Recently, information has come to light that some members of the American Psychological Association endorsed and legitimised torture programmes to extract information from some post-9/11 detainees .

Specifically, the APA members involved legitimized certain torture of detainees that allowed the U.S. government to legalize such activities. Among some of the entities involved in the event we find the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), senior managers of the Pentagon and the White House, with the then president of the United States George W. Bush .

This is especially serious considering that the APA is currently one of the largest organizations linked to the world of psychology at the global level. In addition, it has 150,000 members and an annual budget of $70 million. Not in vain is its system of bibliographic citations one of the most used in the world.

The APA apologizes

Fourteen long years have had to pass before the APA, after successive complaints from senior psychologists, has apologized for the close cooperation in military interrogations. It has done so after the publication of the Hoffman Report , a 524-page document which explicitly relates the participation of these psychologists in what they called reinforced interrogation techniques , a euphemism for what has always been described as torture.

The Hoffman report is making a difference. Already four senior members of the APA have either been expelled from the association or have suddenly left of their own accord. They include Ethics Office Director Stephen Behnke, Executive Director Norman Anderson, Deputy Executive Director Michael Honaker and Communications Officer Rhea Farberman.

What kind of torture was used in the interrogations?

Ruthless and cruel procedures were used in the interrogations. One of them was to play loud music to prevent the detainees from falling asleep. They also forced the suspects to walk every 15 minutes throughout the night in order to keep them awake.

Another type of torture used was what was called waterboarding or simulated drowning . This technique consists of immobilizing the individual and pouring water over his nose and mouth so that he does not actually drown but does feel suffocated.

Finally, it should also be noted that some CIA agents threatened to attack and violently assault the close relatives of the detainees.

What role did the psychologists play in the tortures?

The psychologists analysed the detainees and reported on their mental state, looking for their weak points (phobias, etc.) to later use them against them.

Jim Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, two retired U.S. military psychologists, played a key role in carrying out torture on al-Qaida terror suspects.

Learned helplessness as a technique to get information out of prisoners

Specifically, these psychologists proposed the theory of learned helplessness as a starting point to get the information they wanted. This theory was formulated and developed by Martin E. P. Seligman during the 1970s, who studied the effects of applying electric shocks to animals. Seligman observed that these animals manifested behaviors related to depression. He noted that such behaviors only occurred when the animal lost all hope, that is, when it came to think that it could not change its unfortunate situation.

The use of this theory in interrogations was intended to reach a point where the detainee would lose all hope, as happened in Seligman’s experiments, and thus accede to the agents’ demands.

Stephen Soldz, a prestigious psychoanalyst from Boston who had been denouncing the APA for a decade, explains that the CIA agents excused themselves by claiming that they were only following the recommendations that the psychologists proposed to them .

The fine line between ethical and illicit

This whole issue leads me to reflect on what the profession of the psychologist entails. We know theories and we master concepts that can influence human beings but this does not give us any power to use them in an incorrect way.

All professionals in this sector should be clear about the line between ethical and illicit. Especially in the dangerous field of military psychology .