Torture and the Psychologists

The American Psychological Association is meeting in Toronto this week. August in Toronto may be even hotter than usual. The Association stands accused of supporting torture. By extension, the psychologists who are members of the association are implicated as well.

This is not a new story. One (of many) example: in 2007, psychologist and best-selling author Mary Pipher (Reviving Ophelia, et al) returned to the APA the Presidential Citation given to her by that organization in 2006 because of its failure to condemn the participation of psychologist in torture (a.k.a. the euphemism "enhanced interrogation techniques").

This subject came back to the top of our we've-got-to-do-better-than-this list last week when our friend Paul Ekman forwarded a copy of a note he had sent to a presidential assistant for delivery to President Obama in 2009.

This is an updated version of Dr. Ekman's appraisal of torture and the role of psychologists:

I was approached soon after 9/11 by a senior psychologist, who held office in APA, to participate in the government's newly developing interrogation program. I declined, although I had already developed techniques for establishing better emotional connections with interviewees, through my work on nonverbal behavior, facial expressions and gestures. And I had done research on what punishments work best on prisoners.

In the late 1950's when I was drafted into the Army, serving as First Lieutenant and Chief Psychologist at Ft. Dix New Jersey I performed an experiment to evaluate the most effective punishment for AWOL offenses. I was able to match prisoners on a number of variables, randomly assigning half a month in the stockade (the standard punishment up until then) or three hours a day of extra labor but no imprisonment. Recidivism six month later was 60% higher among those who went to the stockade, and based on that finding the Commanding General changed the standard punishment for first AWOL to extra labor but no imprisonment.

Such an experiment cannot be performed now to evaluate the competing advocates of harsh interrogations tantamount to torture and those, like me, advocating humane interviewing. (I did get the chance once to train interrogators at Abu Ghraib, and they reported back that my humane, emotional connection interviews were very successful.) If we can't run an experiment to find out, and many including me would argue that even conducting such an experiment in which so-called harsh methods were to be used on some of the prisoners violates ethical guidelines, then we must do the right thing, take the ethical path, do what is expected of democracies. Only humane interviewing should be conducted by any member of APA.

Even if torture works, it's a really, really bad idea. That anyone does it is appalling. That American psychologists participate in and endorse torture is outrageous. The APA and its adherents lose any semblance of credibility.

We both hope and beg the American Psychological Association to do the right thing and get completely and unambiguously out of the torture business. Based on their history, we're not optimistic. Still, redemption is possible.

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