How Psychology Helped Support — and Subvert — the British Empire By Jack Meserve

That maze, and that dark story behind it, proves the point at the heart of Erik Linstrum’s Ruling Minds: Psychology in the British Empire: All too often we draw a clean, hard line between science and dogma, between reforming unjust structures and validating them. In reality, science is frequently used simply to justify preexisting belief systems and power relationships. And one of the clearest examples comes from how psychology was used by the British Empire in the early 20th century.

With hindsight, it’s easy to think of psychology in the first half of the 20th century as an art rather than a science, and its place of practice as the psychoanalyst’s recliner, with the patient exploring the nature of castration anxiety, rather than as a tool embraced by government and academia. But Ruling Minds takes the reader through the largely forgotten history of how Great Britain tried to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of its empire through the new “mind sciences,” a broad category that included personality and intelligence testing as well as the theories of Jung and Freud. From Uganda to India to Burma, government bureaucrats, academics, missionaries, and anthropologists used tests like Porteus’s to try to research, rationalize, and control the empire.