Psychology’s Torture Crisis

Psychology’s Torture Crisis

Psychology changed my life. I was a horrible student in high school. I
didn’t connect with any of the material I was learning. I spent most of my time ditching
school and playing video games. I almost flunked out. But all of that changed when I discovered
psychology in community college. Psychology inspired me. From war to poverty, changing
climates and failing economies, mental health and the obesity epidemic, psychology had scientific
answers to humanity’s most complex problems. Psychology gave me a purpose. That’s why
I dedicated the next 10 years of my life to becoming a psychologist. I wanted to help
the field of psychology build a better future. That’s also why I joined the American Psychological
Association — its mission to help society improve people’s lives resonated with me. As the largest organization of psychologists
in the world, APA can create high standards for psychologists, advocate for the brain
and behavioral sciences, and increase the impact of psychological findings. APA’s
staff and leadership work hard to accomplish these goals. But recently we learned APA failed in its
guiding ethical principal to “do no harm”. An independent review revealed that in 2005
key leaders within the APA colluded with government officials to make it easier for psychologists
to be involved in torture related interrogations. While every other major scientific and healthcare
organization banned its members from engaging in torture, APA was fooled into loosening
its ethical restrictions on this issue. The worst part of this revelation is that it took
APA 10 years to figure out that this happened. The darkest moments in psychology’s history
all involve breaches in ethics. That’s what happened when John Money changed the gender
of David Reimer to promote his own untested theories. Or when CIA psychologists developed
Project MK-ULTRA and conducted mind control experiments on college students, cancer patients,
and prisoners. And Harry Harlow’s self-described “rape rack”, “iron maiden”, and “pit
of despair” manipulation of rhesus monkeys. Ethical failures don’t just threaten the
people psychologists work with but they compromise the integrity of our field. It doesn’t matter
if you are a Ph.D. or Psy.D., an academic or practitioner, cognitive behavioral therapist
or a psychoanalyst, APA member or APA critic — today all psychologists are implicated
in this controversy and the burden falls on all of us to rebuild what it means to be a
psychologist. We need to hold the individuals implicated
in this investigation responsible for what happened. But our own science tells us that
this could have happened to anyone. Yes, some individuals manipulated APA into doing bad
things — however the environment of APA made it easier for these individuals to collude
with the Department of Defense. Anytime you have a large organization with vague rules,
limits on dissent, authority figures hidden behind anonymity, and groups pressured towards
compliance you are going to make it hard for good people to do the right thing. That’s exactly what happened in the APA
— it’s complex system of governance allowed a major breach to occur and the people responsible
with detecting it were too distracted to realize what had happened. This week the APA Council of Representatives
comes together to decide how to respond to this crisis. I have faith APA will rise to
the promise of psychology — the hope of a better future — by dedicating itself to
repairing the system that allowed tragedy to happen in the first place. This is the opportunity of this tragedy — the
chance to rebuild and evolve. We can create a transparent APA that answers to its membership
and the public, focus APA Council to have thorough discussions on policies impacting
the field, and create a leadership pipeline so that we aren’t recycling the same leadership
implicated in this crisis. That’s where you come in. If you are a member
of APA leadership, I ask you to avoid the temptation to resort to our old way of doing
things – it is what got us into this mess in the first place. Let us collaborate to
create a better way forward and ignore the bullies who hide behind parliamentary procedure.
We’ve done this before when we fought to end homosexuality’s classification as a mental
illness, corrected the myths about a women’s right to choose, and advocated for mental
health parity. If you’re a psychologist we need you to hold
the APA accountable – comment at the link below and contact your state psychological
association and division representatives – do not allow them to represent you blindly – ask
them how they plan to rebuild APA. Consider becoming involved in APA, especially if you’ve
been a critic of its policies. To the public – I apologize for the ethical
failure of my field. APA is a non-profit dedicated to public good. We will endeavor to make sure
we never forget that again. The eyes of the world now fall on us. Our
future as a field depends upon our ability to course correct in a sustainable way. It
will take time, courage, and teamwork. As someone whose life was changed by psychology
and has dedicated his life to doing so for others, I hope we can rise to the occasion
so that future generations are given the same opportunity I was.



  • Nabil El-Ghoroury

    Great video! Your message is thoughtful and hopeful.

  • Shanda Wells

    Thank you for this.

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  • Philip Spivey

    Thank you, Dr. Mattu.  I'm counting on the thousands of early-career psychologists, like yourself ,to carry the APA forward.  The status quo cannot be tolerated anymore.

    Lest we forget ,though, I wonder if there are dots waiting to be connected that go way back to the early 20th century.  In particular, the APA's support of the pseudo-science of eugenics —now known as scientific racism, Among the early psychologists who were proponents of eugenics was Woodworth, Cattell,Goddard and Yerkes,  Lewis Termen of Stanford, then president of the APA, was pleased to report that "psychology has become a beacon of light for the eugenics movement."  (Jonathan Peter Spiro).

    In light of recent revelations of systematic programs of torture —I guess under the guise of "science"—one wonders whether a shadow of the past is still with us today.

  • Jesse Matthews

    Great video Ali!!

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