Cyril L. Burt
(March 3, 1883 - October 10, 1971)
British Educational Psychologist
- Oxford Greats Course, Jesus College, Oxford, (1902-1907)
- Teachers' Diploma, Jesus College, Oxford (1908)
- Studied psychology under Oswald Külpe at the University of Würzburg,
Germany (Summer, 1908)
- Lecturer in Experimental Psychology, University of Liverpool (1908-1913)
- Chief Psychologist, London County Council (1913-1932)
- Professor of Educational Psychology, London Day Training Centre (1924-1932)
- Charles Spearman Chair of Psychology, University College, London (1932-1950)
- First psychologist to be knighted (1946)
- Editor and co-editor, British Journal of Statistical Psychology
- Published more than 200 articles after his retirement from teaching
- First British subject to win the (American) Thorndike Prize, (1971)
- President of British Psychological Society (1942)
Definition of Intelligence
[intelligence] denotes, first of all, a quality that is intellectual
and not emotional or moral: in measuring it we try to rule out the effects
of the child's zeal, interest, industry, and the like. Secondly, it denotes
a general capacity, a capacity that enters into everything the child says
or does or thinks; any want of 'intelligence' will therefore be revealed
to some degree in almost all that he attempts; a weakness in some limited
or specialized ability-for example, in the ability to speak or to read,
to learn or to calculate-is of itself by no means a sign of defective
intelligence. Thirdly, intelligence is by definition an innate capacity:
hence a lack of it is not necessarily proved by a lack of educational
knowledge or skill" (Burt, 1957, p. 64-65).
- Founded the field of Educational Psychology in Great Britain by creating
and implementing a system for identifying mentally retarded students
- Helped to establish the Eleven-Plus testing program in Great Britain
- Helped to expand the statistical technique of factor analysis
- Advocated for the hereditarian position: He is famous (and notorious)
for his conclusions about the intelligence of identical twins reared
- Investigated differences in intelligence among social classes, gender
- Published nine books and more than three hundred articles, lectures
and book chapters
Ideas & Interests
Sir Cyril Burt remains one of the most complex and intriguing figures
in the history of intelligence testing. He was a pioneer of educational
psychology in England and was one of the most respected and honored psychologists
of his time. However, he had controversial ideas regarding the heritability
of intelligence, and there is ample evidence that he used fraudulent data
to support his views (Scarr, 1994).
Throughout Cyril Burt's lifetime he remained committed to proving that
intelligence is primarily and inherited characteristic. His long research
career began in 1909 with a study comparing the intelligence of boys enrolled
in an elite preparatory academy with the intelligence of boys attending
a regular school.* To control for environmental influences, he chose measures
(such as mirror drawing) that were unlikely to have been learned during
the students' lifetimes. Since the prep school students scored higherr
than the other students, he concluded that they had more innate intelligence.
Moreover, he noted that the fathers of the prep school boys were more
successful than the fathers the other boys. He interpreted this to mean
that the prep school boys had benefited from their fathers' superior genetic
endowments (Fancher, 1985).
Burt did not believe that 100% of intelligence is inherited. In fact,
he acknowledged that environmental influences are important. However,
he argued that even environmental influences can have genetic causes.
In 1922 he wrote:
That children of better social status succeed better with the
Binet- Simon scale is not necessarily an objection to that scale;
nor is it necessarily a ground for constructing separate norms:
for, by birth as well as by home training, children who are superior
in social status may be equally superior in genral ability. Conversely,
if a child proves defective according to a scale that is otherwise
authentic, the mere fact that his family is poor and his dwelling
a hovel does not of itself condone his deficiency. His parents'
home may be mean precisely because their hereditary intelligence
is mean. Whether poverty and its accompaniments affect the child's
performances in any direct fashion-whether, for example, in the
Binet-Simon tests a child that inherits an abundance of natural
ability may be handicapped through a lack of cultural opportunities-is
a further and a separate issue (Burt, 1922, p. 192).
Later in Burt's life he would be accused of using fraudulent twin data
to support the primacy of genetics over envirnoment. Between 1943 and
1966 he published a series of articles on the intelligence of identical
twins who had been raised in different homes. Every article confirmed
that each set twins' intelligence test scores were extremely similar.
After Burt's death critics pointed out several problems with these articles,
including: The raw data supporting his results had either disappeared
or had never existed, an inability to confirm that his research assistants
were indeed real people, extremely unlikely similarities in the correlation
coefficients of IQ scores across studies, inconsistencies in the numbers
of twins he reported using, and the implausibility of finding 53 sets
of identical twins who had been reared apart. For more information about
these events, please see our related Hot Topic.
