook to create a “metric” scale of intelligence—and the associated testing apparatus—to legitimize the role of psychologists in a to-that-point psychiatric domain: identifying and treating “the abnormal”. The result was a change in the earlier law requiring all healthy French children to attend school, between the ages of 6 and 13, to recognize instead that otherwise normal children sometimes need special help: they are “slow” (arriéré), but not “sick.” This conceptualization of intelligence was then carried forward, through the test’s influence on Lewis Terman (1877–1956) and Lightner Witmer (1867–1956), to shape virtually all subsequent thinking about intelligence testing and its role in society.

The full article is currently open access and can be downloaded free of charge here.

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Websites on Binet, Henri, Janet, & Bourdon!

Those interested in the history of psychology in France will find the websites created by Serge Nicholas (left), dedicated to prominent early French psychologists, invaluable resources. Together with Bernard Andrieu, Nicholas has put together a website dedicated to the life and work of Alfred Binet. Although best known for his development of the intelligence test, Binet conducted research in a number of other areas. The diversity of this research is well represented on the Alfred Binet (1857-1911) website, which in addition to featuring a biography of Binet and wonderful photographs of Binet and his family, features a complete bibliography of Binet’s works with links to full text versions of most of these publications.

Nicholas has also created similar sites for French psychologists Benjamin Bourdon (together with Christophe Quaireau), Pierre Janet (together with Isabelle Saillot), and Victor Henri, one of Binet’s best known collaborators. A further site on Théodule Ribot appears to be under development. Visit these sites now to learn more about late-nineteenth and early twentieth century French psychology!

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New JHBS: Ribot, German psych, & More!

The Winter 2013 issue of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences is now online. Included in this issue are articles on French psychologist Théodule Ribot’s (right) founding of the Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger and the founding of the German Gesellschaft für psychologische Forschung” (“Society for Psychological Research”), which was intended to be an outlet for non-Wundtian psychologies from France and Britain. Other articles in this issue look at the history of ethnographic research and Bayesian rationality in economics. Full titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.

“‘A Big Piece of News’: Théodule Ribot and the Founding of the Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Etranger,” by Serge Nicolas. The abstract reads,

This paper describes the founding of the Revue Philosophique de la France et de l’Étranger by Théodule Ribot (1839–1916) in 1876. Like the English journal Mind, which was launched the same year, this journal introduced the new scientific psychology to France. Its founding increased Ribot’s scientific credibility in psychology and led him to be regarded as the most distinguished French specialist in the field. First, we review the state of French philosophy at the time of the journal’s founding, focusing on the three main French schools of thought in philosophy and on their relations with psychology. Second, after analyzing the preface written by Ribot in the first issue of the Revue Philosophique, we examine how the journal was received in French philosophical circles. Finally, we discuss its subsequent history, highlighting its founder’s promotion of new ideas in psychology.

“Normalizing the Supernormal: The Formation of the “Gesellschaft Für Psychologische Forschung” (“Society for Psychological Research”), c. 1886–1890,” by Andreas Sommer. The abstract reads, Continue reading New JHBS: Ribot, German psych, & More!

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