Torture, Psychology and the Real APA

As a graduate student in developmental psychology in the 1970s I joined the American Psychological Association, known as the APA. But Harold Rubenstein, a graduate student in philosophy who lived in my dorm, maintained that my APA was a false APA. The real and true APA was the American Philosophical Association.

Among philosophers of science, Harold explained, physics is deemed the paradigm case of the natural sciences, sociology the paradigm case of the social sciences, and psychology the paradigm case of the pseudosciences. He never tired of reminding me of this.

The one thing we agreed on was that the American Psychiatric Association was surely a false APA. Psychology, said Harold, is the study of the id by the odd. But that was only psychiatry, in my view. I was delighted when my thesis and dissertation research resulted in 1977 and 1979 articles in Developmental Psychology, the developmental journal of the American Psychological Association. This was surely the real APA.

I reconnected with Harold last year and we had a good time rehearsing our old arguments. Then, last month, he sent me a link to a breaking news article in the New York Times about my false and evil APA. A new report had found that my APA had been complicit in torture. Was my APA still the real APA?

The real APA is all too real, I responded, but it is no longer my APA. I resigned in December 2007 after the August 2007 annual meeting effectively endorsed a professional role for psychologists in torture.

Let's go back to 2007. It was already apparent that psychologists had been actively involved in devising and implementing programs of interrogation that subjected people to various combinations of stress positions, nudity, hooding, isolation, slapping, shaking, dog threats, death threats, sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, extreme heat or cold, intense light, relentless noise, exploitation of personal phobias, cultural and sexual humiliations, and the sheer terror of waterboarding.

Once psychologists used their knowledge of human behavior to understand, help, and heal. Now psychologists were using their expertise to destroy the fundamental psychological integrity of people held captive outside the criminal justice system.

The American Psychiatric Association had already determined that it was unethical for psychiatrists to participate in designing and implementing what were widely understood to be programs of torture. Study of the id by the odd? Okay, I apologize to the American Psychiatric Association for deeming it a false APA. This turned out to be the ethical APA, which understands that health care professionals must first and foremost "do no harm."

The American Medical Association likewise had forbidden the participation of physicians in military interrogations. In stark contrast, the American Psychological Association continued to argue that the presence of psychologists, whose ethics are steadfast, would make interrogations more ethical, as well as more "effective."

Was (my) APA deluded or was it disingenuous? Regardless, by December 2007 I could no longer stand to be part of it. I sent APA this message:

After 33 years as a member of APA I have decided to resign because of the complicity of psychologists in designing and implementing systematic programs of torture and the ethical inadequacy of APA's response to this. I am appalled and disgusted.

We now know that the APA was actively colluding with the Department of Defense and CIA to remain in their good graces and enhance employment opportunities for psychologists. This included altering APA's ethical standards to make sure there was nothing to prevent psychologists from doing whatever the military or CIA wanted.

The ongoing participation of psychologists provided, in addition to psychological expertise, moral cover for the U.S. government's program of torture. The interrogations, insisted the government, were carefully supervised by health professionals. Never mind that all the health professionals were psychologists because psychology was the only profession that deemed such participation ethically permissible.

Eight years after the debacle of 2007, at its just-completed 2015 annual meeting, the APA has finally rejected the involvement of psychologists in military interrogations. It will take much more than this, however, for the profession of psychology to recover its ethical credibility. It remains to be seen whether and how the real APA will acknowledge and address the reality of its disgraceful complicity in torture.