Although Burt is famous for his controversial hereditarian views, he
took precisely the opposite stance on the issue of juvenile delinquency.
Although Burt's family was middleclass, he grew up in a working class
area and many of his boyhood friends were from poor families (Fancher,
1985). He was therefore made keenly aware of the environmental conditions
which might lead to social and legal problems. While lecturing at Liverpool,
he spent some time living in the University Settlement, a housing project
on the on the outskirts of a slum. The settlement had been created for
the specific purpose of exposing researchers to slum conditions. Burt
came away from this experience convinced that juvenile delinquency was
not a hereditary blight, but an environmental one. In The Young Delinquent,
he lamented that "contagion is all too often mistaken for heredity"
In 1926 Burt began advocating for a national testing program that could
identify bright children from all socioeconomic levels. He believed that
this would establish a meritocracy, giving economically disadvantaged
children educational opportunities that they would not otherwise receive.
However, since he believed that economically disadvantaged children were
also more likely to be genetically disadvantaged, he was convinced that
the number of bright lower-class students identified would necessarily
be much smaller than the number of bright upper class students. (Fancher,
His proposed testing program was implemented, and a version of it is
used in the United Kingdom to this day. Since Burt believed that intelligence
is not fixed until children are approximately eleven years old, he suggested
that all British students be tested at this age. Results of the "Eleven-Plus"
exam would be used to sift students into grammar schools (for the high
scorers) or modern schools (for the rest). These school placements were
permanent. The Eleven-Plus program proved to be a double-edged sword:
Since universities required grammar school training for admission, many
lower-class youth received educational opportunities that they might not
otherwise have enjoyed. However, most students were placed in the modern
schools--ending forever their chances of receiving a university education.
Burt also had environmentalist leanings on the issue of intelligence
and race. Like many psychologists of his time, he believed that the European
races were intellectually superior to the so-called "savage races".
However, he did not attribute this superiority entirely to genetics (Hearnshaw,
1979). In a 1912 Eugenics Review article he stated: "In the
case of the individual we found the influence of heredity large and indisputable;
in the case of the race, small and controversial." (Burt, 1912)
Burt was also interested in gender differences in intelligence. One of
his earliest studies investigated the differences in the perceptual and
motor skills, reasoning ability, and emotionality of male and female schoolchildren.
His research team came to the surprising conclusion that "with few
exceptions innate sex differences in mental constitution are astonishingly
small--far smaller than common belief and common practice would lead us
to expect" (Burt & Moore, 1912). Later in his career he offered
evidence from a variety of sources pointing to the superior linguistic
capabilities of girls, and suggested that at various periods in their
development, girls are intellectually superior to their male counterparts.
He noted however, that this superiority is transient, and that the overall
cognitive differences between boys and girls are negligible. (Burt, 1922,
p. 193). When viewed within the social context extant during this stage
of Burt's career, it is reasonable to say that his work helped women to
achieve gender parity within the school system. (Hearnshaw, 1979).
*His experimental design did not actually allow for a direct comparison
of the two groups. His conclusions were based on interpretations of data
from within each group.
Burt, C. (1909). Experimental tests of general intelligence. British
Journal of Psychology, 3, 94-177.
Burt, C. (1921). Mental and scholastic tests. London: P.S. King
Burt, C. (1935). The subnormal mind. London: Oxford University
Burt C. (1940). The factors of the mind: An introduction to factor
analysis in psychology. London: University of London Press.
Burt, C. (1957). The causes and treatments of backwardness (4th
ed.). London: University of London Press.
Burt, C. (1975). The gifted child. New York: Wiley.
Burt, C.L. (1912). The inheritance of mental characteristics. Eugenics
Review, 4, 168-200.
Burt, C.L. (1925). The young delinquent. London: University of
Burt, C. (1957). The causes and treatments of backwardness (4th
ed.). London: University of London Press.
Burt, C.L., & Moore, R.C. (1912). The mental differences between
the sexes. Journal of Experimental Ped., 1, 273-84, 355-88.
Fancher, R.E. (1985). The intelligence men: Makers of the IQ controversy.
New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Hearnshaw, L.S. (1979). Cyril Burt, Psychologist. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell Univerisity Press.
Scarr, S. (1994). Burt, Cyril L. In R.J. Sternberg (Ed.), Encyclopedia
of intelligence (Vol. 1). (pp. 231-234). New York: Macmillan.
Image courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.
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