Although scholars have long seen mental testing as a classic expression of technocratic authority, the psychological measurement of colonial subjects has received scarce attention. In the British Empire, the origins of mental testing reflect the global influence of American social science in the decade after the First World War.
In India, colonial officials inspired by the U.S. Army Alpha experiments commissioned translations and modifications of the Stanford Binet test for native schoolchildren. In Australia, a psychologist named Stanley Porteus received funding from the Rockefeller Foundation to assess the intelligence of aborigines with the maze test he invented. Although parallel in their ambition to adapt the psychological laboratory across racial and cultural boundaries, these experiments established two distinct models of mental measurement in the colonial setting.
The India experiment, despite the involvement of eugenicists and the imprint of American racial thinking, downplayed comparison with Western norms in favor of identifying indigenous talent. In Australia, by contrast, Porteus judged the aborigines by European standards and concluded that they could not function in white society. Although elements of Porteus’s method, and particularly the use of abstract geometric images, proved influential in later years, the meritocratic, modernizing spirit of the India experiments provided the template for most subsequent testing in the British Empire. A brief survey of later testing experiments — the Carnegie Corporation project in 1930s Kenya, the Matrix exam used with British colonial troops in the Second World War, and the Aptitude Testing Unit in 1950s Kenya — reveals an emphasis on the selection of indigenous people for schools and jobs, a critical element of decolonization.