BURT, Cyril Lodowic
3rd March 1883 to 10th October 1971
Burt was an experimental psychologist who spent much of his career studying human intelligence and education, with a particular focus on childhood intelligence. He was also a proponent of eugenics. Some his work was highly controversial, and after his death Burt’s critics accused him of falsifying data.
Burt was born in London on 3 March 1883, the son of a doctor. He was educated first at the King’s School, Warwick, and then at Christ’s Hospital, London. The Burts were family friends of Francis Galton, the statistician and pioneer of both eugenics and psychometrics, and Cyril Burt was influenced by Galton’s ideas from an early age.
From 1902-06 Burt studied Greats at Jesus College, Oxford, taking a second-class honours degree and a teaching diploma. At Oxford, Burt was mentored by William Macdougall, one of the leading psychologists of the mind in the early twentieth century, who encouraged Burt to further his interests in experimental psychology and statistical methods. In 1907 Burt assisted Macdougall on a national survey of mental and physical traits of the British people, an idea first proposed by Galton. During the summer of 1908 Burt studied psychology at the University of Würzburg.
Also in 1908 Burt took up a post as lecturer in psychology at the University of Liverpool, where he began to conduct his own research into the inheritance of intelligence and developing methods for testing intelligence. His primary focus was on childhood intelligence, and much of his work was devoted to testing whether intelligence was an inherited trait. In 1913, in addition to his Liverpool post, Burt was also appointed a consultant to London County Council. Under the provisions of the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, ‘feeble-minded’ children were removed from elementary schools and put instead into special schools. Burt’s task was to identify and select these children, and he developed a series of tests and screening processes for doing so. By this point, Burt had become convinced that inheritance was the primary factor in determining intelligence.
Burt was a leading member of the Eugenics Society, and from the early 1920s chaired the Society’s Pauper Pedigree Project, a research project designed to show that poverty was primarily the result of inherited defects of temperament and mind, compounded by inbreeding. The project also claimed to have established a psychological link between poverty and criminal behaviour. Also, as Burt tells us in his Rowntree lecture, he did consulting work for companies and became interested in applying his intelligence tests in the new field of industrial psychology.
From the mid-1920s until 1932, Burt chaired the London Child Guidance Training Centre and the London Day Training College, institutions which trained specialists in child guidance. Burt’s influence over views on child inheritance and intelligence, and selection, was immense. In 1932 he became professor of psychology at University College London, where he worked with Ronald Fisher, another statistician and eugenicist. In that same year he married Joyce Woods, a former student. He was knighted in 1946. In poor health, Burt retired from all official posts in 1950, though he continued to be a prolific writer. He died in London on 10 October 1971.
Shortly after Burt’s death, it became known that he had destroyed nearly all of his papers and notes from a lifetime’s research. Rumours began to circulate that he had falsified some of his research data in order to prove his case about inherited intelligence. There was a savage reaction within the psychological community, and Burt’s reputation was pilloried, though as Fletcher (2013) points out, some of this reaction was political: eugenics had become deeply unfashionable and even distasteful after the Second World War, thanks to its association with some of the policies of the Nazis. The questioning of Burt’s methods was part of this larger assault on the tradition of eugenics.
Later, more even-handed studies have concluded that Burt probably did falsify some data, but not all of his conclusions are necessarily invalid. For example, early on his research Burt established that there was no distinction in intelligence between male and female children. It seems likely that Burt fell into the trap of believing too strongly in his hypothesis, and when the data did not fit the hypothesis, adjusting the data. Some later studies by other scholars appeared to corroborate some of Burt’s theories about inherited intelligence, while others appeared to disprove them. The subject of inherited intelligence, and the notion of intelligence testing more generally, remains highly controversial (Fancher 1985).
Burt’s Rowntree lecture was one of a series on waste. His first premise is that of all the forms of waste found in business, ‘the chief cause of failure in industry must be the mental imperfections of the human beings involved – whether employers, organisers, managers or simply employees.’ It is on employees that Burt then focuses the rest of the lecture. He gives his audience an introduction to industrial psychology, whose purpose he says is ‘the elimination of waste in human power’. Not every contemporary industrial psychologist would have agreed with this definition; however, it is wholly in keeping with Burt’s own personal philosophy.
The two main ways of reducing waste, says Burt, are firstly through motion study and work design, to reduce both physical and mental effort and make labour more effective, and secondly, through vocational guidance: ‘more simply and intelligibly, by trying to discover the best methods and the best men for the work.’ Burt refers to some of the methods developed originally by Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, including the factoring in of rest periods and the use of cameras to film people at work and then analyse and break down their movements, though he does not mention the Gilbreths by name.
All forms of physical labour, says Burt, have their mental side:
To the outsider, the blacksmith appears to be merely a man using strong muscles. But the blacksmith himself will tell you that the efficiency of his blow is not by any means a mere matter of muscular strength. It is the knack, the skill, the nervous guidance, that tells, and not simply brute force. And if this holds good of gross bodily labour, it must hold good, all the more, of skilled and intelligent work. All industrial work has a psychological aspect.
That said, it is important to select people who the mental aptitude for the work in question. Burt is critical of current hiring practices, where little attempt is made to select the right people for the right job. He cites a recent study of twelve factories, where 43,000 men were engaged, of whom 36,000 were discharged within twelve months of their being hired. This failure to hire the right people cost those factories a total of £800,000 over the year. Burt argues for more rigorous selection and, unsurprisingly, for the use of intelligence tests in selection. Intelligent workers, he says, should be given responsible tasks, while the ‘dull ones’ should be given more routine work which will suit them better.
Burt also describes how tests for intelligence can also be used to test for aptitude for certain kinds of work. In one example from his own consulting work, he tells of an office where he tested all the women in the typing pool for aptitude and ranked them in order. Later, when it became necessary to downsize, the office let go those typists whom Burt had rated as having low aptitude. He does not explain in detail his methodology for these tests, but elsewhere in the lecture he talks of weeding out applicants for a shorthand course on the grounds that they made spelling mistakes; these errors were taken as a sign of lack of intelligence.
Burt’s lecture is interesting in that it is very much a product of its times, when inheritance and eugenics were widely regarded as determinants of character. Subsequent generations saw a backlash against these views, but today in the aftermath of the human genome project, it is interesting to see how similar questions are beginning to surface again.
The Distribution and Relations of Educational Abilities, 1917.
Mental and Scholastic Tests, 1921.
The Young Delinquent, 1925.
The Study of the Mind, 1930.
How the Mind Works, 1924.
The Factors of the Mind: An Introduction to Factor Analysis in Psychology, 1940.
Intelligence and Fertility, 1946.
The Causes and Treatments of Backwardness, 1957.
The Gifted Child, 1975.
Fletcher, R., Science, Ideology and the Media: The Cyril Burt Scandal, Piscataway, NJ: Transaction, 2013.
Hearnshaw, L.S., Cyril Burt, Psychologist, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Mazumdar, P.M.H., ‘Burt, Cyril Lodowic’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Valentine, C., ‘Cyril Burt: A Biographical Sketch and Appreciation’, in C. Banks and P.L. Broadhurst (eds), Stephanos: Studies in Psychology Presented to Cyril Burt, London: University of London, pp. 11-20.