Psychology at War: Military Expertise and the Science of Mind in the Twentieth Century

AHA Session 224
Sunday, January 5, 2014: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Columbia Hall 9 (Washington Hilton)
Richard Keller, University of Wisconsin–Madison
The Audience

Session Abstract

Since their emergence in the nineteenth century, the ‘mind sciences’ (alienism, psychiatry and psychology) have drawn legitimacy from their relationship to the state, a process accelerated in the twentieth century by military conflict. The relationship between mind experts and militarized states has not always been harmonious or uncontroversial, however, as each panelist demonstrates in a different historical context. Although socially and professionally buoyed by the prestige their service offered, for example, psychiatrists and neurologists experienced constant tension with the military during the First World War as they sought to secure influence and explain the spread of ‘shell shock’. Juliet Wagner’s paper on the role of ‘war neurosis’ doctors in the Baden army highlights the pressure physicians faced to restore their patients to functional war service and the resistance they experienced in the town of Überlingen, where local residents objected to what they saw as demeaning treatment of enlisted soldier-patients by officer-doctors. This case study provides a fascinating example of a military-medical debate of national significance spilling into a local, public discussion.

The Second World War provided further opportunities for collaboration between ‘mind experts’ and the military, in particular given the interwar advances in experimental psychology and psychometric testing. Marcia Holmes traces how American psychologists labored to translate their wartime successes in matching men to machines to the Cold War's new military and technological realities.  Her paper focuses on the “man-machine systems” experiments pursued at RAND Corporation in the early 1950s, experiments that set the bar for later psychological studies of command-and-control centers but which also exposed the limitations of using cutting-edge behavioral science to study techno-social systems.

While technical knowledge could reshape war-making in material ways, it also gave rise to a language of behavioral control which non-experts appropriated for their own purposes.  Erik Linstrum’s paper surveys the ambiguous history of “psychological warfare” in the postwar counterinsurgencies waged by the British Empire.  Drawing in part on the recently discovered Colonial Office archive at Hanslope Park, Linstrum shows that psychological theory enabled British officials to discredit rebellions in Malaya, Cyprus, and Kenya as pathological outbursts of emotion. Rejecting a simplistic model of instrumentalized science, this paper suggests that the lure of technical solutions to political problems captured the official imagination despite scant evidence of success.

This panel will explore the complex relationship between mind experts and the military, a topic that has inspired much debate and disagreement, by asking: Why were armies quick to enlist mind experts in some contexts, but not in others?  How did the psychological assumptions of military training and tactics change over time?  In what ways did military funding of research projects shape the discipline of psychology itself?  Combining perspectives from diverse battlefields across the world, this panel will demonstrate that when psychology went to war in the twentieth century, the results were contingent and unpredictable for soldiers, civilians, and experts alike.

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