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The Consequences of Psychology’s Shameful Collusion in Torture

The American Psychological Association pandered to the CIA out of self-interest. In so doing, it betrayed a core ethical spirit—and opened the path to a dangerous future.
abu ghraib torture protest

Americans protest torture; New York, 2004. (Photo: Catherine Jones/Shutterstock)

Amid the scandalous conclusions in the recent Independent Review Report about the American Psychological Association’s collusion with the torture programs of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense, a relatively mundane claim grabbed my attention. In one sense, the report merely confirmed what those who follow the news already knew, even if we didn’t have all the salacious details: Psychologists played a crucial role in developing and implementing torture techniques, in part by twisting the ethics policy of the APA in order to make it “ethical” for psychologists to participate in torture. The report, however, identified a “secondary motive” for contorting the field’s professional ethics: “to foster the growth of the profession of psychology by supporting military and operational psychologists.”

That innocent-sounding phrase—“the growth of the profession”—recurs as a leitmotif throughout the report. But this ulterior “growth” motive—to be accomplished by becoming intimate bedfellows with torturers—created conflicts between the ethical imperative to “do no harm” and the self-serving desire to “grow” the profession.

The atmosphere of anxiety and fear after 9/11 surely accounts for much of the desire among some psychologists to enlist psychology in the “war on terror.” But the ulterior motive to advance the profession by making it useful to national security also stems from fear: the fear of irrelevance generated by the undertow of the increasing emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (the STEM disciplines) in a climate of economic insecurity.

To use the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” program as an opportunity to invigorate the discipline of psychology is simply perverse.

This pressure reflects a much broader transformation in American attitudes toward education and knowledge that are, frankly, dangerous. Just as the torture methods designed by psychologists proved to be “counterproductive” and damaging to national security (according to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Torture Report), these attitudes toward education are also counterproductive.

The social science of psychology—like the rest of the liberal arts and sciences—has, for several decades now, been depreciated by a toxic combination of the corporatization of universities, starvation of state budgets, short-sighted education policy, small-minded business interests in quick profits, and perfectly understandable financial calculations made by students and their families. As a 2013 report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences puts it, ours is “a time when economic anxiety is driving the public toward a narrow concept of education focused on short-term payoffs.” Therefore, they urge, “it is imperative that colleges, universities, and their supporters make a clear and convincing case for the value of liberal arts education.”

In such a climate—which overlaps with our era of seemingly perpetual counterinsurgency—the anxiety that the profession and study of psychology might suffer is, in some sense, understandable. But to use the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” (one of the Bush Administration’s many euphemisms for torture) program as an opportunity to invigorate the discipline of psychology is simply perverse.

There is, of course, a history of entanglement between psychology, a profession charged with doing no harm, and military agencies, whose professional function is precisely to do harm to others. Indeed, the well-being of psychology in the United States—as both a profession and an area of study—has had something to do with military matters for a long time. As the APA report notes, since World War II, military interest in the mind “strengthened the profession of psychology”—not only in clinical terms of treating traumatized soldiers, but also in research terms of studying the psychological effects and causes of trauma, some studies of which have been used by defense and intelligence agencies to refine techniques for psychological warfare—what used to be called PSYOPs.

Psychology is not alone in its opportunistic efforts to bill itself as crucial to the national security apparatus. While the APA was giving ethical quarter to torturers, some anthropologists answered the call to assist General David Petraeus in re-vising the military’s Counterinsurgency Manual. The new counterinsurgency doctrine was published to much fanfare in 2006, in the wake of photographic revelations of torture at Abu Ghraib and other gruesome examples of the barbarity of CIA programs of extraordinary rendition and torture that had come to light.

Indeed, as anthropologists David Price, Roberto González, and other critics of the role of anthropology in U.S. counterinsurgency and “human terrain” operations have argued, the 2006 revision of the Counterinsurgency Manual had at least as much to do with winning the “hearts and minds” of the American public as it did with having discovered in applied anthropology kinder and gentler principles of combat and interrogation. In that sense, we could say that anthropology too was making a public case for its value to national security.

When anthropology volunteered for duty in counterinsurgency, it weaponized culture.

My own discipline of literary studies is implicated—although not apparently in such direct ways—when counterinsurgency is euphemized as a matter of mere storytelling. Following a line of thought initiated by the anthropologists, the 2013 revision to the Petraeus doctrine appropriates my scholarly knowledge and arms it for battle, by insisting that counterinsurgency consists of strategic efforts “to counter the insurgent narrative.”

When anthropology volunteered for duty in counterinsurgency, it weaponized culture. It also conscripted (without acknowledgment) the specialist knowledge of anthropologists (such as Victor Turner, Fred Plog, and Daniel Bates), sociologists (such as Anthony Giddens and Max Weber), as well as literary and narrative theorists (such as Hayden White, Paul Ricoeur, and Donald Polkinghorne) into the service of national security by turning “theory” into technology—in a sense, reverse-engineering cultural anthropology, sociology, and narratology for the purposes of war.

Can we see collusion in torture as an outrageous object lesson in the dangers of instrumentalizing humanistic and social science knowledge to such an extreme that some feel compelled to prove its value by committing war crimes with it?

The militarization of liberal arts and sciences knowledge is part of the larger pressure being put on those fields of study to justify their utility in a society obsessed with speed and quick results. The APA bent to such pressure by instrumentalizing its humanistic knowledge, making the study of mind and behavior into an applied science—making psychology, in a word, a STEM discipline.

This is pressure that many professionals in the humanities and social sciences confront today, although probably less urgently or forcefully than did the psychologists and anthropologists who responded to the appeal of national security by giving ethical cover to the darker aspects of the “war on terror” a decade ago. If the compulsion of national security has waned, the atmospheric pressure to make a convincing economic case for the liberal arts and social sciences in terms of expedience, outcomes, takeaways, and deliverables have only intensified. In fact, the APA has also responded to that pressure with a 2010 study pointedly titled "Psychology as a Core Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Discipline."

Few people today would define the “utility” of knowledge primarily in terms of national security, but we also need to resist the pressure to define the value of humanistic and social science knowledge too narrowly—especially in the instrumentalist terms of science, technology, and engineering. Like the effort to “grow” psychology by making it useful to CIA torturers and coercive interrogations, the pressure to scientize and monetize humanistic education and knowledge is extremely shortsighted. There might be short-term financial advantages to re-engineering the liberal arts and sciences as immediately useful or applied, but such betrayal of the ethical spirit of those fields of knowledge will surely impoverish not only future scholarly studies but the future itself and our ability to live well together within it—maybe even to live without torture.