Psychologists involved in torture: Martin Seligman’s unwitting contribution?

A while ago I wrote about the disturbing allegations by Jane Mayer of the role of US psychologists in developing interrogation methods that involved torture, apparently used at the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

Jane Mayer has written a book-length account of her investigations,The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Ideals, and there is an interview on the Democracy Now! website around her central allegations.

Part of the interview concerns the role of Martin Seligman, the famous psychologist who developed the theory of learned helplessness and more latterly the leading proponent of Positive Psychology. It has been claimed that Seligman’s theory of learned helplessness contributed to the design of the methods of torture, and that a training program to help captured military personel resist the effects of torture and learned helplessness was “reverse-engineered” to assist the interrogation of detainees.

The role that Martin Seligman personally played in this process is somewhat unclear (despite the reaction of some of the blogosphere). He has stated that the allegation that he provided assistance in the process of torture is completely false, and that his only involvement with the psychologists who developed the torture methods was when he gave a lecture to the military in a different context:

“I gave a three hour lecture sponsored by SERE (the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape branch of the American armed forces) at the San Diego Naval Base in May 2002. My topic was how American troops and American personnel could use what is known about learned helplessness and related findings to resist torture and evade successful interrogation by their captors. I was told then that since I was (and am) a civilian with no security clearance that they could not discuss American methods of interrogation with me. I have not had contact with SERE since that meeting.”

Whatever the truth is, post-September 11 has been a dark period for human rights, democracy and psychology. It appears that psychological models for understanding human distress have been used by the unscrupulous to devise methods to harm and terrorise those deemed to be “the enemy”.  Martin Seligman may not have been involved in this, but sadly it seems that the fruit of his intellectual efforts have been, in a manner contrary to their stated purpose.

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2 Comments

Filed under Clinical Psychology, Mental Health, Politics, Psychology

2 responses to “Psychologists involved in torture: Martin Seligman’s unwitting contribution?

  1. Hello, I’m a social work therapist interested in the underbelly of the beast so to speak and write for the Huffington Post. I’ve been meaning to write on Resilience and Resilience and I’m in the process of writing a book and doing therapy. Part time here and part time in Italia, love to collaborate, and share, how odd, am speaking a bit on bullying from the inside out…uggh the Seligson stuff makes me nauseous and he is quoted big time in September Harper’s Bazaar…..would love to converse with you if it seems right….

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