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The Abuse of Psychology: An Ignominious Start for Reform

Posted on July 14, 2015 in Abuse Authoritarianism Terrorism Therapy

square907The American Psychological Association underwent a shake-up when its three top leaders resigned following revelations that they had condoned working with the military in developing interrogation and torture techniques. The three were present at meetings where ethical policies of the APA were rewritten to allow this kind of interaction.

There is no mention of this in the letter announcing their retirement from the APA. Instead, the three are effusively praised. What I can conclude from this is that the APA only half got the message.

Our relationships with our therapists and with research psychologists depends on our trust in our providers. No one wants to be used as a test subject by her therapist or participate in unsettling experiments meant to improve techniques used for torture and mind control. That the APA gave into pressure from without to change its ethical principles is disturbing in the extreme. It compromised the safety of the patient-therapist relationship and eroded trust for many.

I have a good relationship with my therapist and doubt that she would use her expertise for these nefarious purposes. But I have known of others in the profession and in psychiatry who I do not doubt would cooperate.

Back in 1917, Franz Boas fought the American Anthropological Association when it attempted to change its ethics so that it could support for the American side in World War I. Conservative members of the Association wanted to be able to use their work to unsettle the enemy. Boas — who was only incidentally a German-American — had been trained in physics. He felt that anthropological research would be compromised by the bias that such cooperation would entail. For his principled stand, Boas was kicked out of the AAA*.

What happened in the APA this week is a reversal of those fortunes. We have yet to see if the APA restores the old ethical guidelines protecting patients and test subjects from the abuse of psychological warfare. Much needs to be changed and reformulated so that this cannot happen again. Those that wreaked the changes must be held entirely accountable for the manipulation of the ethical rules. That the three were released with such glowing reports, however, is an ignominious start for reform.

*One of Boas’s students — Ruth Benedict — wrote a special study for intelligence services and the military on the Japanese during World War II. Evidently, his neutrality principle did not take with her. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword is available today for students to consider.

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