Cyril Burt

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Sir Cyril Burt (pictured as octogenarian)

Sir Cyril Lodowic Burt (March 3 1883October 10 1971) was a British educational psychologist. He was a member of the London School of Differential Psychology. Some of his work has been controversial, and after his death he was accused of fraud.

Burt supported eugenics, and was a member of the British Eugenics Society. Since he had suggested on radio in 1946 the formation of an organization for people with high IQ scores, he was made honorary president of Mensa in 1960, in a gesture of recognition.



Burt was born on March 3, 1883 in Westminster, England on Petty France Street. Early in Burt’s life he showed a precocious nature, so much so that his father, a physician, often took the young Burt with him on his medical rounds. One of the elder Burt’s more famous patients was Darwin Galton, brother of Francis Galton. The visits the Burts made to the Galton estate not only allowed the young Burt to learn about the work of Francis Galton, but also allowed Burt to meet him on multiple occasions and to be strongly drawn to his ideas—especially his studies in statistics and individual differences, two defining characters of the London School of Differential Psychology whose membership includes both Galton and Burt.

At the age of 11, Burt won a scholarship to Christ's Hospital, where he first developed his appreciation of psychology. Not too long after, he won a classical scholarship to Oxford, where he specialized in philosophy and psychology, the later under a fairly new faculty member, William McDougall. McDougall, knowing Burt’s interest in Galton’s work, suggested that he focus his senior project on psychometrics (although not then an official discipline), thus giving Burt his initial inquiry into the development and structure of mental tests—-an interest that would last the rest of his life. In 1901, McDougall was appointed the secretary of the British Association Committee that planned to carry out, at Galton’s suggestion, a nation-wide survey of physical and mental characteristics. McDougall invited Burt to help him with this project along with J. C. Flugel, William Brown, and later Charles Spearman.

In 1908, Burt took up the post of Lecturer in Psychology and Assistant Lecturer in Physiology at Liverpool University, where he was to work under famed physiologist Sir Charles Sherrington. While at this post, Burt was able to further both his knowledge of how human anatomy and physiology affect human psychology as well as his interest and research into individual differences.

In 1913, Burt took the position of a school psychologist for the London County Council (LCC), which was in charge of all the London schools. This was the first appointment of this kind in the world, or at least in the United Kingdom. Initially, Burt’s LCC appointment was only a part time position, which allowed him to use the rest of his workweek gathering and publishing data. During his tenure at the LCC, Burt gathered so much data that he was still publishing it long after he retired.

In 1931 he resigned his position at the LCC when he was appointed Professor and Chair of Psychology at University College, London, taking over Spearman's position, thus ending his almost 20 year career as a school psychological practitioner.

While at London, Burt had a large influence on many students, (e.g., Raymond Cattell, Hans Eysenck), and towards the end of his life, Arthur Jensen.

The Burt Affair

Over the course of his career Burt published numerous articles and books on a host of topics ranging from psychometrics to philosophy of science. It is his research in behavior genetics, most notably in studying the heritability of intelligence (as measured in IQ tests) using twin studies that has gained him the most notoriety. At one point in the late 1970s-early 1980s, it was generally accepted that at least a majority of this research was fraudulent, due in large part to Oliver Gillie's (1976) and Leon Kamin's (1974) accusations and Leslie Hearnshaw's (1979) biography. The possibility of fraud was first brought to the attention of the scientific community when Kamin thought it terribly odd that Burt's correlation coefficients of Monozygotic and Dizygotic twins' IQ scores were the same out to 3 decimal places, across articles--even when new data were twice added to the sample of twins.

Later, two independent authors, Ronald Fletcher (1991) and Robert Joynson (1989) both published books that, while not totally exonerating Burt, cast more doubt on his accusers than they initially cast on Burt's publications. Currently, scientific consensus tends to be that Burt's mistakes were due to carelessness or wishful thinking, not duplicity. He is still regarded as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.

Further reading


  • Banks, C., & Broadhurst, P.L. (eds.). (1966). Stephanos: Studies in psychology presented to Cyril Burt. New York: Barnes & Noble.
  • Burt, C.L. (1949). An autobiographical sketch. Occupational Psychology, 23, 9-20.
  • Fancher, R.E. (1985) The intelligence men: Makers of the I.Q. controversy. New York: Norton.
  • Hearnshaw, L. (1979). Cyril Burt: Psychologist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • (1983) "Sir Cyril Burt". AEP (Association of Educational Psychologists) Journal, 6 (1) [Special issue]
  • Scarr, S. (1994). "Burt, Cyril L.", in R.J. Sternberg (ed.), Encyclopedia of intelligence (Vol. 1, pp. 231-234). New York: Macmillan.

Books by Burt

  • Burt, C.L. (1975). The gifted child. New York: Wiley.
  • Burt, C.L. (1962). Mental and scholastic tests (4th ed.). London: Staples.
  • Burt, C.L. (1957). The causes and treatments of backwardness (4th ed.). London: University of London.
  • Burt, C.L. (1940). The factors of the mind: An introduction to factor analysis in psychology. London: University of London.
  • Burt, C.L. (1935). The subnormal mind. London: Oxford University.
  • Burt, C.L. (1946). Intelligence and fertility. London:
  • Burt, C.L. (1925). The young delinquent. London: University of London.

Articles by Burt

  • Burt, C.L. (1972). "Inheritance of general intelligence", American Psychologist, 27, 175-190.
  • Burt, C.L. (1971). "Quantitative genetics in psychology", British Journal of Mathematical & Statistical Psychology, 24, 1-21
  • Burt, C.L. (1963). Is Intelligence Distributed Normally? (
  • Burt, C.L., & Williams, E.L. (1962). "The influence of motivation on the results of intelligence tests", British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 15, 129-135.
  • Burt, C.L. (1961). "Factor analysis and its neurological basis", British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 14, 53-71.
  • Burt, C.L. (1960). "The mentally subnormal", Medical World, 93, 297-300.
  • Burt, C.L. (1959). "General ability and special aptitudes", Educational Research, 1, 3-16.
  • Burt, C.L., & Gregory, W.L. (1958). "Scientific method in psychology: II", British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 11, 105-128.
  • Burt, C.L. (1958). "Definition and scientific method in psychology", British Journal of Statistical Psychology, 11, 31-69.
  • Burt, C.L. (1958). "The inheritance of mental ability", American Psychologist, 13, 1-15.

Readings on the Burt Affair

  • Fietcher, R. (1991). Science, Ideology, and the Media. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction.
  • Gould, S.J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. (2nd ed.).
  • Gillie, O. (1976, October 24). Crucial data was faked by eminent psychologist. London: Sunday Times.
  • Hearnshaw, L. (1979). Cyril Burt: Psychologist. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Joynson, R.B. (1989). The Burt Affair. New York: Routledge.
  • Kamin, L.J. (1974). The Science and Politics of IQ. Potomac, MD: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Lamb, K. (1992). "Biased tidings: The media and the Cyril Burt controversy", Mankind Quarterly, 33, 203.
  • Rowe, D., & Plomin, R. (1978). "The Burt controversy: The comparison of Burt's data on IQ with data from other studies", Behavior Genetics, 8, 81-83.
  • Rushton, J.P. (1994). "Victim of scientific hoax (Cyril Burt and the genetic IQ controversy)", Society, 31, 40-44.

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