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 (1947-1963)
  • Published more than 200 articles after his retirement from teaching (1950-1971)
  • 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).

Major Contributions

  • 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 apart
  • Investigated differences in intelligence among social classes, gender and race
  • 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” (Burt, 1925).

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, 1985)

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. (Fancher, 1985)

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.

Selected Publications

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 and Son.

Burt, C. (1935). The subnormal mind. London: Oxford University Press.

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 London Press.

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.